Watching Food Grow: a small organic apple orchard at a rural elementary school

Project Overview

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2014: $1,934.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Manager:
Dr. Perry Kirkham
Wea Creek Orchard
Project Co-Managers:
Mike Pinto
James A Cole Elementary

Annual Reports


  • Fruits: apples, general tree fruits


  • Education and Training: youth education
  • Production Systems: general crop production

    Proposal abstract:

    Project Abstract

    Learning about food production is compartmentalized into units easily taught by teachers in limited packets of time that is often difficult to formulate into a complete story. We propose to address this problem by purchasing, planting and maintaining a small apple orchard on the site of Cole Elementary, overseen by an orchard expert and local community volunteers. Our plan will allow students from Kindergarten through 5th grade to participate in all phases of tree care and growth, fruit production, and apple as food preparation. SARE funding will purchase trees, orchard supplies, orchard mentoring, and professional development for Cole Elementary teachers.


    Detailed Project Plan and Timeline

    Our goal will be to teach organic apple production on a small scale in an educational and mentored setting. We have selected disease-resistant apple trees that will be purchased from Summit Tree Sales (twelve total, two for each grade, varieties will be Williams Pride, Priscilla, Novamac, Liberty, Goldrush and Enterprise), grafted to a dwarfing rootstock (bud 9, which is also largely resistant to fire blight). Each grade of approximately 80 children will be responsible for planting, caring for, and harvesting two trees. As dwarfing trees are susceptible to wind and weight damage, each tree will be staked to 10’ iron posts and attached using agri-lock.


    1. Summer, 2014. Professional Development and Lesson Planning: Teachers will come together on two professional development half-days during the summer of 2014 to devise lessons plans that incorporate their trees into the standard curriculum. They will be paid for five hours. Wea Creek Orchard personnel will provide an initial outline of what happens to the trees during each time of the season so that the teachers can properly incorporate real-life examples for their lessons. Emphasis will be placed on watching bee pollination, temperature, insect and disease prevention, identification and use of beneficial insects, using natural and organic fertilizers, water conservation, input costs and potential profits, and community teamwork.
    2. Fall, 2014. Delivery of pre-test to all students: a portion of the summer preparation by the teachers will be generation of specific objectives and an assessment plan, including pre- and post-tests for each unit taught.
    3. April, 2015. Tree planting: the trees will be planted on a 16’ x 16’ grid, allowing space for proper weed control and grass mowing. The students and teachers will be guided during the planting by Wea Creek Orchard mentors. Volunteers from Keep Stockwell Beautiful will be in attendance to learn and help. At this time tree height and trunk circumference will be taken to aid students in learning about measurement and plant growth over time.
    4. April/May – August/September, 2015. Observation of how the environment interacts with the tree: Measurements and pictures will be taken during stages of tree bloom, tree growth, fruit production, and leafing. During this time lessons will be taught on pollination, beneficial and harmful insects, water frequency and quantity, disease impact, organic control methods, and labor costs. In June/July, volunteers will add one inch of water per week to trees. Mentors from Wea Creek Orchard will monitor disease and insect infestations during this time.
    5. Summer, 2015. Teacher Professional Development and Lesson Planning: Teachers come together for two half days to plan lessons regarding dormancy maintenance and bacterial and fungal infection treatments in organic farming.
    6. Autumn, 2015. Apple harvest: Despite their young age, the experience of Wea Creek Orchard experts is that even trees at this young age produce an average of two apples in the fall of the first year. The appearance of a mature and tasty fruit as the culmination of routine maintenance should excite the children, and will provide an excellent forum for discussion of the multitudes of apple colors, tastes and textures. At this point lessons on health and nutrition will become relevant and, hopefully, more memorable.
    7. Winter, 2015/16. Winter maintenance and pruning: Pruning and central leader selection will be initiated during dormancy. [At this point various organic methods for fire blight prevention will be discussed with Drs. Peter Hirst, Janna Beckerman, and Rick Foster (Purdue extension specialists) and introduced based on the latest information. These discussions will include the use of copper sulfate, oxytetracycline (currently still allowed by organic standards) biologicals such as yeast mixtures, and neem oil.] Discussion about bacterial and fungal infections of the tree will be incorporated into lesson plans on biological diversity and infection.
    8. Spring, 2016. Blossom time: Counting and characterizing blossoms on each tree, and observing the patterns of pollinators during blossom time, will generate discussion useful for lessons on plant/animal interactions, genetics (in older children), and fruit generation.


    Resources Used

    • Keep Stockwell Beautiful (KSB), a local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, has promised to provide volunteers for routine maintenance such as occasional weeding and watering of the trees when the students are unable to help or are out on school breaks.
    • KSB Kids (the younger age liaisons between Cole Elementary and KSB)
    • Wea Creek Orchard will serve as hands-on mentors during all stages of the tree interactions and lesson plan development
    • Rick Foster, Purdue University Entomology Extension expert (very knowledgeable about organic production in west central Indiana)
    • Janna Beckerman, Purdue University Plant Pathology Extension expert
    • Peter Hirst, Purdue University Pomology Extension expert
    • Purdue extension service has a variety of publications that address organic fruit production (e.g. Bulletins ID-146-W, Midwest Tree Fruit spray guide) and the authors of these bulletins are available for consultation as needed
    • The Organic Tree Fruit Association ( has an excellent website that is useful for organic production



    Through associations between Lisa Kirkham (Wea Creek Orchard and educational researcher with the Discovery

    Learning Research Center at Purdue University), this project will be written up and submitted for publication in the Indiana Science Teachers Journal. In addition, the project will be promoted and updated using social media such as the Facebook and website pages of Indiana Farm to School Network, Wea Creek Orchard, Cole Elementary, and Tippecanoe County Schools. Cole and KSB have twitter accounts that are updated frequently. Our local newspaper (the Journal and Courier) has been extremely interested in farm to school events using county schools, as has our local CBS affiliate (WLFI Television).


    We will also publish extension bulletins through Purdue extension personnel, involve the local 4-H and Boy and Girls Scout Troops (based at Cole Elementary). Farm to School has been active in presenting at the Indiana Horticulture Congress in January of each year: this project would be extremely exciting to the organizers of the Agritourism and local marketing workshops. We will plan to present this project at these venues.


    The culmination of the project will be a presentation at the end of the 2014 and 2015 school year to parents and the community.


    Student and Community Impact

    State core standards are designed to ensure that children are exposed to all relevant aspects of the natural world. For instance, Kindergarten students have core standards that require comparison of plants and their parts; first grade students introduce plant habitats and how the habitat meets the needs of each plant for food and water; third graders learn about plant growth characteristics. Though each unit teaches essential components of food growth, it is often difficult for students of any age to understand how these pieces of knowledge all contribute to the system that yields food on their table. We feel that incorporating a real-life food generating system on site will

    introduce aspects of the natural world in an experiential learning model likely to close the knowledge gap. We have designed this proposal with the goal of teaching elementary children about sustainable agricultural practices in a real-world setting. It is also extremely likely that the involved adults/mentors/volunteers will gain extremely valuable knowledge and appreciation for the organic system of apple production as well.


    Cole Elementary sits on nearly 40 acres which include a 3-acre Outdoor Education Center. The school partners with Keep Stockwell Beautiful with a student group: KSB Kids. Teachers in grades K-5, Wea Creek Orchard, and Keep Stockwell Beautiful will collaborate on curriculum and activities to teach and reinforce sustainable agriculture to the Cole students.


    Lisa Kirkham, educational researcher at Purdue University, will participate with Cole Teachers in designing relevant pre- and post-lesson assessments to gauge knowledge gains. Informal gains in experience and knowledge will also be obtained by the KSB Kids who will serve as docents for informational tours throughout the project duration. Student projects will be a part of the learning experience also. These will be presented at school functions but will not be assessed.


    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.