Eating locally sourced food has become a trend in many places. But some people, especially kids, still don’t understand how products get to the grocery aisle, John Price says.
“They think they just go to the store and buy it, and that’s it,” said Price, chairman of the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District’s board of directors.
To help bridge the knowledge gap, the conservation district, which focuses on protecting and enhancing the county’s water and soil resources, puts on programs that teach students about agriculture and environmental science.
But funding from the county that used to go to those programs was redirected to cover the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, so the Prince William Environmental Excellence Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the conservation district, stepped in to make sure the beyond-the-classroom learning opportunities, such as Farm Field Days and Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences, continued.
Farm Field Days annually introduces 1,600 fourth-grade students from Prince William and Manassas to some of the basics of farming and natural-resources conservation. The event, held in the barns at the Prince William Fairgrounds, will be Oct. 11 and 12 this year. Over the past 26 years, the conservation district has educated more than 28,000 students through the program, according to the agency’s website.
The watershed experiences are Virginia Standards of Learning-based programs for third-graders that promote community environmental stewardship and address topics such as pollinators and water quality. They’re held at Windy Knoll, a 98-acre farm on Kettle Run Road. About 1,300 students have participated since 2012, according to the conservation district.
“Being in such an urban area, people don’t know that agriculture still exists here, and we’re getting them out on a working farm,” district conservation planner Mike Miller said.
The U.S. Agriculture Department’s 2012 agriculture census, the most recent federal count of farms, identified 330 farms totaling 35,638 acres in Prince William. But those figures don’t tell the whole story, Miller said, explaining that 132 of those 330 farms produced less than $1,000 in sales, which means they weren’t large agricultural operations, he said. Jay Yankey, who manages the conservation district and also runs Yankey Farms in Nokesville, said there are probably fewer than 30 full-time farmers in Prince William nowadays.
“Even within the Rural Crescent of Prince William County, we’re losing farmland,” Yankey said. The Rural Crescent is an area set aside by Prince William’s government for only limited residential development. It’s intended to preserve the natural character of the county by requiring that new home sites measure at least 10 acres.
But over the past few years, that has simply meant more property being subdivided into 10-acre lots, not a preservation of tracts that can be farmed, Yankey said.
And as more county children call subdivisions home than farms, Price says it’s all the more important to teach them about Prince William’s agricultural heritage. They can learn that there are green spaces and open air beyond the harried, congested surroundings they find in suburban neighborhoods.
“They can see, hey, there’s a bigger world out there,” Price said.
The Prince William Environmental Excellence Foundation will hold a farm-to-table fundraiser Saturday 4 to 8 p.m. at Windy Knoll Farm in Nokesville, with food from 13 Prince William farms. The event also will include hayrides, a silent auction, two raffles and an antique farming equipment display. Attendees will be able to take part in a miniature watershed event and learn about Windy Knoll, where cattle and sheep are raised. Tickets are $45 and must be bought in advance. For information, call 571-379-7514 or go to pwswcd.org.