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Athens, Ont. farm the perfect classroom for green industries program


A new high school course near Brockville, Ont. is showcasing green initiatives, and by partnering with a local conservation group, it's allowing students to get their hands dirty, while learning.

Six kilometres from the village of Athens, Grade 10 and 11 students from Athens District High School (ADHS) are putting in some hard work.

"It's pretty boring just sitting in class doing paperwork, so it's really great to get out here and get your hands dirty," said Grade 10 student Ben Smid. 

Smid is enrolled in the Green Industries course, where students learn about sustainability and conservationism, planting 500 seedlings on Thursday for an upcoming plant sale.

"It allows them to come out and actually get hands on experience working with plant identification. We learn about soil, composting, sustainable agriculture," said teacher Robin Bridgeman.

The course is also a technical class, where students build projects at the high school. 

"I think it's absolutely essential for the kids to have hands on experience," Bridgeman said. "It makes it memorable for them so that it's actually not just facts from a textbook that they are memorizing, they actually know how to apply the skills that they are learning and then they will remember it for years to come."

A wagon full of seedlings for the upcoming plant sale at the Glen Elbe farm in Athens, Ont. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

The Thousand Islands Watershed Land Trust is part of the partnership, a not-for-profit volunteer group, who had the Glen Elbe farm donated to them in 2019.

"Education is a vital component of conservation because you don't really want to protect something unless you love it, and you can't love it unless you understand it," said President Don Ross. 

The Thousand Islands Watershed Land Trust is one of 148 across Canada, and this was one of the first in the country, celebrating 30 years. The goal for these groups is to protect 30 per cent of Canadian land by 2030.

"This is one of our 25 properties that we have in the region," Ross said. "Most we directly own, some are with conservation easements on private land."

Ross says this farm is the perfect classroom, with more than 100 acres, including greenhouses that grow heritage vegetables and a wetland.

"They are not afraid of mud. They are all rural kids, and they are doing a great job in helping us move a forest northward," he said. 

A look at the recently restored farmhome at the Glen Elbe farm in Athens, Ont. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

The trees being planted on the farm and for the plant sale are climate ready trees, according to Ross. 

"We're sort of showing what trees would be growing in a climate like this, and since a tree is not old even when it's 100, this is the kind of thing we should be thinking about in all of our landscaping around houses for the future," he said. 

While the green industries program did start during COVID, it did not have an outdoor class component. Now it has seen rapid success, slated to return for next year with the class already full.

"A few generations down the line our grandkids can come and see the big trees outside," Smid said. 

Students are not only planting seeds for the farm, but also seeds for their future careers.

"For me, I like anything about agriculture so that's what I like a lot about this," said Grade 11 student Emily Irvine. 

"I'll probably stick in the agriculture industry too, I love it. Cannot beat it. Learn all kinds of stuff," added Leighton Vanderkloet, also in Grade 11. 

"As you can see they are having a blast," said Bridgeman. "They love getting out of the school and learning in a different way. I just want to stress how important hands-on education is, experiential learning, and I'm so happy that our board is investing in it."

The original farm was donated by Jane Topping, who passed away just before the handover. 

The last living bloodline owner of the property, Bruce Topping, was on hand to see what the students were learning. 

"It's pretty cool. It's nice to have young people take an interest in anything these days, and certainly interest in a rural property is very exciting," he said. 

The farm was once part of the Glen Elbe village, which housed a post office, general store, stagecoach stop, distillery, a schoolhouse, and train stop, with a rail line passing through part of the property.

"It's wonderful; I've been a tree hugger all my life," Topping said. "What they are doing here, planting trees is a wonderful thing. They are making my ancestors proud."

A Grade 7-8 class from ADHS was also on site Thursday, learning the history of the property, along with its cascading waterfall, with help from volunteers. 

"They are going to make interpretative signs for along the trails here so that when people are exploring they can say how come that's there and this is what it's all about, from the plank road out front to the mills in the back," Ross said. 

It is a partnership that hopes to continue to grow, he said, along with the century-old farm.

"It was that ideal opportunity to create a learning and experience centre here and these kids are pioneers," Ross said. "They are the first year with this type of program with us and so far so good."

The farm is not open to the public, and those interested in learning the history or visiting are asked to reach out to the volunteer group through their website

The Thousand Islands Watershed Land Trust will be holding their first ever tree and plant sale at the site on May 27, to help support their conservation work. Top Stories

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