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Food forest offers hands-on education about food systems

Photo by Allayana Darrow | Chris Hardy, owner of Hardy Seeds, takes a look at his Black Emmer plants at Eagle Mill Farm Aug. 12, 2021.

ASHLAND — This autumn, a collaboration of the fifth-grade class at Bellview Elementary School, volunteers from the Bellview Grange and farmer Chris Hardy will plant a demonstration food forest on a quarter-acre plot between the school and Grange community center.

Fence and gate posts for the plot were slated for installation Saturday.

The food forest will include dozens of species of nut and fruit trees, shrubs, vines, tubers and root crops as a demonstration of the effectiveness of small-scale carbon sequestration and food system diversification, according to the Grange, and represents an evergreen project each fifth-grade class can hand to the next.

The Bellview Grange plans to cover costs for deer-proof fencing, trees and other plants. Project partners seek additional funding to kickstart the educational component, including classroom equipment, field supplies and consultation with agro-ecology experts. Donations can be made to the Ashland Schools Foundation.

Hardy, owner of Hardy Seeds, has farmed in the Rogue Valley since 2005 and managed local food forests since 2010.

“Diversity is the bottom line,” he said of the food forest concept. “Everything that we’re going to be doing in this food forest will be no-till, regenerative, as in the plants themselves will be producing the nitrogen, adding phosphorus and potassium, supporting calcium, supporting sulphur and magnesium, supporting all these different nutrients that are chronically deficient here in Southern Oregon.”

Fifth-grade students will contribute to the food forest design, he said, which adds to an existing demonstration pollinator garden in the space. Hardy will manage design, irrigation and installation.

Part of the project will include bringing students to Eagle Mill Farm to learn about the rare heritage plant varieties Hardy is testing for climate suitability in the Rogue Valley. Some, like Einkorn wheat, have a higher protein and mineral content than other grains, require minimal water and fewer overall inputs to produce a yield, he said.

For drought defense, Hardy’s plants are always covered with either living ground cover or mulch sourced from the farm.

“It’s by continuing to build that organic matter content, we are building in resilience to the deficiency that we’re seeing right now of rainfall and moisture,” Hardy said.

With Talent Irrigation District water cut off — also affecting the flow of Neil Creek — dozens of varieties of plants have burned up in extreme heat, Hardy said. Facing an uncertain water future, understanding what grows amid dry conditions in local soils will benefit generations of youth and farmers, he said.

This project encourages young students to be involved in shaping the future of their food system, he said.

Hardy remembers the sensation of biting into his first hand-picked quince fruit as a child in Iowa, filling his mouth with tannins and his body with a feeling of appreciation for nature’s product.

“Those experiences are the gold, they’re the gem of how we’re going to turn this around,” Hardy said, referring to climate change and food insecurity. “I know firsthand, that has profoundly affected my food experience on this planet, because those memories come back.”

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.