Farmer dreams of expanded food program

Brennan LaBrie
blabrie@ptleader.com
Posted 7/10/19
Zach Gayne has two missions as garden coordinator for Port Townsend High School. One is educating students about how their food is grown. The other is producing as much food as he can for the high school’s cafeteria and the local food bank.

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Farmer dreams of expanded food program

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(Editor's note:) This story has been revised to correctly attribute comments made by Hannah German) Zach Gayne has two missions as garden coordinator for Port Townsend High School. One is educating students about how their food is grown. The other is producing as much food as he can for the high school’s cafeteria and the local food bank. Over the last three years, Gayne has found a way to expand the education and production sides of the garden, built over an old basketball court on a corner of campus. Education During the school year, Gayne puts ninth grade Health students to work, having them plant, weed, and till the soil, while educating them about related topics like seed biology and soil conservation. With a masters degree in environmental education from the University of Washington, he teaches methods of sustainable and efficient farming without the aid of a tractor and till. Students learn how to “turn” the soil, putting plants that have gone to seed back into the soil to enrich it and build natural beds, and using black tarps to fight weeds. “It’s amazing, the education work he’s doing with the health classes, and inspiring people to grow their own food and become more self sufficient,” said school district director of food service Stacey Larsen, who works with Gayne and health/culinary arts teacher Jennifer Kruse to bring students out into the garden. Gayne is tall and slender, with lean muscles that give away the life of hard labor he has led, from 10 years of leading trail projects in Northeastern forests, to his years working construction in Seattle, to his current profession as a gardener. He is calm with the students he works with, although like any teacher, he gets plenty of rough customers that make his life difficult. Gayne said he has gotten better at calling out students when he needs to. Hannah Germeau, and fellow student Sasha Mosier, painted the garden’s tool shed. Germeau called Gayne a “very kind, down-to-earth sort of dude.” “I could tell he was very interested in getting our class excited over gardening, being very involved with all of us,” Germeau said. Like many farmers, Gayne wants to remind kids that their food doesn’t come from the grocery store, and that while growing it can be hard work, it’s also fun. Nothing fascinates him more than the process of growing plants from a seed or small start. He wants to pass this passion onto future generations, and hopefully encourage them to get into gardening, maybe even farming if he’s lucky. He also wants to encourage students to be healthy, both in diet and in activity. “It’s really healthy just to be outside, and I don’t think our culture really recognizes that,” he said. “I’m interested in people thinking responsibly about their choices, maybe helping to inform that, not trying to be a pillar of knowledge but a student myself. “ Gayne said he is constantly learning. After visiting a garden that lets grass take over its pathways recently, he decided to stop fighting the grass and let it grow. He still plans to clean up the garden a bit to prepare for its first-time inclusion in the 2019 Farm Tour in September. Production Gayne is a contractor for the school district, not a full-time employee, yet he works on the garden year-round. When the final school bell rings for the summer, Gayne continues to work with a team of community volunteers that he calls “committed but very small” to grow and deliver food to the food bank. When Gayne landed the job in early 2016, the garden was expanding twofold in order to produce food for the high school’s cafeteria in addition to the food bank. Gayne helped tear up the asphalt of the basketball court behind the Gael Stuart Building, and then was immediately tasked with seeing to the garden’s expansion to growing more than just winter greens and raspberries, adding green beans, peppers, zucchini, herbs and other produce for school lunches. He built the compost program, making worm bins and piles on the basketball court. This past winter, with a grant from the WSU Master Gardeners, Gayne recently tore up some of the concrete beside the garden and planted an insectary of plants that will support pollinators. He built a food-washing station with donated lumber and roofing so that student farmers can properly wash produce, no longer resorting to buckets in the shade of the garden’s trees. Recently, a composter that can process 50 pounds a day was added to the existing system. But he’s never satisfied. He’s constantly thinking of ways to expand the program, both on the production and educational sides of things. He dreams of having the garden split between a production garden and a learning garden, and plans to expand it until it wraps around the basketball court, allowing the two spaces to co-exist as hangout spots for students. All of these visions are possible, Gayne said, thanks to the support he has from the district. “There’s never been any massive roadblocks, except for occasional funding issues,” he said. “Everybody has been excited about what I’ve wanted to do. There have never been any ‘Nos’. I have been in districts where there have been a lot of ‘Nos’.” However, he added that with a lack of state funding for school gardens, he’s had to rely on grants written by the district and career and technical education funds. His job was initially funded by an anonymous grant to the Jefferson County Food Bank Farm and Gardens. Larsen has been pushing the school board to create full-time garden positions, which Gayne thinks is necessary to achieve the integrated K-12 garden curriculum that the district hopes for. Gayne said he’d happily toss his hat into the ring for such a position. In the meantime, he’ll continue to grow produce for the food bank and work to expand and improve the garden. “Anytime you’re really in something, you’re always thinking about how can this be better,” he said. “You try to be present in the moment and appreciate all the work you’ve done, and in my finer moments I can do that, but mostly I’m thinking about ‘How can we get more kids in this garden, how can we grow more food for the food bank, for the cafeteria, how can we recycle more food?’”

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