Planting seeds of food security | Cooper's Hill Primary students learn innovative agriculture techniques
"Farming can be very creative," said Aika Nakakomi, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteer, as she scooped up a handful of compost and sifted it in a plastic barrel cut vertically in half.
Creativity began just there, with innovative use of a plastic barrel which, she informed is among other recyclable materials namely plastic containers, bottles, and tyres.
Beside Nakakomi, a group of boys and girls, students of Cooper's Hill Primary School in Portland, were digging up soil, preparing their school's kitchen garden to be planted with saplings. The overcast skies and intermittent drizzle were not a deterrent, and all of the students were eager to get their hands dirty in the loamy soil.
"They (the students) love touching the soil," said Nakakomi, who is assigned to the Portland 4H Clubs, that she was striving to inculcate farming in as many children as possible.
The school, established in 1910, is housed in a wooden structure sits in what could be one of most pristine locales of Jamaica surrounded by lush green mountains. Everything about the surroundings is refreshing.
The road is a different story, though. driving on which requires some serious off-roading expertise negotiating bends, corners, debris, rocks, occasional goats and roosters running scared and jumping for cover adventure uber unlimited.
The school administrators and students are making the best of the given resources and still manage to smile through the daily challenges.
"We are striving to teach gardening," said Keisha King-Valentine, acting principal of Cooper's Hill Primary School, and class teacher for Grade 4. "We encourage children to participate pro-actively, and since Miss Nakakomi has started visiting the school, we have learnt new techniques and especially making compost."
Nakakomi is using the Takakura Method, to make the compost.
"This method,developed by Koji Takakura, is a composting technique used to turn leaves and food scraps into a nutrient-rich soil additive.
"The method uses two fermented solutions, containing micro organisms that are cultured from locally available materials, and a fermenting bed to create seed compost," Nakakomi said. "Organic waste (food scraps) is mixed with the seed compost and left to break down in a ventilated container."
Enjoying the experience
Cooper's Hill Primary School is one of the 12 schools that Nakakomi visits regularly to teach farming techniques in Portland. The students are enjoying the experience and are proud of the results, as they see the plants bearing vegetables growing in the kitchen garden that they planted and are nurturing.
"We have excelled in the past," King-Valentine said, saying that the school has won awards from 4H.
Nakakomi is pleased with the outcomes, especially by gauging enthusiasm levels of the students. "They love to go outside," she said as a group of students moved around the beds to dig cavities to transplant pak choi, tomato, and lettuce their assignment for the day.
"It would be good that children, especially boys, take up farming," she said. "There are so many opportunities in farming, they are surrounded by land and the countryside here is ideal for farming."
She is hopeful that the enthusiasm of these children stays with for a lifetime.
King-Valentine seconds Nakakomi. "We are trying to encourage the students to look at agriculture as a career option; we would love to have self-sufficiency in food and at the same time, open their minds to explore opportunities in different aspects of agriculture."
Right now, she said, they are trying to see how to keep the neighbourhood fowls wandering into the school yard where they pick on the saplings. "We need a perimeter fence," she said.
She is thankful for the kitchen garden, produce from which is used by the school cook shop, and the food waste goes back into making compost.
Apart from creativity in farming, King-Valentine said that the teachers are using innovative ways for imparting education. Since the school does not have access to Internet and with only one computer to be shared among the 50 students, the teachers download instructional and educational videos when they go home, and play them back.
"We have challenges in reading levels," King-Valentine said, adding that the video tutorials are one of the methodologies to reinforce what is being taught in class. "We also have created a Whatsapp group among teachers and parents to keep them updated and informed."
Outside, students were finishing transplanting, some lining, in front of a faucet to wash their hands and gardening tools as Nakakomi finished sifting through the compost and set it aside.
"It was a great experience," she said. "Every time they (the students) come to the kitchen garden, they learn something new, and though it was raining, they completed the transplant exercise."
Nakakomi, who has been in Jamaica for almost two years, is at the end of her tenure as a JICA volunteer, said she loves her work and admires what the students and the teachers in what they are doing. "I wish I did not have to go back (to Japan), and work with these children more."
Also, she is hopeful that grow enthusiasm of these children would be on the crescendo, and go beyond their school's kitchen garden to becoming a viable career option.
King-Valentine is upbeat and optimistic too about the outcomes and the legacy that Nakakomi is creating and will leave behind.
As for the road to Cooper's Hill Primary School, it is, as we speak, and perhaps looking at the brighter side of life, it has all the key ingredients postcard perfect backdrop, a lush, green valley, a great locale for advertising all-terrain vehicles.
Of course, the path to progress is riddled with challenges they say, this is one we could very well do without.