A former food service director at Bald Eagle Area School District had a vision for a student-run orchard, where the produce would be used in school meals.
Although Mark Ott retired from the district last year, his vision could turn into a reality with help from a student teacher.
As part of student teaching requirements, Penn State student Michael Cahill has been shadowing BEA agriculture teacher Todd Biddle.
Cahill created an orchard management lesson plan in January with nine students in the school’s horticulture class. The goal, Cahill said, is to teach students how to run an orchard using the one planted by Ott. The mission this semester is to rejuvenate the trees and encourage healthy growth.
Students have been pruning the trees and managing the surroundings and other plant life that competes with the trees for nutrients.
We’ve been slowing getting out here as the weather permits. We want to get some fruit — you can get a lot of fruit from one tree if it’s healthy — but it could take a couple years.
Michael Cahill, student teacher
“We’ve been slowing getting out here as the weather permits,” Cahill said. “We want to get some fruit — you can get a lot of fruit from one tree if it’s healthy — but it could take a couple years.”
The orchard has about 25 apple and peach trees, but at its peak it included 40 trees.
“The thing is, you need to keep up with it,” Ott said. “It’s a lot of work and can easily get neglected, but I’m glad it’s in the hands of Biddle and his class.”
Ott said he first decided to start a grant-funded school garden in 2006 to plant produce to use in school lunches. The orchard followed in 2008.
“It just started off because I have a farming background, and when I got to the school (I) was looking at all the opportunity we had here and thought a garden would work,” he said. “Then I thought an orchard would be something neat.”
Ott said the orchard wasn’t approved for grants so he found an alternative way to make it happen without breaking the bank.
“I reached out to (state Rep.) Mike Hanna (D-Lock Haven) who was a former Department of Agriculture committee member,” Ott said. “I called him up and asked if he knew of a (farm) that would donate trees to a school.”
Almost 10 years ago, Mark Ott created an orchard at BEA. The Adams County Nursery initially donated 30 trees.
The Adams County Nursery sent Ott 30 trees for his orchard that included a variety of apple, peaches, pear and cherry trees. Ott said he then purchased a variety of other apple trees from a Centre County farm.
A team of volunteer students helped space the trees and dig holes for them to be planted in.
It’s located behind Bald Eagle Area High School’s newest gymnasium that connects the high school to Wingate Elementary School at its campus on South Eagle Valley Road.
“The first year we got a peach, it was only the size of a walnut, but it was fantastic,” Ott said.
Biddle said the next step is to get funding from farm-to-school-type grant programs, but in order to be eligible, a sustainability plan must be in place.
Teacher, class to work on suitability project in order for orchard to be eligible for grants
“There are so many of these grants, but they all look for sustainability,” he said. “So the one key is that this orchard would need is to be functional in the future to justify the cost.”
Biddle plans to work with students to maintain the orchard and make sure those plans are feasible.