Conservation Services Spotlight: Birch River high tunnel project a hit
By Russell Young, WVCA Conservation Specialist
After a planned high tunnel project for children was unfortunately scrapped because of circumstances related to the flood of 2016, a more recent partnership between the Elk Conservation District and a Nicholas County elementary school principal revived the idea.
In 2016, the Elk Conservation District (ECD) was given $5,000 from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service through a program from the West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts. That money was to go to various conservation-based projects within the district. One such project was to build a high tunnel at a local elementary school.
However, shortly before the project was set to begin, West Virginia experienced one of the worst floods in its history. Schools in the Elk Conservation District were completely shut down and children were displaced from their normal learning environment. As a result, temporary FEMA buildings -- housing students from surrounding area schools -- sat at the site that had been intended for the high tunnel project.
The high tunnel location moved once more, but again more students were brought into the area for their schooling. After two years of negotiations, discussions, and extensions is became apparent that the project, at this location, wouldn’t be able to move forward and it was canceled.
A month later the principal of Birch River Elementary School, Bronlynn Morlan, approached the Elk Conservation District’s board. She expressed interest in working with the ECD supervisors to develop an outdoor classroom with a high tunnel.
The project was a perfect fit for what the board had hoped to achieve in 2016 and it was quickly supported. The new high tunnel was even ordered right after the August 2018 meeting.
A workshop was held in March of 2019, and many volunteers came out to assemble the high tunnel and get it ready for production. This included Capitol Conservation District Chairman Terry Hudson, who has volunteered his time assembling hundreds of high tunnels across West Virginia.
On Oct. 4, the students were able to harvest their first crop of radishes, which were sliced and shared among the students. Since then, they’ve harvested many vegetables that the students can eat during lunch.
Principal Morlan says that the students not only learn about growing plants and healthy living, but also about soil health, invasive species control, and nutrient management. Officials with ECD hope to use the success of the Birch River Elementary School high tunnel project as a template that other schools within the district could follow, developing their own curriculum based on an outdoor high tunnel classroom.
For a video about the project, visit: https://vimeo.com/367302563