Four Santa Rosa schools are scrambling to find land to continue their farm and garden programs after losing a long-term lease negotiated through a nonprofit group.
Students from Montgomery and Cardinal Newman high schools, as well as Village Charter School and Roseland Collegiate Prep, have in some cases spent years planting and harvesting crops on about two acres of land on Angela Drive near the former Ursuline High School in Santa Rosa.
The deal, coordinated through the nonprofit Cultivating Impact program, gave students access to a certified organic farm while allowing some students to adopt a corner of the property to tend as they saw fit.
"This place was so perfect, these schools being able to walk to us," said Erin Shea, operator of Cultivating Impact, who hosted a lineup of regular classes and field trips from still more schools.
"We are still looking, but we are not really sure what is going to happen," she said.
Since learning in December that her $575 monthly lease would not be renewed, Shea has removed her certified organic crops and notified teachers from the four associated schools she is looking for a new location.
The landowner plans to grow winegrapes on the property, Shea said.
"It definitely has been a very valuable program for everybody," said John Contreras, a coordinator of Cardinal Newman's service learning program. "It opens their minds up to possibility, getting them out from behind these desks in the classroom. It allows them to breathe, literally, and allows them to see there are other ways of learning."
The farm has been the inspiration for many senior service projects at both Cardinal Newman and the former Ursuline High School, he said.
Cardinal Newman had over the years used a $39,000 grant to improve the property by installing solar panels, investing in beekeeping facilities and rebuilding chicken coops.
In the past year, Cardinal Newman students have partnered with students from Roseland Collegiate Prep, which is located on the former Ursuline High School campus.
"They would walk their seventh- and eighth-graders over there and do environmental education," Contreras said.
"It was a great opportunity for our students," said Amy Jones-Kerr, principal at Roseland Collegiate Prep, located on the same road as the farm. "It was a five-minute walk. It was cool to be able to do that."
For years, about 25 eighth graders from Village Charter School walked from their campus at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts to the farm to harvest crops. Once a week, they staffed a booth at the farmers' market and sold what they had grown.
"To see where things really come from, the cycle of things, the birth and death of it, we don't get that very much any more," Village administrator Rebecca Ivanoff said of the value of the program.
"We are going to keep Erin in our company," Ivanoff vowed. "She is exceptional at what she does."
But Ivanoff acknowledged the difficulty of operating a land-based nonprofit in Sonoma County.
"We are priced-out, and there is not a lot of land," she said.
With Montgomery, students traded labor on the larger farm for the opportunity to tend a corner plot on their own, said Montgomery teacher Len Greenwood.
One day a week they worked in the community farm, and on a second day they worked their own crops.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here