By Donnie Lunsford, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist
There aren’t too many eighth graders that can say they were able to research, plan, write, and be awarded a grant from the government. However, Sydney Etzel and Lauren Anderson, two eighth grade students from Blanco Middle School, can add that to their list of achievements. The best part is the grant will go toward a pollinator garden that helps the monarch butterfly. This pollinator garden is an expansion of efforts made through other grants and donations under the guidance of their ecology teacher that has continued to build a multipurpose garden. This garden has been expanded to include pollinator plants due to a grant by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas.
In 2018, the Texas NRCS launched the Urban Conservation Grant to help communities address food deserts by building new gardens for vegetables, building high tunnels to extend the growing season, or planting a pollinator garden to provide pollinator habitat for the monarch butterfly in flyways and to energize community organizations.
“This pollinator garden is actually an extension from an Eagle Scout Project that was a raised bed vegetable garden that was one of my former students and it has just grown from other grants and donations from our surrounding community,” said Pam Meier, Blanco Middle School ecology teacher. “With the help of the NRCS and the Pedernales Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), we are able to expand this garden and these students are able to get their hands dirty and see exactly what they are taught in class about the Monarchs in action.”
Located in the Hill Country of south-central Texas, Blanco is along the annual monarch migration pattern. These monarchs fill the sky on their journey north and south in the spring and fall. While milkweed plants are essential for them to lay their eggs and the larva to feed on before it builds its cocoon, nectar plants are also needed for food and fuel for the butterflies’ journey across into the northern states or their return trip from Texas into Mexico.
“It is not too often that two eighth grade students are able be awarded a grant pretty much on their own, but I think that shows how effective our teachers can be especially when they empower the students and let them run with a project,” said Ann Holt, Pedernales SWCD chairman.
The two students enjoyed their ecology class so much that they asked Mrs. Meier if they could attend a second semester. About this same time, the clerk for the Pedernales SWCD, Paige Murphree, saw the announcement for the grant opportunity and shared the information with the school and the grant writing process began.
“In our ecology class, we learned about the life cycle and the migration of the monarch butterfly. I was glad that we were able to apply for this grant and develop a plan to build this garden with the proper plants that will help the Monarch so perhaps we can influence the population that has been declining over the years,” said grant co-writer Etzel.
They spent the first semester learning about ecology and the second semester researching, calling businesses for pricing on building materials, and writing a grant to help boost the butterfly’s ecology system at their school.
“We will be planting multiple wildflowers for nectar plants for food but also some milkweed which will help in their reproduction cycle,” said fellow grant writer Anderson. “This has been a very fun experience that will continue at this school for many years to come.”
Mrs. Meier’s students have helped build the raised beds, plant, and water the garden which results in lifelong lessons on building a garden at home for vegetables and pollinators. Plus, the students in the ecology class are now able to expand their classroom to their new pollinator garden. This expanding garden has become the students’ favorite way to learn, especially when they get to eat what they grow and see the pollinators utilizing the plants.
“Today was truly an eye-opening experience as I saw two students go to their plant and pull off some snap peas and take a bite. That is why the Texas Urban Garden Grants are going to be successful because these students are educated on how to grow their own food and are enjoying the time spent getting their hands dirty,” explained C.A. Cowsert, NRCS district conservationist for Blanco County.
The community and surrounding area businesses assisted in the development of the entire garden with the addition of a second water storage tank, plants, and building materials donated completely or at a reduced price to help the money and resources stretch further. This garden has become a lifelong project for Mrs. Meier and she has seen the successes of her efforts.
“This garden continues to grow, and it has almost become like my child because I have seen it grow and blossom into something I never could have imagined. I’m so thankful for the NRCS Urban Conservation Grant to make this vision a reality and I think this has impacted my students more than can be measured,” Meier said
In its first year in 2018, the NRCS Urban Conservation Grant awarded 26 projects across Texas funding a total of $149,138 of the $150,000 set aside for the project. There were 49 applications for more than $252,000 in funding assistance requests. This has proven to be a success to empower our communities, educate our youth, help with critical areas needed to help the monarch butterfly, and to address food deserts.
For more information on the Texas NRCS Urban and Rural Conservation Project grant to build community gardens, high tunnels, monarch butterfly gardens, and rainwater harvesting systems.
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