The Blackwood Educational Land Institute is a regenerative farm based in Hempstead, Texas working to engage young people through community-powered agriculture.
The organization formally began in 2000 as a nature camp, designed to inspire a new generation of farmers but grew into an educational farm dedicated to soil health and regeneration. Over the years, what started with a metal barn and straw bale house grew into an educational farm dedicated to soil health and regeneration. Today, their operations include chicken coops and beehives on the original property in Hempstead and an urban rooftop farm in nearby Houston.
Most of the Institute’s programming revolves around youth engagement. Students stand to benefit greatly from active learning on farmland, according to reports by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture. Immersion in field schools such as Blackwood can offer an applied learning experience that weaves different disciplines together.
“A lot of people’s eyes glazed over when I started talking about buzzwords like nature conservation because they just do not understand it,” Cath Conlon, CEO and Founder of the Blackwood Educational Land Institute, tells Food Tank. The Institute offers workshops, field trips, and weekly day camps to students from elementary through high school and internships for college students.
Through these opportunities, students have the chance to learn about the full life cycle of food, from farm to plate. They are also taught lessons in carpentry, science, writing, nutrition, and native pollinators. Teachers can bring their classes to courses on permaculture, service learning, and the scientific process of food growth from seed to table, which are facilitated by Blackwood staff.
Conlon believes that farmers must have a versatile skill set to survive, let alone prosper. They need to be an accountant, marketer, a herbologist, a soil scientist, and a community builder. “A farm without people will never succeed,” Conlon tells Food Tank. “That human component is ever more important today than what it has ever been before.”
Another integral component of the Blackwood Farm Philosophy is soil quality. The Institute protects the land through crop rotation, compost, and land stewardship of the coastal prairie ecosystem.
“We can talk about nature all day long and we never have to talk about food, but if we talk about food all day long, we can’t help but talk about nature. As soon as I put food in front of nature, it was a game changer.”
Blackwood Educational Land Institute is working with The Land Institute to test out a perennial hybridized grain crop, known as intermediate wheatgrass. While annual grain crops make up 80 percent of global grain produced for food, they tend to exacerbate soil erosion, water pollution, and fossil fuel dependency, according to research from Cornell University.
The Institute is in a humid environment that is traditionally challenging for growing this type of grain. However, Conlon’s farming operations have been able to produce intermediate wheatgrass successfully for the past few years. And perennial crops like this are efficient at storing carbon in the soil, minimizing synthetic fertilizers, and providing livestock feed.
“What the soil is trying to do for us is generate nutrition. If we are tilling and using treated water, then we are not creating conditions that are conducive to great life,” Conlon tells Food Tank.
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Photo Courtesy of Blackwood Educational Land Institute