With all his might, 12-year-old Mario Mulum tugs at a stalk of cilantro that bursts from the ground like a leafy green fountain. His face is strained; the roots are deep. Sleeves creep up his arms as he yanks one final time and the earth loosens its hold on the plant. Shaking off the dirt, he presents his bouquet.
Shuid Primary School is nestled on a ridge at the end of a switchback mountain road in Ecuador’s Chimborazo Province. The campus and surrounding community sit 12,000 feet above sea level. Some days, a late morning fog rolls in and erases the horizon, making it look like a village at the edge of the world.
Mario’s parents and most others are farmers on unforgiving land. On high-altitude farms, erosion, low-nutrient soil and uneven terrain complicate production, especially irrigation. Few crop varieties are hearty enough to withstand high winds and erratic weather. Farming is still necessary for survival in the remote mountains, where strong rains or falling rocks can cut off supply routes.
Shuid’s students, like Mario, are growing their own food in a thriving garden, learning tricks that even their parents don’t know.
Shuid’s school garden traces its roots to 2017, when the first starter plants from WE Charity were bedded. Agriculture studies are now ingrained in the curriculum. WE Charity helps implement the program with training in best practices for small farms. Students then share the lessons in their parents’ fields, bettering production in the short term, as well as enhancing future prospects. It can be tempting to pull children from class and have them work on a struggling family farm, but these parents can appreciate the value of an education that also helps their crops. The school garden and agriculture program are incentives to keep kids in school, where they gain practical knowledge that benefits entire households. Once their family’s fields and finances improve, children have more choices after high school graduation.
The whole community of Shuid rallied to start the garden. Black soil, a more nutrient dense composition, had to be shipped from another region. A truck hauled in bags and everyone dispersed the dirt, now cultivated into rows of carrots, zucchini, purple cabbage, red onion, beets, kale, turnip and corn—much more variety than in local farmers’ plots.
Mario has already taught his parents a few things. From WE Charity’s food program coordinator, he learned how to maneuver a bucket or a hose for more targeted irrigation. He brought the methods home and his parents listened.
Mario ponders a moment and decides beets are the best, his favorite dish served at school feasts. A big harvest can feed the whole school, nearly 400 students, plus teachers, on special occasions. Día del Niño, or Children’s Day, was celebrated with potato soup and chicken stew, plus a good mix of veggies. And there were leftovers for each family.
If, like Mario, all of the school’s students bring home farming lessons, this one small school garden will feed a whole community for years to come.
Katie Hewitt is a journalist and Associate Director at WE. She loves to travel, but while she’s home in Toronto, a good story is the best trip.