‘We couldn’t stop the lettuce growing’: Donegal pupils work the school plot

Three students have been harvesting vegetables to supply to local hotels and restaurants

Shane Crumlish (16), Stephen Havlin (17) and Danielle McDermott (16) of Moville Community College, Co Donegal,  have been growing vegetables in the school’s polytunnel. Photograph: Trevor McBride

Shane Crumlish (16), Stephen Havlin (17) and Danielle McDermott (16) of Moville Community College, Co Donegal, have been growing vegetables in the school’s polytunnel. Photograph: Trevor McBride

 

Of all the pupils who are preparing to go back to school this week, there are three students who have never really been away.

All through the summer holidays, Stephen Havlin, Danielle McDermott and Shane Crumlish have spent their Thursday mornings in an “outdoor classroom” at Moville Community College in Co Donegal. They’ve been working – growing vegetables in the school’s polytunnel, which they then supply to the local hotel and restaurant trade.

“We’re growing for the community, by the community, to be enjoyed by the community,” explains Crumlish, “and it’s also helping to tackle climate change.”

“There are no air miles here,” explains chef Brian McDermott. The owner of the Foyle Hotel, on Moville’s main street, he is proud to list the school on his menus as one of his suppliers.

“The students deliver their produce once a week – they put it in boxes and walk down from the school to the hotel. Their carrots and cabbage were on our Sunday lunch menu last weekend.”

The trio began studying horticulture as part of transition year. When the summer came, they volunteered to keep working on their plot to benefit from the summer growing season. McDermott had already spotted the polytunnel, and suggested the students link up with the hospitality industry.

Life skills

“We couldn’t stop the lettuce growing,” says Danielle McDermott (16) – no relation to the hotelier. The students did not have experience of horticulture, though they admit to becoming quite protective of their produce. “It’s not like in class, when you might just be watching,” says Havlin. “You’re the one doing the planting and the harvesting, so they’re your plants.”

“There have been a few things Brian had requested that we grow for the restaurant, and we would have been anxiously waiting and watching to see would they grow,” says Danielle McDermott.

For their teachers, it is a practical way of building interest and skills among their students. “There’s often a fear around growing your own food as adults,” says horticulture teacher Mary McLaughlin, “but they’ve seen that it takes very little, and that’s learning they’ll take with them for life.

“They get to see vegetables they might never have encountered before, and taste them, and they love the practical work and how they can grow all this lovely local produce.”

High quality

It also has a wider relevance. The college is part of the United Nations’ Global Schools Programme, which is committed to education around sustainable goals including responsible consumption and production and climate action. “It’s about changing the mindset of students in schools,” explains home economics teacher Colleen Cooney.

“They are learning habits which they then bring home to their community.”

Havlin, Crumlish and McDermott are keen to spread that message as widely as possible. They have been following teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg, and travelled to Dublin for a climate change protest in Croke Park. “A whole heap of people from our school went,” says Danielle McDermott. “It was great to feel part of something.”

In Moville, they are already part of something. The students also supply another local restaurant, Inish Fusion; its owner, John McDaid, is a satisfied customer.

“The quality is as good as anything else out there, it’s hard to beat it, and it’s so fresh. You couldn’t ask for anything more local than this.”