May 30, 2013 · Updated 3:05 PM
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After three years of delay, Sardis secondary's agriculture program has been given the final go-ahead to expand onto a five-acre piece of vacant school district land on Richardson Road.

The plan, which will include school gardens, a University of the Fraser Valley berry research area and possibly a cash vegetable crop by fall 2014, was unanimously approved by the Chilliwack school board Tuesday.

But that final green light has been a long time coming.

The idea was originally presented and enthusiastically endorsed by a previous board "in principle" in June 2010, and the people behind the plan, Sardis teachers Joe Massie and Tania Toth and UFV agriculture director Tom Baumann, were thrilled school officials had embraced it so wholeheartedly.

"I'm really happy it's happened as quickly as it has because sometimes with these things there's lots of talk and no action," Massie told the Times in 2010.

Three years later he was at a loss to explain what had taken so long.

"We're just assuming that because it was such a big decision, they took their time on it. I don't know the answers," he said.

"All we could do was propose the idea and then wait for them to tell us."

Sardis principal Diego Test suggested it might have taken district time to get approvals from the ministry of education and other powers that be because the plan involved a unique use of school district property.

But from comments by the district's top administrators, superintendent Evelyn Novak and secretary treasurer Maureen Carra-dice, it seems the plan was simply collectively fumbled by school officials during a period that saw the election of a new board in November 2011 and the appointment of a new superintendent, a new secretary-treasurer and a new Sardis principal. Until asked by the

Times Tuesday, neither Novak nor Car-radice was aware Sardis's use of the Richardson Road property had been approved in principle in 2010.

"I wasn't part of those conversations at the time. I was director of human resources," Carra-dice said. "It came on my radar June of last year."

She said the plan was held up somewhat so it could be included in the district's long range facilities plan and because of her two-month medical leave earlier this year, but getting approvals from the Ministry of Education and the City of Chilliwack was straightforward.

It's been a long wait, but Baumann said one good thing about the last three years is that they've given him and his Sardis partners plenty of time to work out the details of their plan, which will see joint Sardis-UFV projects bring all of the five-acre property into cultivation over the next five years.

Work will begin this summer with fencing, leveling of the land, installation of a shipping container for storage and the digging of a well, but the first crops won't be planted until next spring.

"This year it's not going to happen. It's too late," Baumann said.

The school district originally bought the Richardson Road property, which sits in the agricultural land reserve (ALR), to build a school, but those plans never materialized, possibly because of a gas line that runs diagonally through the site.

Massie, Toth and Baumann now intend to transform the property into a student-driven show farm, where Chilliwack students from kindergarten to Grade 12 can learn more about agriculture and where their food comes from.

One of the first steps will be a partnership between Sardis and local elementary and middle schools on school garden plots.

"This is a way of connecting our students with elementary schools and middle schools in the district and allowing for students to just start to plant and watch things grow," Toth said.

Under Baumann's direction, another part of the land will be planted in different varieties of raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and elderberries for research purposes.

Those plots will serve the dual purpose of improving the industry and giving both UFV and Sardis students a chance to work alongside industry professionals.

A third piece Massie, Toth and Baumann would like to explore during their first year on the Richardson Road property is a rotating cash vegetable crop that would act as both a teaching tool and a fundraising venture for the program, much like the school's widely successful Mother's Day Plant Sale, which sees the sale of plants students have raised in the school's greenhouse.

"Really, we're hoping what Richardson Road does is allow us to extend our classroom," Massie told trustees Tuesday. "We're going to get these kids out of their seats, out of the theoretical, and get their hands dirty, get planting crops, planting gardens and really learn, hands-on, how to do things."

cnaylor@chilliwacktimes.com

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