Sustaining the next generation

Debbie Sinclair, co-owner of Sinclair Farm in Mount Jackson, shows off her hydroponic tomato plants to Massanutten Govenor's School students , from left, Autumn Wild, 17, of Stanley, Rachel Friedenberg, 17, center, of Mount Jackson, and Maggie Chu, 17, right, of Luray, during a recent tour of the farm. Rich Cooley/Daily

MOUNT JACKSON – As longtime producers in the area, Debbie and Allen Sinclair, of The Sinclair Farm, relish a role educating future generations about an ever-evolving world of sustainable farming.

Recently, a senior agroecology class from the Massanutten Regional Governor’s School visited The Sinclair Farm for a hands-on learning experience about sustainable agriculture practices.

Kara Bates, a natural resources ecology teacher at the governor’s school, said, “They’ve learned about what sustainable agriculture is … now this is giving them an opportunity to see a sustainable practice in operation.”

Allen Sinclair, 71, and Debbie Sinclair, 58, own a 25-acre vegetable and produce farm in Mount Jackson where they harvest a wide variety of products, from tomatoes and lettuce to carrots on a year-round basis.

Prior to the class tours, the Sinclairs provided the students an overview of the farm and some of their recent energy efficient practices, which have included new solar panels and a unique water reclamation system.

Kinsey Wilk, 17, of Fort Valley, walks past solar panels at the Sinclair Farm in Mount Jackson recently. Wilk and her fellow students from the Massanutten Regional Govenor's School in Mount Jackson, toured the facility. The farm has installed 176 solar panels to use for greenhouse operations. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We have a little over 15,000 square feet of green house space,” Allen Sinclair said. “That means that when water hits that top, where is it going to go?”

Rather than have the water as added runoff to potentially further pollute the Chesapeake Bay, the Sinclairs added three concrete water reclamation tanks – that have tubes extending to the green houses – to catch this runoff.

The tanks have the capacity to collect thousands of gallons of runoff water, which Sinclair said they can then use to water their seasonal outdoor crops.

Sinclair noted that the new solar panels have resulted in their monthly energy bill being slashed from between $1,300 or $1,600 a month to around $356 per month – a cost savings of nearly 75 percent.

“It’s a great feeling, to be able to show them, because then it’s real,” Debbie Sinclair said. “When you learn about it in a text book … that’s one thing, but when you can walk around and you can feel it, then it connects.”

Debbie Sinclair leads a group of students from the Massanutten Regional Governor's School in Mount Jackson around the Sinclair Farms in Mount Jackson recently. Rich Cooley/Daily

Senior Kinsey Wilk, who was raised on her family’s produce farm in Fort Valley, noted after the tour that she was impressed with the Sinclair’s water reclamation system.

“It’s really interesting. I feel like that can be utilized on a much larger scale. Doing something like this, it really minimized impact,” she said.

Wilk, 17, is planning on attending college, where she hopes to study environmental engineering and establish a career in that field, before returning to farming.

“I’m thinking about, throughout college and when I have a career … doing (organic farming) as more of a side project and helping other (community supported agriculture) and other local farmers,” Wilk said.

Wilk and her fellow classmates are using this visit as a way to develop ideas for a mid-term project of designing a sustainable city. She mentioned after that the tour that they have an idea about local towns using water reclamation systems.

“They have a lot of innovative practices in place, and a lot of the things that they’ve done, they’ve created themselves or they’ve sought out the experts to get those practices in place,” Bates said.

Bates added, “We can look at websites and we can look at other resources, but actually seeing it in place impacts them a lot more and they are able to internalize it a lot better.”

Bates added, “Do I have grandiose visions that they’re going to pursue degrees in agriculture? Some of them will, but a majority of them won’t.”

“But we all have to eat, and my hope is that at the minimum, is that … when they’re on their own and making those choices, that they’ve remembered these types of experiences.”

For Allen and Debbie Sinclair, tours like this are a major part of what they do as farmers in the Shenandoah Valley.

“We don’t have that many years left to make a difference in farming, so we’re pushing as hard as we can and educating as many people as we possibly can about what we consider to be a healthy way to grow food,” Allen Sinclair said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com