Be prepared to discuss more than fungi when talking to Rick Raid, University of Florida plant pathologist at the Everglades Research and Education Center near Belle Glade.

Raid’s job involves helping farmers deal with diseases in their vegetable and sugar cane fields. His purpose in life, though, is much broader than that.

Plenty of Floridians recognize Raid as ‘that school garden guy.’ Since 1997, he managed to convince 80 schools to put gardens on campus as an educational tool, a program he christened SOAR (Share Our Agricultural Roots).

“The children have so much fun with the garden that they don’t realize how much they’re learning at the same time. It really opens their eyes to the world. It’s real. It’s not virtual, it’s reality,” Raid says.

“My objective is to give kids a chance to see where their food is coming from. These are kids who are amazed when they pull a carrot out of the ground. It blows me away to see how much self-esteem they get from knowing they can grow a plant.”

SOAR originated when Raid got involved with a gardening project at his own children’s school at Royal Palm Beach, where he lives and served on the advisory board.

“I set it up with a couple of teachers and then I really became the student. I was astounded by how good teachers can use a school garden to teach virtually everything in the book,” he says.

In a school garden a plot of short-season wheat can be used in many way, for one example.

“They grow the wheat from seed to harvest in about 60 days. Then they harvest it, thresh it and mill it into flour. Then they bake bread in class. They take it from seed all the way to bread, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“It’s absolutely incredible how teachers use it as a learning project. They use the wheat to build vocabulary. They learn the anatomy of the wheat plant. They make detailed drawings of the plant. They use it to learn spelling. They learn geography by studying where wheat is grown.

“They learn history by studying how wheat was important to the Roman Empire because it was a storable commodity that could be used to survive famine. They learn math by graphing the height of the wheat. They sing songs about wheat and use it in music class. All this from one little planting of wheat,” Raid says.

The gardens include much more than wheat, of course. Children particularly enjoy growing vegetables like radishes that mature relatively quickly. School staff and Raid help students build raised beds for the garden. After that, everything is up to the students.

“It’s important for the kidsto take ownership of the garden and feel good about what they built. We get fifth and sixth graders who have never picked up a drill or hammered a nail. We show them how to do it. At the end of the day, you can’t pull the drill and hammer out of their hands. They wheelbarrow the compost in; they rototill it. They do the planting. It’s almost like a barn raising — everybody does something,” Raid says.

“A school can accommodate over 1,200 kids, with a pretty elaborate garden, for the cost of one computer. The cost is miniscule. We’ve funded SOAR out of research funds and we always have the support of agriculture here. The sugarcane growers’ co-op donates trucking for the compost to schools. We get plants and seeds from growers. They always give us anything we ask for. They’ve never turned us down.”

Raid says parents tell him children come home eager to talk about progress with the school garden.

“SOAR is so much fun it’s sinful, almost. One of my favorite activities is going back to the school to see what’s come up and talk to the kids. I like to look at the insects with them. One that’s almost always there is aphids. That gives me a chance to tell them about the aphid and what it does, that it has a hypodermic mouth part to suck out the juice from the plant,” he says.

“I’ve found that to keep kids’ attention, gross is better. I tell them about the parasite that burrows and eats from the inside of the aphid out — it’s almost like movie aliens, I tell them, something eating its insides out. So from this, they learn about biological control, how nature controls things.”

Nearly everything in the garden becomes a teaching point.

“I teach them about ant lions that tunnel down and grab ants. Kids go bananas searching for ants to feed the lions. If there’s milkweed, the monarch butterfly queens lay eggs underneath the leaves, so we look for them. When we find them, we bring the eggs into a rearing cage, watch them and then release them when they’re ready,” Raid says.

“The butterflies are a tremendous incentive for the kids. The kids that do something special in class are the ones that get to release the butterflies, so a lot of them want to do that.”

What the school gardens produce sometimes surprises Raid. “The best broccoli I’ve ever seen came out of a school garden,” he says. “Speaking of broccoli, it’s interesting how a teacher used broccoli to teach kids about discrimination.

“The teacher asked how many of the kids liked broccoli. A couple of hands went up. Then the teacher asked how many had never tried broccoli. Almost all of them had never tried it.

“She said that is discrimination — basing judgment on somebody else’s opinion is discrimination, and we don’t allow that, she said. You’re supposed to base judgment on your own experience, not what you heard from someone else. Then the kids decided to try some broccoli. She used it to talk about a subject that is tough to talk about in other ways.”

The garden particularly helps at-risk children, Raid says.

“These kids, the ones with big problems at home, when they put the garden out there, man, they really thrive. It’s giving them responsibility, which is something they may have never had. They go from being a care recipient to being a caregiver. They’re the ones we can really reach with a garden. Sometimes, the only reason they come to school is because of the garden,” he says.

Raid grew up in Erie, Pa., and has degrees in entomology and plant pathology from Penn State. He works about 60 hours a week. Most of his time is devoted to plant pathology, he says, and 20 hours or so to his other projects, including SOAR.

“Plant pathology is so important here and growers realize it, so I’m busy with it. A plant pathologist can have a tremendous impact here. I was so excited when I got this job years ago. The Glades are plant pathology heaven, with warm temperatures and year-round growing conditions. It’s tailor-made for plant diseases, so it’s an interesting place to be a plant pathologist.”

Saving barn owls...

The barn owl boxes that dot field edges in the Everglades are evidence of Rick Raid’s other passion. He got intrigued by barn owls when he mentored a high school student whose science project first appeared to be a flop.

The project failed because the student built screech owl boxes and the area had no screech owls. The next year, Raid helped the student build barn owl boxes and the owls began nesting in them. The science project won Florida’s environmental category and placed third in an international competition.

That kicked off Raid’s interest in barn owls.

“Word got out about this barn owl thing and it just took on a life of its own,” he says. “We now have several hundred barn owl boxes around the Glades, all built by kids through local schools. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. I feel really great about this benefiting wildlife species and also agriculture. It’s a win-win for all.”

Agriculture benefits because barn owls consume many rodents — a pair can eat more than 1,000 rodents in a year. Barn owl numbers in the area have increased, thanks to the boxes. With a population of two dozen owls, the experiment station alone hosts more barn owls than some states.

“All this provides an outreachand educational lesson for schools,” Raid says. “Kids absolutely love it. Every year we have a barn owl prowl with the kids, where we go out and look for owls. Parents practically fight to drive for that field trip.

“We had a 13-car caravan this year and, while we were at it, we showed them agriculture in the Glades. We had them out there chewing sugar cane stalks. They’re looking for barn owls, but they’re also learning where their food comes from.

“These parents live here, but we’re finally opening their eyes to the agriculture, as well as the wildlife, that’s here. Afterward, we have a big bonfire and, without fail, everybody breaks out in song that arises out of nowhere.”

With nesting boxes in place, barn owls naturally thrive in the area.

“Barn owls and sugar cane are tied to one another. Cane opens field to predators, so the barn owls fits nicely. In summer when the vegetation is tall, the barn owl can’t successfully hunt in the cane fields. Once harvest starts, boom!, the barn owls are back.”