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Farmer, Michigander & founder of Countryside Academy
Ranking first in the nation for tart cherry production, second for all dry bean production and sixth for milk, Michigan agriculture is a staple of commerce for our state - yet in Detroit, the Michigan Department of Agriculture identified 19 neighborhoods in the city as 'food deserts' for their lack of access to quality and affordable fresh food. So how do we rectify those conflicting facts? For six visionary fruit and vegetable growers, it all began 20 years ago in Benton Harbor with a school called Countryside.
George McManus was one of those six farmers who wanted to shape a school that had elements of experiential learning, agriculture and environmental science. "Growing up, I went to school up in Traverse City," said George, "and while it was a good education, when my kids got to school age, I wanted them to have something more hands-on - something more fun."
Countryside began with only a couple hundred students in a few modular buildings. George donated his own property for the school, and it now boasts an impressive and scenic 98 acres of gardens, ponds, forest area and more. And while Countryside is set out in a rural part of the city, the focus is on far more than farming alone.
"For the founders, we wanted an equal focus on the environmental science portion and the agricultural portion," said George, "We know that you can't have one without the other, and that one, in turn, affects the other." To do this, Countryside utilizes the FARE (Food, Agriculture, Renewable Resources, and Environment) principles to guide learning. As a result, many students at Countryside are well positioned to continue studies in these respective fields, whether that be farming, nuclear science or sustainability sciences.
What's also important to note is that Countryside serves an extremely diverse population, many of whom come from lower-income households in rural Benton Harbor, and who don't typically have exposure to these themes. The Michigan Department of Education recognized Countryside for "Beating the Odds" by helping students from low-income homes succeed academically, and they've been awarded the Bronze School Award by the U.S. News & World Report.
And as Michigan looks to address pressing issues of food access, environmental impacts on agriculture and urban food deserts, Countryside has found a way to ignite a passion for these subjects in students at an early age. Now 750 students strong (and still growing), they will continue to have an impact on our young workforce for years to come.
For George, that growth is his vision realized.