Old Becomes New At Sand Box Farms: What I Learned Visiting A Young Farm and How It Changed Me

In May 2022, I had the opportunity to visit the farm you are about to read about, and what I saw impacts me still four months later. You are about to meet two people who believe in hard work and never giving up on a dream. You are about to meet two people whose enthusiasm for farming made me want to be a farmer too–almost.

The one thing I learned that I hope you do too is that enthusiasm is a fire that can set a forest ablaze. When you truly believe in something and pursue it with tenacity–don’t give up, you are living the American Dream.

This elusive thing we all aspire to live looks successful in the long run, but it sometimes looks like failure in the daily grind. The American Dream is not for the faint of heart; it’s for the visionary.

Some people say that younger generations have lost the work ethic to get anything done, but that is not true of all of us. It certainly is not true of the folks at Sand Box Farms. As you read this story, I hope it inspires you to see innovation, hope, and promise in agriculture and in young people with a dream and a steady hand on the plow.


Sand Box Farms

In a little white 1920s farmhouse in Warsaw, one young married couple is proving that the American Dream is still alive. Sand Box Farms was just a high school dream for AJ Searles, a first-generational farmer, who is as comfortable with a power tool as he is behind the wheel of a tractor or standing in front of a crowd talking about his business. “Because AJ is doing this as a new start-up not something he grew up in,” his wife, Krystle Owen explains, “he gets invited to speak often about his experiences and how he got started in the agriculture business.” 

Krystle is equally busy and accomplished. She works as an Agronomy Sales Manager for Southern State when she is not busy farming pumpkins, raising cattle, baking cakes, and balancing several upgrade projects at the farm. “We all wear multiple hats and have to be capable of doing any of the jobs here on the farm,” Krystle says. “We couldn’t possibly do this business alone. We are so thankful for the workers we do have and the other business partners that work with us, but turnover in the labor force is high for agriculture. We have to always be ready and moving quickly to stay ahead of the demands of our consumers. In the industry, seasoned farmers are aging out. Soon there will be a gap of need as great in food production as anything we see in other career fields,” Krystle explains. 

Beef cattle say hello to an inquisitive visitor.

AJ Searles and Krystle Owen are members of the NC Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Association (YF&R), an organization of people between the ages of 18-35 who are interested in agriculture. Members of the organization benefit from the Farm Bureau’s larger mission of advancing the agricultural community through networking and educational opportunities. As members, AJ and Krystle have been able to explore operations and learn new practices in states like Florida, Arizona, and Iowa. AJ Searles and Krystle Owen now serve as Duplin County Representatives on the state committee for YF&R. As representatives of the state, AJ and Krystle had the opportunity to meet with legislators in Washington, D.C. to discuss the long-term impact certain bills would have on young farmers and ranchers.

Your voice does matter, and you need to make it matter by getting involved, making the meetings, and having the face-to-face conversations with leaders who make policies affecting you. You don’t have to travel to D.C. to make a difference. Local town governments are important too, and Duplin County has been extremely welcoming to future generations expressing their needs and concerns.

Krystal Owen

AJ and Krystle hope to encourage young people to see agriculture as a career field with endless opportunities–especially in Duplin County. “We have advantages here because we are within thirty minutes of a lot of what we need. We produce a lot of our own food in North Carolina, and our products are being sent to other states and countries. In Duplin County, we have some of the best soils, and others are interested in investing in that for what we can do here,” Krystle explains. “You don’t have to leave your county to have a good job, and you don’t have to be a farmer either. There are plenty of other jobs that intersect with farming here.” 

Even just a day’s experience on a farm can change a person’s life forever. “Farming gives you the opportunity to see and experience the circle of life firsthand,” Krystle says. “Just interacting with the environment teaches you to be incredibly grateful and not wasteful of the food you have. It also builds confidence, leadership skills, and critical thinking skills.” One of the big pushes in the industry now is to monetize this benefit by increasing agri-tourism opportunities. Even though Duplin is a rural county, it still has opportunities to explore in this area. 

Farming today is nothing like it was a hundred years ago. While it may look simple and peaceful, farming life is incredibly complex and diverse. Profitability for farming now is a balancing act of monitoring trends, precision planning, and being as efficient as possible with the resources that you have. “Farming is a business. There is more time spent planning than in a tractor or a field. It is a very strategic, thought-out process,” Krystle says. 

Stock market supply and demand determine prices; farmers don’t have a say in it. Government regulations hold US farmers to high standards concerning food safety and business practices all the way down to how a plant or animal is fed, produced, and processed. These standards set a high bar for quality that is further backed by distributors wanting GAP Certification to sell their goods. “Many stores like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, or Harris Teeter won’t even take your product unless it is GAP Certified,” Krsytle says, “but there are lesser quality countries able to produce the same products cheaper with less regulation. Most farmers want to market on a level playing field, and GAP certification is part of that.” 

One positive of all the regulations, however, is that it contributes to giving US-made goods a reputation for being better and worth the extra investment. “We have some of the safest food sources around,” Krystle says. “Companies like Carnival Cruise Lines choose us and our products over cheaper options on the market because they know we offer quality goods that are regulated and tracked.” 

Technology for farming is continually growing and making it easier for farmers to control what they do from the cab of their tractors, but all that advancement comes at a price. Many farmers live frugal lives and save with the goal of investing in some of this better equipment. “It’s something we all work towards,” Krystle says, “but sometimes we have to start without the technology and use what we’ve got to build the business and make it grow. Not having everything perfect makes you get creative to get the job done,” Krystle says. “For us, success is measured by being smart and diversifying our business to be able to overcome challenges, be good at what we do, and justify our equipment.”

A lot of creativity is required to do well in the farming business. “This year and last, our fertilizer cost went up significantly. It now costs at least three times as much to fertilize the same amount of fields. Also, many of the products we relied on are just going back into production which means they are going to be at least two weeks behind making it to the farms,” Krystle explains. “We have to look for alternative sources of fertilizer or we are forced to buy more expensive options and find other ways to offset cost in other areas of the business.” 

Despite all these challenges, most farmers describe what they do as a lifestyle and a calling; they feel drawn to protect and steward the land for the next generations. Even though AJ and Krystle don’t have children yet, they still plan for them today. From the small details of having a bolt bin for parts to the larger details of planning how to repurpose the older buildings and bring new ones, they think about the lives that will be lived on their farm. 

“What I hope, is that more land owners will be interested in partnering with new growers to rent their properties and keep the land producing agriculturally instead of turning it over into commercial land,” Krystle says. Landowners interested in connecting with potential renters for their land or young persons interested in developing an agriculture business are encouraged to reach out to YF&R.

Using Computers to Improve Reading Skills

The following post is by Fiona Ingram and part of a blog tour promoting her new book, The Temple of the Crystal Timekeeper. To join the blog tour, see the list of dates posted here.


What makes children want to read, and how do parents encourage them to read, especially in a world where there is a dizzying array of technological devices to draw them away from the printed word. How can one make reading fun in a media driven world where social media and technology have such an impact on the
simple act of reading?

Digital and visual literacies are the new wave of communication specialization. Most people will have technologies readily available not only to communicate but also to create, to manipulate, to design, to self-actualize. Children learn these skills as part of their lives, like language which they learn without realizing they are learning it. Our children are natives of cyberspace—they are digitally well informed. The greatest challenge is moving beyond the glitz and pizzazz of flashy technology to teach true literacy in this new milieu, without losing hold of the basic building blocks of reading the old-fashioned way.

There are many creative ways to get kids to rediscover reading and one of them is by engaging them with something all kids understand: computers.

Many parents see computers as an obstacle to children reading the printed word. Many parents also fear that their children will lose out on the tactile pleasure of handling a real book, of learning to love and cherish firm favorites, and that their concentration will be affected by the instant gratification of technology-driven devices. This is also true where children show distinct signs of illiteracy yet can instantly manage to work a cell phone and tap into the sub-language that defines texting. However, some novel and fun ways of using technology creatively will get kids right where parents want them—reading! Parents can use computers to get kids more interested in reading by letting them create their own ‘books’ and projects.

Empower Your Child

Kids love playing around on computers so turn the idea of reading around—let them create their own story, become an author. What could be more empowering! This will allow them ‘ownership’ of the story, and that’s an irresistible challenge for any child.

Creative Thinking

The subject can be about them, an incident, or a fictitious character. They’ll not just create it but illustrate it (either their own drawings or using free images available from the Internet), design it and print it out. Parents will be amazed at what happens once the child takes charge of their own project. You can help your child develop the story, getting them to write it out first by hand, and then going through it several times (maybe another family member can also give their input). They can then create the project on the computer.

Share the Results

When their book project is finished, parents can suggest the child hand it in to their grade teacher for inclusion in the school magazine or newspaper. Or perhaps it can be a gift for a grandparent or family member. You could even have it properly bound at a local stationer.

Offer Praise

Praise and success are incredibly motivating factors in any child’s development. They’ll automatically feel inspired to achieve more. Now parents can introduce new activities that show printed books in a very novel light.

Read Together

This is a good time to find a book you both like and, besides reading together, ask your child to suggest alternative actions on the part of certain characters, asking if they agree on how the story is unfolding, and how they would have written the characters’ actions if they disagree. Encouraging a thought process will make your child feel their opinion counts. Once the book is finished, have your child create their own ‘review’ on the computer, print it out and either post or email it to your local bookshop or library. Imagine their pride and delight if the review is published in a local newspaper or put up on the library notice board.

Wonderful Websites

Most successful children’s books and book series have websites with interesting aspects to explore. Is the series set in a real or fantasy place? Do the characters have important choices to make? Don’t be afraid to let your child get onto the computer and read all about the series, the author, the movie, the actors, the settings, and the characters. Ask your child questions about what they have learned and praise their research.

Far from being an obstacle to reading, computers can enable children to think creatively in producing their own literary projects. Taking ownership of something unique and special will encourage a child’s confidence and inspire them to read and research more. Parents can assist their child to achieve the desired results by helping with practical aspects of the book project, by praising their child’s efforts, by involving other family members or teachers, and by reading together with their child.


FionaIngram.jpg (1)

About the Author

Fiona Ingram is a children’s author, but up until a few years ago, she was a journalist and editor. Something rather unexpected sparked her new career as an author—a family trip to Egypt with her mother and two young nephews. They had a great time and she thought she’d write them a short story as a different kind of souvenir…. Well, one book and a planned book series later, she had changed careers. She has now published Book 3 (The Temple of the Crystal Timekeeper) in her middle-grade adventure series Chronicles of the Stone, with many awards for the first book,

The Secret of the Sacred Scarab, and a few for Book 2, The Search for the Stone of Excalibur, and one already for Book 3! She also teaches online novel writing for aspiring authors and she finds that very satisfying. Relaxation time finds her enjoying something creative or artistic, music, books, theatre or ballet. She loves doing research for her book series. Fiona loves animals and has written two animal rescue stories. She has two adorable (naughty) little dogs called Chloe and Pumpkin, and a beautiful black cat called Bertie.

You can find Fiona at –

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/secretofthesacredscarab/

Website: www.chroniclesofthestone.com

Twitter: http://twitter.com/FionaRobyn

Author Site: http://www.FionaIngram.com

Blog: http://fionaingramauthor.blogspot.com

GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2868182.Fiona_Ingram

Assistive Technology for the Classroom

One of my favorite things about any ABSPD Institute training at Appalachian State University is learning new technology available for my classroom. New ideas and tools invigorate our methods and make our classrooms more interesting. Here are some of the ideas from the 2018 Institute.

Fortune-Telling Game

Jeff Goodman created a simple writing game by using some of his photography to make a set of “fortune telling” cards. The cards have been physically printed and turned face down on a table to reveal just their backside (a mosaic of one larger image). Students pick a card and a different image is revealed on the face side of the card. Peer students write a fortune for the student based on the image that was chosen. The fortunes are shared orally and used to discuss cognitive theory such as how everyone saw something different in the image.  In the digital version of the game, images of the cards are projected through a slideshow and animation is used to link image slides to a master slide to create the card flipping action. A shortened version of the digital game is shown on this post, but you can download the full game here.

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Select and Speak – Text to Speech Google Chrome Add-On

Select and Speak is an add-on tool for Google Chrome that will let users highlight text and have it read to them in multiple languages. It can be very useful for English Second Language learners as well as learners with Learning Differences such as dyslexia or visual impairments. The add-on is free, but it does have an upgrade that you can do at an additional cost. You can find the add-on and a short video about it here.

Click to Dictate – Speech to Text Google Chrome Add-On

Click to Dictate is an add-on tool for Google Chrome that will let users talk to their computer and have it type for them. It can be helpful for visually-impared students, but it is also a great time saver in general. I dictated a whole set of lessons in Google Docs using this tool. It is not good at punctuation, so you will need to edit it for corrections, but it will translate every word it hears with fair accuracy. Check it out here.

Newsela – News Articles in Different Reading Levels

Newsela is a pretty impressive resource that offers articles in a wide range of current and historical events. Every article is available with multiple reading levels and questions for quizzes and/or activities. I have used the free account access to expand reading comprehension with my students in the context of the subject I was teaching them at the time. The quality of this product and its expansive selection are very impressive. Check it out here.

ABSPD Vocabulary Lessons

Part of what students struggle within testing is simple lack of knowledge of key vocabulary terms. There are tier 2 words that students need to be familiar with in any subject area, but teaching them can be a burden to make creative and fun. ABSPD created a series of lessons to help with this. Each lesson teaches five tier 2 words with breakout activities and discussion. Lessons are downloadable here.

Google Suite for Collaboration

Part of having a Gmail account is having access to a free network of tools called the Google Suite. In the Suite, you have cloud storage, word processing, spreadsheets, calendars, drawing capabilities, and more. Any add-ons you have on your Google Chrome will also work in the Suite, so, for example, I can use my add-on to dictate text into a document. I used that to transcribe a whole series of grammar lessons. Anyone can share a file via email and work on it with other team members by using the Google Suite. Use is free and easy with most accounts though there is a limit on storage. For more information, check them out here.

ASL Sign Language Dictionary

If you have a student that is hearing-impaired, you may want to try this app. The app allows you to look up a word and learn how to say it in sign language by watching a short video. One teacher used to help communicate with a student and other students became excited about it and wanted to learn too. It can be a great team-building skill as well as a necessary life skill for some learners. Check out the app here.

National Library of Virtual Manipulatives – Math

Sometimes it helps to be able to teach a math concept with objects that can be physically moved around and manipulated to learn the concept with. This website hosts a vast array of manipulatives for math and some games. Tools range for levels K-12 in all areas of math. You can explore the website for free here.

Free Audio Books – Librovox.org

I love having audio books to read through a text and I have found a lot of good readers submit their work for free to Librovox.org. The whole site is copyright free and can be downloaded or streamed for instructional purposes. I have used several books here, but my favorite read is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Check it out here.

NASA – Great Science stuff

NASA releases high-definition images from space and Earth on its website as well as tons of articles, streaming video, downloadables, and other cool bits of Earth and Space science. Check out their website for more information here.

Mind Vector – Brainstorming

This app is a lot of fun for brainstorming for writing essays or group projects. It can also be used to create organizational charts. The app itself is free for Mac or Android. You can find out more about it here.

Table Topics Cards – Writing Prompts

Table Topics cards are a set of flash cards you can use for writing practice. They were created to be conversation starters around a table at a party, but they can make for fun writing practice as well. Coupled with Mind Vector, they become engaging tools for students who may struggle with writing in general. Find out more about the cards here.

Story Cubes – Writing Prompts

Story Cubes offer a fun way to prompt writing practice with a set of dice that have pictures on them. Sets of cubes come with different themes and can be used individually or in groups. Users toss the dice and have to create a story using whatever random set of images they land on. For more about the cubes, check out their website here.