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School Farms Capture Lessons in Sustainability

Wednesday, November 2, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Among SAIS schools’ extracurricular offerings, farming rarely makes the list. While some manage small gardens, few have the space for anything resembling a farm. Those who do have the capacity are finding that school farms provide myriad learning opportunities, some of which have nothing to do with agricultural studies.

The National FFA Organization (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) boasts 579,678 members in 7,570 chapters and recently held its 89th National Convention & Expo. With student members from 7th grade through college age in public as well as independent schools, the organization prepares young people for future studies and careers in agriculture, which has proven to be a hub for life lessons as well.

That has been the case at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School (SAS) in Sewanee, TN, where part of its 550 acres is devoted to a farm tended primarily by students. “You can Google or ask Siri anything these days,” said Head of School Karl Sjolund. “The things you can’t get are soft skills – learning to wait, working on a team, being resilient, or caring for others. The farm is a lot of work but it’s one of several ways we are enjoying the physical beauty of our campus.”

Students from 6th through 12th grades work on the SAS farm. All 7th and 8th graders take a course in Adventure Education for one and a half hours per week; 7th graders plant in the spring semester and harvest in the fall as 8th graders. Students in 6th through 12th grades may participate in an optional afternoon farming program for two hours a day, three days a week. Students also pitch in on the weekends and alumni typically hold a work day each summer to support the farm. 

They learn all about seeds, weeding, fertilizing, soil, cultivating, sustainability, and seed-to-plate practices, as well as the labor involved with food preparation, such as washing and removing stems. They grow primarily seasonal greens, such as lettuce, kale, cabbage, broccoli, and herbs that go toward the school cafeteria. As a result, the relationship between the kitchen staff and the maintenance crew has been strengthened as well. The SAS farm has a goal to provide 60 percent of the school’s salad greens, according to farm director Mandy Grubbs.

“It’s great to have a local source as part of our daily food service,” Sjolund said. “It’s fresh, it’s healthier, and there is a pride factor for students.”

“I believe in teaching these skills to students and I believe in farming as a career choice,” Grubbs said. “But there is more. We have to be very patient at the farm. This not so predictable.”

For example, Grubbs may have an activity planned for class, only to be derailed by Mother Nature or her animal friends. Problem-solving skills certainly come into play.

“One of the goals for the program is self-directed learning,” Grubbs said. “They get to the point where they see what needs to be done without my instruction. I enjoy that moment that kids get acclimated. We become kind of a team sport.”

Grubbs is also working on cross-curricular involvement with the biology, math, and creative writing departments. “We even do word problems!” she said. “We want the garden to be useful to the school and enrich the academic program.”

Assessments at the farm are unique. At the start of each quarter, Grubbs sets four goals for her students. They receive a score based on their completion of the goals. Most earn a 3 or a 4 out of 4. “I want it to be really enjoyable,” she said.

Farming or any type of outdoor activity benefits young people, particularly ones who may feel stressed about school. According to a 2011 poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, 10 percent of students between age 13 and 18 reported spending time outdoors every day; however, 90 percent who did spend time outside said that being in nature and/or participating in outdoor activities helped relieve stress. The students who stated that they spend so little time outdoors attributed that to “lack of access to natural areas and discomfort with the outdoors.” However, those students (ages 13-18) who had personal, positive experiences with nature were twice as likely to view themselves as strong environmentalists and were significantly more likely to express concern about water issues, air pollution, and climate change. Fewer than one-quarter of the teens said that they take school field trips outdoors on even a monthly basis, but those who did spoke fondly of school experiences that took them beyond the classroom.

And while few, if any, students who work on a high school farm project pursue farming as a career, they are exposed to other careers related to agriculture, such as sales, engineering, IT positions, accountancy, and professional cooking. “FFA really is about more than agriculture. It's about leadership, professionalism, and working hard to achieve success,” said a participant on #agchat, a weekly Twitter chat for farmers, farm educators, and others.

At Darlington School in Rome, GA, students are learning from a different type of farm – a five-acre solar farm currently under construction on campus. The project, developed by Atlanta-based Inman Solar, will provide power to the local grid by way of a 900-kilowatt solar array consisting of 2,813 modules on tilted panels. The brainchild of science teacher Randy Smith, the project represents “a very unique entrepreneurial opportunity and a lifelong dream come true,” he said. Read more about Smith’s history here.

Power produced on the solar farm will feed the entire grid, but the Darlington campus will benefit from the energy produced as well as the revenue earned from the lease to the company. Inman Solar signed a 25-year lease on the parcel, with the option to renew for two five-year increments. The array will be valued at over $900,000 and was built at no cost to the school. Inman Solar will sell the energy that is collected back to the Georgia Power network, while paying Darlington for use of the land. The farm was constructed in a flood plain, where the school never had any plans for buildings.

The 900-kilowatt array — a 900,000-watt installation — will produce more than two million kilowatt hours per year. The amount of electricity generated is going to lead to a local reduction of approximately 930 tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is equivalent of removing 160 cars from the road, conserving 756,000 gallons of water, or saving more than 250 trees. It will also have the ability to power up to 200 residential properties in the area for an entire year.

 

In addition, students will see first-hand how the system operates. “In 6th grade, we talk a lot about alternate energy and resources,” Smith said. “All that they learn about in class is actually happening here. It’s a whole different thing to see it here on campus.”

The school will be able to collect data from the grid for analysis and take students on field trips to the farm to speak with engineers on occasion. Smith plans to modify the science curriculum somewhat, with input from the solar developer.  

“This is a great testament to the progressive thinking of our administration and our board,” Smith said. “I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.”

A school classroom in 2016 doesn’t always exist inside a traditional building. Farms or outdoor venues of any sort also can serve as classrooms, giving students unique learning experiences. Sustainability and global citizenship, for example, may be taught best through a hands-on lesson where students are not only in the world but of it.  


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