I’ve come back to the farm in Maine where I started writing this blog last summer. I’m sitting in the open back doorway of the barn, listening to red-winged blackbirds and the sound of wind whistling around giant ancient posts and beams.
And I’m following a trail.
Returning to the fields that surround this barn, wide green space and wide blue sky, I think of The Farm School, in Athol, Massachusetts, where I spent so much happy time with Touchstone classes. (At The Farm School, the smells of the dairy barn took me to my other grandparents’ farm, across the river from where I sit now. Smell is like that, and memory is like that, circular.)
The Farm School’s programs for children are designed to give an experience of farm work (and wide sky, and kindness, and awareness of competence) to all kinds of kids. City kids, suburban kids, country kids. Kids who think with their hands; kids who make more sense in contact with animals; kids who figure anything connected with food is a good idea. Kids looking for adult role models who work outdoors; kids who just like working together with tangible results. All kinds of kids.
There’s so much to say about the Farm School, but right now I’m thinking especially of kids who became more vividly themselves in that place. True for almost every one of us; especially true for some.
Whenever I asked, “Do you want to make a video to share what’s wonderful about Farm School?” kids hollered YES! So that happened more than once.
The first video we made about The Farm School has never been put online, because of parental concerns about online exposure. Still, the DVD became a wonderful way to preview The Farm School, for kids new to the opportunity–in effect, a gift from the class who made it, to future classes.
The second Farm School video dodged the issue of online exposure for kids by starring a stuffed animal named Moosey, who worked and learned and played on the kids’ behalf. (He even played basketball, very memorably.)
In Moosey Goes to Farm School, the kids show up as a continually changing Moosey voice, which is all their kid voices, speaking lines they had written, over shots they had planned and staged.
Making each of those videos about The Farm School taught us a lot about the place and our experience there. We paid special attention, and thought really carefully about what we wanted to record and communicate. We all lived through the ridiculously long process of editing, watching shots again and again, deciding exactly what we wanted to say and show, exactly how to use tiny pieces of time, fractions of a second.
We were like cows re-digesting our meadow (well, sort of), taking what we’d learned and learning how to give it away. (I recommend that you just accept this metaphor loosely.) When you’re editing, you figure out, again and again, what your reader or watcher needs to know, and what he or she can be given to savor and consider. You do that by paying attention to what you need to know yourself, imagining the needs of someone who knows less to start with, and doing your own savoring and considering.
Gradually, you come to own the experience more and more. And In that mutual, slow process of our own savoring and considering–as in other aspects of the Farm School experience–we learned a lot about ourselves and each other.
That phrase, “ourselves and each other,” brings another thought. At The Farm School, I was a student along with my students–to a surprising degree, considering my background.
My mother’s parents bought this farm from which I’m now writing, as part of a mostly-forgotten back-to-the-land movement in the 1930’s, which was partly a reaction to the suffering, insecurity and instability of the Great Depression and partly anticipating the onset of World War II. Through the last of the depression, and through the war, they raised and harvested and canned enough vegetables for four families, every year.
On the other side, my father’s folks have been farmers, right here in this town, for many generations back–eventually leading to the kind of farmer with a PhD in horticulture, and influence on agricultural practice all over the world.
But I am the black sheep, the non-green thumb, the least capable gardener or grower in sight. I’m a little alarmed by cows, to tell the truth, and terrified of electric fences. Would I let that show? No way. At least I tried not to let it show. One way or another, my students were teaching me, if only by saying, “Come look at this!” Nothing could do more good for a student-teacher relationship.
But that process of learning together wasn’t just at the Farm School. Each year, the pre-Farm-School warm-up reached out into a new and different way of looking at agriculture. For example, an Usborne book about global agriculture helped us take a world view of ways of getting food. One group used the book to learn about rice cultivation, and made a model of a rice paddy.
In the spring of 2012, when Seth Mansur spent some time as an aide in my classroom, we took advantage of what he knew about new approaches to sustainable agriculture. Members of small groups who worked with Seth became knowledgeable about permaculture, about edible forests, about a method of field cultivation called chicken tractors. We became a sort of business incubator for new ideas about agriculture, young-adolescent-style, with the prototypes made in sculpey and found materials, for displays to teach the rest of the class.
Finally, in the spring of 2013, we bit off as much as we could possibly chew, possibly more, and we decided to make a video about the whole subject of Humans and Food. As usual, we brainstormed ideas, identified affinities, and separated into small groups to consider different topics:
- How did people get food before farming?
- How did people preserve food before refrigeration?
- What is intensive agriculture, and what are its consequences?
- How can small scale farms survive and thrive?
- How can non-farm families grow some of their own food?
The small groups taught each other by way of all the work involved in creating the video. For ground-breaking food philosophy as written by an 11 year old and spoken by a small cloth rooster, this is the video.
Each small group chose which of the classroom stuffed animals would be their spokesanimals. We had huge fun doing all this, but we were also pretty serious in our mission. This is all important to think about, we were saying in one way after another.
Sometimes I imagine a Touchstone think tank, where past and present students of every age (including the students who were officially teachers or administrators) get together to solve real problems facing our region, our country and our world. (Pause for a nod to David Sobel, who’s been advocating and encouraging this sort of thing for years, as a part of place-based education.)
We might begin by experimenting with some of the answers to these questions: How can we grow enough food for everyone, without poisoning our land and air and water? How can we reduce agriculture’s share of our fossil fuel gluttony? How can we take back our food supply from the giant corporations that now control it?
Why stop there? How can we all, as citizens, belong to ourselves, in dignity and responsibility and joy, in the way that Touchstone students belong to themselves?
This isn’t entirely imaginary. We aren’t all in the same place, but there’s a sort of virtual think tank gradually forming. I’ve already written about Marian Hazzard, and her efforts on behalf of Touchstone’s gardening program, including the chickens my class cared for. This year, a new batch of chicks matured to chickens at Touchstone, cared for by a new batch of students, with the encouragement of David Canter, the new Environmental Educator.
Meanwhile, several past students are enrolled in college level programs focused on sustainable agriculture, and others have gone through the Farm School’s farmer training program for adults. Several others are involved directly, this very moment, in helping small scale farms thrive. Here’s Addie Candib (whom I taught at Touchstone in about 1994) at Second Spring Farm in Rochester, Washington, where she’s also engaged in networking and advocacy for the farming revolution.
One alum wrote a book about keeping chickens, and at last report runs an organic feed store for people raising chickens in their backyards in Portland, Oregon. An alum parent wrote a widely popular book about keeping chickens in Massachusetts.
An untold number of current families and alums buy from Community Supported Agriculture programs, or from farmers’ markets.
Every one of these actions counts, and involves its own kind of learning.
So here’s the end of my thought trail: This isn’t just about farms or farming, or my own students and colleagues, or The Farm School, or Touchstone Community School. In a world full of ways to be discouraged, I remain hopeful about what can happen when people ask questions together, learn together, and plant seeds–of many kinds, literal and figurative–together.
Even the one with the non-green-thumb can wind up with something good to chew.