Farm School Lessons and My Stubborn Optimism

It was about five years ago, in the winter of the 2014 – 2015 school year, that I started a school garden where I teach. The idea came from a conversationwith a small group of students who, it quickly became clear, had little understanding of where food comes from. While I’m no expert and have no formal training in agriculture or horticulture, I had more experience than they did in how to build, plant, grow, and harvest. Due in part to those facts, and also to the facts of weather and funding, we’ve had ups and downs, successes and failures. And lately, it has seemed like the time to seek out people who know better about these things than I do and to bring some of that knowledge and wisdom back home.

So last week, I drove up to Nauvoo, Alabama for a Farm School workshop at Camp McDowell to learn more about how to run my school garden. Though I’d known about Camp McDowell already, I had never been there before. I had childhood friends who went in the summers, and around Montgomery, it isn’t uncommon to see one of their bumper stickers on a Volvo or SUV. As a Gen-Xer who never went to camp, I’ve always been a little wary of these places, since my conceptions about them have come from movies like Meatballs and Friday the 13th. Thankfully, my experiences last week bore no resemblance to either.

The particular appeal of this workshop was that it was taught at a farm school, where a dedicated staff not only take care of both crops and animals, but who also teach students and campers about what they do. Though they’re operating a much larger scale, that’s essentially what a school garden sponsor does. There’s the work of caring for the plants and animals, and then there’s the work of explaining the processes and products to students. That second part is the kicker for a guy like me with no real training.

Though I did learn a few particular methods and tactics that I can use in my work, the greater truth that I learned at Camp McDowell’s Farm School involved the need to think like a farmer, not like a guy tinkering around outside. So far, my administration method for the garden has been to ask students, “What do y’all want to do?” Of course, they don’t know. That’s why they’re coming out to a school garden: to find out. Inevitably, my well-intended laissez-faire attitude has meant that I’ve created problems that I would never tolerate in my classroom: indecision, spotty participation, delays, missed opportunities. There’s that old saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” That has been me. But, as we walked around the farm, at one point surveying 10′ x 40′ vegetable beds, at another feeding and milking goats, later discussing differences in composting methods, I noticed farmers Scotty Feltman and Andrew Shea doing what I never do in my garden: measuring, taking notes, reviewing outcomes, employing a method. What I realized that I need for my school garden is to make a plan and implement that plan, showing students how to measure progress and success so they can (hopefully) replicate results.

One of my goals with this sustainability effort at my school is demonstrating how the inconvenience of “going green” – small-scale gardening and urban farming included – is not as great as some people might assume. Once you get into it, it’s more a matter of skill than talent. What I want my students to focus on are the ways to accomplish the task, rather than the perceived reasons that the task seems difficult or even impossible. During our last meeting, Andrew Shea told us that farming is about deciding what to plant then creating conditions that both cause that crop to thrive and deter pests. That’s good advice for anything in life, not just farming.

If a person has some measure of humility, he can watch a professional go about a task and realize just how much of an amateur he is. I went up to Nauvoo hoping to be humbled, and was. I’m proud of having built a school garden program out of six raised beds (and no water hookup) on an unused patch of gravel, and also of rebuilding an even larger garden in a new spot, but became clearer last weekend that I’ve outgrown a reliance on stubborn optimism and need a better approach moving forward.

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