Kids ask, 'Can we bale hay for extra credit?'
At the Farm School in Athol, Mass., students from the city get their
Twenty-four sixth-graders and their two teachers are seated on a circle of benches in a small, rustic horse barn on a sunny Friday morning in April.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
This sharing circle for verbal snapshots is the culmination of three days at the Farm School. Some of the kids still have hay in their hair from a morning rumpus in the hayloft. Tired but happy, they laugh at one another's recollections.
Everyone is eager to speak: about the square dance last night, brushing Mac, the Belgian draft horse, milking the goats, making bread in the outdoor stone oven, building field stone walls, fetching eggs from under the hens, boiling maple sap into sugar.
And cow poop. Manure. They all talk about manure, which they have grown to love, or at least appreciate. After taking photos with the Farm School staff, the group piles into cars for the two-hour drive back to their homes in Boston.
For 1,200 schoolchildren a year, the Farm School plays the role of the family farm and adjunct classroom. Between the end of mud time in early March and the onset of frozen fields in December, Ben Holmes and his staff of farmer-teachers use this 130-acre hilltop farm in Athol, Mass., as a laboratory for a hands-on curriculum that connects children to farm life, the concept of land stewardship, and themselves.
The chemistry is simple: Kids work the farm and experience the immediate gratification of getting their hands in the dirt.
"In most families, kids are only a couple of generations away from farming - but that gap is widening and needs to be filled," says Mr. Holmes. "We need to remember where we came from."
Just three generations ago, 40 percent of the US labor force was involved in agriculture. Now it is just 3 percent. Though our food is raised on factory farms, by and large, our societal romance with the small family farm persists. The agrarian society is on the wane, but not agrarian ideals.
Holmes himself is one generation away from the family farm. His uncle, Perry Nye, still runs a dairy operation in Ohio with a herd of 200 cows. Holmes spent formative summers with his uncle, milking cows and driving tractors.
Then as a teenager, his neighbor Bob Weir landed him on John Perry Barlow's Wyoming cattle ranch. Mr. Barlow, the Grateful Dead lyricist, Internet visionary, and self-styled "cognitive dissonant" notes: "When I met Ben, he was a green kid from the suburbs who, despite his enthusiasm and great heart, had rarely touched the real ... or been touched by it. His experience on my ranch and Perry's farm changed him into someone who deeply understands the relationship between information and experience, and especially how a farm inhabits the holy space they share."
In 1989, after a couple of years of middle-school teaching in Cambridge, Mass., Holmes gathered a group of supporters to help him enact his vision for teaching through farming. The group comprised several educator colleagues, two farmers, a student, a few relatives, Uncle Perry, Barlow, and Bob Weir. They incorporated as a nonprofit and began the search for funding among individuals and foundations.
A two-year search for suitable land in Massachusetts brought Holmes to Sentinel Elm Farm, a small dairy farm on a beautiful high ridge in Athol. The Farm School Corp. took a long-term lease and started offering New England schools, public and private, three-day programs for their middle-schoolers.
Schools responded slowly but steadily; funding came from individuals and small foundations; the local community, in the depressed mill town, responded with curiosity. Uncle Perry donated several dairy cows to start the herd. Early school groups slept in the hayloft and helped paint the barn.