Kids ask, 'Can we bale hay for extra credit?'

At the Farm School in Athol, Mass., students from the city get their

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Breaking ground

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.

And all the schools that came once, signed up immediately for a return visit. The Farm School had found a niche in Athol and among New England schools seeking alternatives to the standard outdoor education programs in the region.

An eclectic assortment of farmers discovering teaching and teachers discovering farming have coalesced around the farm, now in its 10th year. Others who have caught the vision and joined the staff include an animal-tracking specialist, a forester, a stonemason, and a blacksmith.

Last winter saw a special snowshoe-making retreat, a timber-peg workshop, and a visit from a native American shaman. A community gardening program has drawn local families to the organic produce of the large plot planted and maintained by school groups. In the spring, kids collected sap and boiled it into maple syrup in the new sugar house. Shiitake mushrooms are getting started in oak logs in one corner of the forest.

The Farm School has become a bona fide diverse small-scale farm and a model for "hands-on learning," as educators call practical events in the classroom.

"We really used math," explained a group of students who had built a corn crib constructed of timber harvested in the woods and dragged down the hill by a previous group with the help of Mac, the horse.

A seventh-grader wrote: "It was really cool being at the Farm School. I learned a lot of cool stuff like how to make a debris hut, how to replace radiator hoses, how to tell chickens and roosters apart from their tail feathers, what silage is, and ... well, a lot more."

There is something authentic about this "classroom." Second-graders and juniors in high school alike are affected by the chores and projects, though the intellectual connections vary in sophistication.

For kids from the inner city, the altered perspective can be much more fundamental: "Where are all the people?" asked an 11-year-old from Boston's Fenway Project. He was feeling the stark contrast between a neighborhood with gun-toting peers and this quiet hilltop where, for the first time, he could see stars unaccompanied by subway trains outside his bedroom window.

Older students can understand the economics of milk production, a cost-benefit analysis of raising chickens versus pigs, or a deep reading of nature writers or the poetry of Donald Hall.

Everyone looks forward to their next opportunity. Kids are building the new office space, at the back of the bunkhouse, out of Farm School timber. They'll finish the interior with authentic horsehair plaster and hand-split the granite for the stoop from massive field stones.

Practical matters

Though the response from its regional school clientele is overwhelmingly positive, Holmes is more down-to-earth about the leadership realities of his maverick school. Faced with the same operating cost shortfall as any independent school, he also lacks the traditional funding pool of an alumni or parent body.

And the tuition varies from school to school. Holmes has cobbled together funding to enable visits from schools that cannot fund themselves - in many ways the most important audience for the experience.

But it's hard to put a dollar figure on lives transformed, as evidenced in a letter from one public school principal: "Even where the specific task at hand was not 'entertaining,' the students recognized it as part of a larger and necessary whole. So many felt the newness of the space and the contrast to their usual urban perspective. They came back mellow, some genuinely changed and virtually all eager to return. You have successfully avoided the moral high ground and, in the absence of that lecture, children really discover for themselves whatever truths lie in the simple reality of meaningful hard work."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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