By Patricia Pantano for Tumbleweeds Magazine Dec., 2010
Food. Who can live without it? It is said that civilization has its roots in food production. The development of writing, law, geometry, mathematics and science accompanied the growth of towns built around ancient agricultural centers. Today, agriculture remains a potent cultural force and learning tool.
At Camino de Paz School and Farm, a Montessori program for grades 6 to 9 in Santa Cruz, New Mexico, food plays a central role in the curriculum. Greenhouses, pastures, gardens, sheep, goats, chickens and horses provide the context in which the students apply their skills as mathematicians, writers, scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and citizens of the community. The food they raise with the help of farm interns is eaten by the students and their families, sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market and distributed through a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture), and what is left is preserved and stored.
In the first months of the school year, as winter approaches and the last tomatoes, corn and onions are harvested, it would seem that the farm is winding down. But our need for food never diminishes, and with the rhythm of the seasons, the farm-related work continues.
One of our most time-consuming tasks is drying, shucking and grinding the blue corn crop. The students calculated that 40 percent of the weight of the harvest will result in usable kernels, which are ground into corn meal. “Everything we do has a mini-lesson built into it,” says Desirae Orr, an eighth-grade girl.
Thanks to a system of hoop houses, the students grow food throughout the winter. A hoop house, basically a small greenhouse, is built with rebar, PVC piping and plastic sheeting. The vegetable beds are covered with a row cover, resting on short wire hoops. In the morning the hoop house doors are opened and the row cover is pulled back, exposing the plants to sunlight. In the afternoon the row cover is replaced and the doors are closed, allowing the heat from the soil to warm the plants. We grow lettuces, spinach, arugula, chard and other leafy greens this way. The students help plant the seeds in the starting trays, keep them watered and transplant them into the beds. They record the number of plants seeded and diagram each bed to determine crop rotation in the next planting cycle.
One math class is projecting the harvest based on the square footage of planted beds, to gauge market sales. “It makes me feel as if we’re doing something actually meaningful with math,” comments Desirae. “We can say, ‘This is the problem we solved, and these were the steps we took to get to this conclusion.’”
Another ongoing weekly task involves using the goat milk to make cheese and soap. Every day the goats are milked and production is recorded. Milk that is not consumed right away is made into cheese or pasteurized and frozen to make goat-milk soap. These activities combine math, measurement and chemistry. Since the soap is sold at farmers market, there is also a good bit of business acumen involved, recording inventory and determining which soaps sell best. According to seventh grader Olivia Jones, “These are actual, real jobs. They could even be used to help us start a career someday!”
Although the hens’ egg production diminishes somewhat in the winter, there are still eggs to gather, clean and put into cartons for sale at market. The students responsible for this job also graph egg totals and calculate egg sales.
Teacher Bridget Love believes that these activities around food “help us all understand the costs of food production and see more clearly the choices we make as consumers.” It also brings home the fact that a significant way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to eat locally.
The sheep provide the students with wool, so there are unlimited opportunities to use it. After it is washed, dried and carded, they use the “bats” to make felt and fashion it into objects such as bags, hats, potholders and rugs. Some wool is sent away to be spun. Using plants grown on the farm, the wool is dyed in shades of brown, yellow and green; other natural dyes like cochineal, indigo or madder result in blues, reds, oranges and purples. These yarns are woven, knitted or crocheted into items also sold at the farmers’ market booth.
Caring for the sheep, horses, goats and chickens seems to engage the students in an exceptional way. “You learn that each animal has its own particular needs,” observes eighth-grader Tui Perrin.
The birth of lambs and kids in February is a source of joy and wonder. The students begin preparations by assembling a kit with towels, mats, gloves and iodine. When a pregnant doe is showing signs of labor, they watch and wait patiently in case their assistance is needed. If necessary, one or two students at a time will help the newborns get clean and dried and make sure they have a chance to suckle within the first hour of birth. “I used to have this idea of separation: people – animals. Now I feel closer to animals and more connected to life,” says Olivia. “It’s a really great life experience,” adds Sasha Baca. “We might want to raise our own animals some day.”
A particularly powerful activity is the harvesting of chickens and an occasional lamb or goat. Taking the life of another creature is no small undertaking and as a culture we are far removed from this responsibility. The meat we eat generally comes neatly wrapped in plastic, ready to pop into the pan or oven. Yet the connection is an important, if not primal, one. It also becomes a living history lesson.
The students are involved in animal harvesting only by choice. The process begins with a ceremony that honors the animal and expresses gratitude for its giving its life. Once the animal is killed the work of gutting and cleaning begins. In discussing this rather unusual aspect to the curriculum, the students have no shortage of things to say.
“I think it’s really interesting,” says sixth grader Reyes Mason Muller. “It was amazing to see what was inside the animal, how the organs work, how it breathes, its reflexes … everything.”
“I can’t handle the actual killing,” admits Mahalia Bohsali, “but I don’t mind helping to gut it. It’s a good thing to learn where food comes from – the old fashioned way, not in a factory – and if more people had to do it, there’d be more vegetarians.”
“It really raises your awareness of death,” adds Sarah Gonzales. “Animals die for us every day so we can have food, but we usually don’t think about it.”
“Yes,” remarks Ben Hanna, “it shows the imbalance between the number of animals killed by people and the number of people killed by animals.”
Early adolescence is a critical time for establishing identity, building self-esteem and exploring social and economic life through achievement that is real and meaningful. The richness of a food-centered environment and its related activities compel students to practice cooperation, critical thinking, problem-solving and ethics on a daily basis and to learn from their mistakes. Desirae sums it up like this: “This is so much more than learning from a book. I feel more knowledgeable in general, more well-rounded and more tolerant. We learn how to do a job well and, if it’s unpleasant, it raises our level of resilience. I feel a lot happier!”
Because of significant biological and neurological changes, early adolescence is a time during which the teen is open to a rich variety of influences. The intense interaction with animals, plants, adult mentors and peers that the farm work requires calls the students to not only apply math, science and language skills, but also to take responsibility, exercise judgment, make value-based choices and practice social skills. It is also fertile ground for meaningful dialogue to process these experiences:
“How are we going to get these sheep to pasture? Who leads? Who herds?”
“When you fool around during feeding time, I’m left to do the job by myself.”
“I really appreciate how you showed me how to milk faster.”
“How can we take such good care of an animal and then kill it?”
“How can we not honor an animal who has given its life for us to have meat by NOT eating it?”
These interactions that result from their work go beyond our expectations of what teens are capable of and build community among the teens at a time when their whole being is focused on “Where do I fit in? What are my skills and talents? How am I of value in the community?” The activities of a farm allow them to explore answers to these questions. In fact,
the result is a striking self-confidence manifested when students give tours, engage the customers at the Farmers Market booth or speak at conferences.
Patty Pantano is …