Posted by: Martin Fox | June 22, 2008

Prep schools reviving agriculture programs

I picked this article because it was so out of the ordinary. Most of the articles on this blog are pretty obvious in their reason for inclusion. I found this a refreshing twist on environmental entrepreneurship. Granted the Prep school gardens aren’t going to solve the world food crisis, but pretty cool stuff none-the-less.

Peace out – Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership and The Higher Road Initiative.

By KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press Writer

At St. Andrew’s School, where chestnut trees tower over the Tudor-style buildings and crisply manicured grounds filmed for “Dead Poets Society,” it’s a safe bet few of the future Ivy Leaguers plan to become farmers. Yet on the edge of exclusive boarding school’s campus, just beyond the tennis courts and soccer fields, sprout rows of green peas, sunflowers, zucchini and squash in a 2-acre organic garden tended by students.

Well-kept plots such as this have popped up across the country as dozens of upper-crust prep schools have revived agricultural programs, driven by the trends toward chemical-free and locally grown produce. Faculty at some schools that haven’t focused on agriculture in decades, if ever, now count farmers in their ranks, and the title “sustainability coordinator” is becoming common at schools that scrapped Future Farmers of America clubs long ago, if they ever had them at all.

“It’s actually pretty cool,” said Kai Xin Chen, 15, a sophomore from New York, who signed up to help this year with the St. Andrew’s garden.

“It involves more physical work than I expected,” Chen added, recalling her efforts in recent days to haul in peas that seemed to ripen faster than she could pick them. “I had to hoe! It’s so hard! My arms were, like, ugh. But it’s a good experience.”

Founded in 1929 in then-bucolic northern Delaware, St. Andrew’s once had a student-run dairy and required all boarders to help with farm work. But some time after World War II, students starting spending more time indoors, and student farming was abandoned.

Two years ago, students returned to the soil to experiment with growing organic produce for the dining hall.

The farm is also used for science classes.

Getting well-to-do kids a little more familiar with their food before it hits their plates is part of the idea, educators said.

“We recognized that students don’t know where their food comes from, what a squash looks like or how to dig a potato,” said Jennifer Wilhelm, sustainability coordinator at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Exeter is starting its first student-run garden this year, with potatoes, beans, corn and carrots on the menu.

Even elementary schools with little land are getting their hands dirty. St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s, a day school in New York, is finishing work on a rooftop greenhouse where students will start gardening this fall.

“We sort of regard it as a moral imperative,” said school spokeswoman Megan O’Hare. “It’s one of our goals to teach children to be stewards of our planet. And this is a great way to teach them a farm-to-table philosophy.”

School farms teach nutrition, too. At Scattergood Friends School, a Quaker boarding school in West Branch, Iowa, students have been required to spend several hours a week on farm chores since the school’s founding in 1890. Farm manager Mark Quee says Scattergood’s 4-acre garden encourages students to try foods they may not have considered until they raise them.

“They learn to eat differently. That’s our goal, to teach them to eat well and eat close to home,” Quee said. Scattergood’s farm curriculum is well established — students also raise grass-fed beef, lamb and free-range turkeys — but Quee says the agriculture program is not aimed at producing farmers.

“Mostly we want them to know, getting dirty’s OK, you know, chicken manure washes off,” he said.

If students know how food is produced, they’ll become healthier eaters and more aware of the environmental impacts of conventional farming, said Linda Halloran, garden program director at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a boarding school in Carbondale, Colo., which offers an elective called “Politics of Food.”

“There’s been so much more awareness on the sustainability issue,” said Halloran, who oversees student work crews that spend four hours a week tending the garden.

The campus garden trend, also seen on college campuses and public schools, is likely to keep growing, said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools. The group doesn’t have an exact count of prep schools adding farm programs, but McGovern estimated there are dozens.

At St. Andrew’s, sophomore Nancy Kim wants to be a scientist and is in her second year working on the school farm. She now eats green peppers and fresh tomatoes, foods she avoided before.

“I really like plants,” said Kim, 15. “Studying plants can help us depend on other things than the supermarket. We can’t live without plants.”

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