Learning to farm is a waste of time? I think not.

The Tiny Life is mostly a blog about tiny houses, but currently has a story up on whether kids should learn to grow food at school. There do seem to be small but growing efforts to introduce kids to where their food comes from. Here in Portland, there is an organization called Growing Gardens that, among other things, helps kids plant gardens at elementary schools to teach them about both gardening and healthy eating, but these are still tiny projects run by non-school organizations.

The author of the blog post lists several reasons why this is a great idea, but then concludes:

All of these reasons are certainly defensible, but at the same time I know we also need to be hunkering down on the core subjects of academia.  Working in the non-profit sector, I am working within the schools to solve issues that impact the bottom line.  We are in need of a change, of a plan that will take our schools to the next level to achieve a high quality education for all students, does gardening have a place in our schools?

What?!? Giving kids the skills to fend for themselves is great, but not if it means we need to take time away from drilling them in their math facts and their Civil War trivia? I get it. To be fair, this is the message we get from every direction every day, so the author of The Tiny Life can hardly be blamed for thinking this. (Open you local newspaper…or news website…or tv news channel…and find the first article on education. I’m willing to bet that the article implies — if it doesn’t overtly say — that we are in deep trouble because “standards” are “declining” and we’d all better panic).

Anyway, yes, yes, yes, gardening does have a place in our schools. For most of us here in the US, it’s easy to think that growing your own food is a fun pasttime, but is pretty much an extraneous skill, on par with say, playing a musical instrument, studying a martial art, or playing hockey. Food comes from the grocery store, after all. (And even if you know perfectly well that food doesn’t grow on delivery trucks, how often do you really think about where your food is coming from when you run down to the grocery store?) Meanwhile, we are dependent on fewer and fewer species and fewer and fewer huge conglomerates to provide us with all that food, and our food supplies are a lot more precarious than we think. (For more on this, see The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.) In the face of all that, I can’t help but think that we’d want to do anything we possibly can to build a diverse, local, highly distributed food system, at least to act as backup in the event of a major collapse in, say, corn production, which would wipe out, well, most everything you eat. In this scenario, no amount of calculus, or Civil War trivia, or facts about Shakespeare, is going to save your life if you can’t grow a few vegetables on that empty lot at the end of the block.

But leaving aside the doomsday scenarios, is farming really that extraneous to learning all those “core academic subjects?” Imagine you have a school with a working farm. Need to learn about Mendelian genetics? Go outside and plant some peas. Time to learn botany? It’s all right there; propagate some of your plants and run experiments on them. Studying nutrition? Nothing like eating the fresh of the vine tomatoes you grew to learn to like eating your veggies (okay, okay, so tomatoes are technically a fruit, but bear with me). Expand your farm a little to include animals and you can learn animal husbandry, too. Open a small food stand, and you can learn economics too. How many chickens should we buy to get the number of eggs we need to earn the most money? That’s an optimization problem. Now you can learn math too.

For most of us, this is a pipe dream (if we even buy that it’s a good idea), but I know of at least one place where this is exactly how the students learn. Dr. Montessori proposed that middle school aged students (12-15 years old) should ideally live together on a farm in a rural or semi-rural area, and should be responsible for maintaining the farm, operating a small store, and running a guest house (in which their parents could stay while visiting). Of course, most attempts at Montessori adolescent programs aren’t residential. Running a residential program is extremely expensive, and, at least in the US, there’s a pretty strong cultural bias against sending your 12-year-old away to boarding school. Nonetheless, the Hershey Montessori Farm School in Ohio is doing exactly that (though not all the students are residential). The students there really do live on a farm, and they really do learn about pig biology by raising pigs, and about engineering by designing a new bridge, and about household economics by managing their shared residence and preparing their shared meals. This is, sadly, not a realistic way to educate all middle schoolers, but how many people would have a slightly less miserable, and slightly more educational, adolescence if they could spend part of every day working in their school’s garden?

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