More Than Just a Lesson in Agriculture

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Massachusetts Ag in the Classroom and 4-H
by Amelia Mason • Photography by Michael Piazza

The rooftop garden at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Boston looks a lot less exotic than it sounds. Tucked into a corner of the elevated concrete sprawl, it does little to temper the heat rising off the asphalt, or to soften its urban surroundings.  In fact, it is less a garden than a small collection of plants in squat cement boxes on a big city roof, just a little touch of green in all that gray.

But to call it anything less would be to diminish the hard work of its creator, third grade teacher Lai Lai Sheung, and her challenges of building a school garden. Thirteen years ago, the Josiah Quincy garden was nothing more than a handful of empty concrete bins scattered around the roof, waiting for flowers and ornamental shrubs. In a moment of inspiration, Lai Lai decided to pack the containers with soil and move them into two neat rows—an improvised elevated garden trough. Then, with a $600 grant from Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom (MAC), she purchased the supplies for her fledgling garden, which she and a group of volunteers planted on a single day in 1997.

Since then, that handful of soil-filled bins has been joined by a rock garden, two compost receptacles and an ever-expanding arsenal of gardening supplies and equipment. Naturally, Lai Lai and her students have run up against certain limitations over the years: Vegetables have proven rather high-maintenance for a group of third-graders and one teacher, and the small containers cause trees and shrubs to stop flowering after a few seasons. Yet Lai Lai and her students seem undaunted by the difficulties posed by their unconventional garden, growing everything from apple trees to Swiss chard and peanuts. Lai Lai has tailored her entire biology unit to the garden, finding the hands-on nature of such a curriculum invaluable for teaching observational and critical thinking skills.

Although it was MAC that kick-started Lai Lai’s early efforts, the garden would not have been able to expand, or even survive, without other kinds of support. Over the years, Lai Lai has enlisted the efforts of several nonprofit organizations, including the Boston-based Plants Across Communities, as well as numerous agriculture professionals in the greater Boston area who donated time, supplies, advice and expertise. Lai Lai acknowledges that all this was made easier by MAC’s initial gesture of support: “Once you get one grant, it’s easier to get other grants.” Thirteen years later, Lai Lai is a fixture in the community, and her garden continues to grow.

In many ways, the Josiah Quincy rooftop garden exemplifies the vision of Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom. The small nonprofit began in 1982 as an unfunded mandate from the United States Department of Agriculture, and was originally intended as an umbrella organization for agriculture education programs in Massachusetts. What emerged from this ambitious beginning was a considerably smaller organization with a more modest goal: to provide teachers in Massachusetts with the tools and resources to incorporate agriculture into their curriculums.  MAC’s initiatives are designed to make the most out of little; the mini-grant program, one of its most successful ventures, has aided hundreds of educators in their efforts to create agriculture-based programs. Since the maximum grant award is fairly small—only $1,500—most grants are meant to help teachers jump-start school gardens or similar projects, with the hope that, as was the case for Lai Lai, these projects will gain community support once they are established.

Whether they’re on a rooftop or in a field, school gardens seem to inspire a kind of zealous creativity in the teachers who tend them. Bill Cassell, a third-grade teacher at the L. D. Batchelder School in North Reading and MAC’s 2007 Teacher of the Year, has built an innovative curriculum around the mock Colonialera farm he planted in the fields next to his school. At the end of each year, his students plant heritage corn, beans, squash, potatoes and wheat, which the next group of third-graders harvests in the fall. Their first challenge is to figure out how to thresh the wheat; this simple problem-solving activity has given birth to some ingenious threshing inventions, including a hand-operated machine based on a Lego design, and an electric thresher made from an old snow blower. In the spring, Bill’s biology unit includes lessons on crop rotation and nitrogen fixation, and, in keeping with the historical theme, he employs an old Wampanoag farming technique: corn, beans and squash planted in clusters, with the corn stalks acting as beanpoles, and the squash keeping out weeds.

In 2006, Bill used money from his MAC mini-grant to plant a small apple orchard, inspiring a lesson on the historical origins—and mythical dimensions—of Johnny Appleseed. It is the potential for discovery and surprise, says Bill that makes the garden useful across so many academic disciplines: “It takes a child’s natural curiosity, [and] gives them an opportunity to explore in areas that they haven’t before.” The result? Most recently, his students discovered that kernels from heritage corn do not pop, disproving the widespread myth that the Pilgrims had popcorn at the first Thanksgiving.

Bill Cassell owes the success of his school garden in large part to the many MAC-sponsored workshops where, as a frequent participant, he learned what kinds of crops work best in an academic setting and how to grow them. The most popular of these programs is MAC’s Workshops for Teachers on the Farm, a summer long series of one-time workshops at farms across the state, designed to give teachers in-depth knowledge of specific agricultural practices, like maple sugaring or composting, that they can easily bring back to their classrooms. MAC also offers a scaled down version of the summer program at its Annual Winter Conference, where teachers have access to a full day of workshops at a single location. Both Bill Cassell and Lai Lai Sheung, now MAC veterans, have been workshop presenters themselves.

“What I’m seeing now,” says MAC’s executive director, Debi Hogan, “is that those people, who we gave a little bit of money, have become these wonderful mentors for other teachers.” According to Hogan, there are at least 1,000 teachers all over the state who, like Bill and Lai Lai, have benefited from MAC’s programs and continue to lend their support. She hopes to have their help with MAC’s new project: a series of agriculture-related lessons for every grade level, made available for free online. It might not sound like much, but the story of Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom is not unlike the story of Lai Lai’s garden, or Bill’s farm: With a bit of creativity, and a lot of help from friends, they hope to make a little go a long way.

 

At the other end of the spectrum from MAC is Massachusetts 4-H: If MAC is the scrappy newcomer, then 4-H is its venerable great-uncle. The national 4-H organization was founded near the start of the 20th century with the goal of making public school education more connected to rural life and agriculture, and with the secret hope that the young farmers it produced would be more open to technological advancements in agriculture than their elders.  In its modern incarnation, 4-H is a youth development organization with programs in areas as diverse as engineering and drug prevention—“4-H” stands for “head, heart, hands and health”—although agriculture education remains central to 4-H programs in almost every state.

The Animal Science Program is the most popular 4-H program in Massachusetts, and its biggest agriculture-related initiative.  Members of 4-H animal science clubs get hands-on experience with everything from companion animals like dogs and rabbits, to livestock and poultry, to the ever-popular horse. Most clubs are geared towards competition at animal and livestock shows at county and state fairs, where entrants are judged on their grooming skills and tested on their knowledge of animal physiology and health. Yet the animal science program, like all 4-H programs, operates on a small, local scale, and the focus and direction of each group can vary widely from one town to the next.

Although 4-H livestock clubs have traditionally been dominated by cattle and poultry, Massachusetts’ fastest-growing animal program is the Goat Project. Ellen Gould, who runs a 4-H goat club at her home on Sisters Three Farm in Mendon, describes her family’s decision to raise goats as a mixture of convenience—goats are relatively inexpensive and space-efficient—and a desire to have a “functional hobby,” as she puts it. (The Goulds make cheese from their goats’ milk.) Ellen’s enthusiasm for her animals is transparent. Standing in her barn, engulfed in the musky warmth of 30 full-grown does and their kids, she rhapsodizes briefly on the virtues of goats: “I just love their personalities.  They’re really sweet. They’re almost like dogs—they know their names.” Her 4-H club members share this feeling, she says, and it motivates them as they learn to care for their animals and prepare for competitions. Plus, she adds with a laugh, “they love winning.”

Although Ellen is mainly concerned with teaching her students the practical aspects of goat care—how to milk them, what to feed them, how to determine their value as milk producers and breeders—the lessons go far beyond this. If you ask Ellen, one of the best things her young charges learn is “the value in hard work.” Perhaps more importantly, the goat club is a learning environment with real, meaningful consequences. If a goat gets sick and dies, she says, her students are better off for it: “They learn that death is a part of life.”

Ellen Gould is not alone in this belief. If there is virtue to be found in the unforeseen and sometimes brutal consequences of teaching agriculture, then educators will find it. “Crop failure,” says Bill Cassell, “is as much of an educating experience as crop success.” Both Bill and Ellen, like so many educators in Massachusetts, view agriculture as a tool for teaching a variety of life skills, rather than just biology, or animal husbandry, or farming.  They recognize that the hands-on aspect of agriculture is uniquely suited to teaching problem solving and critical thinking. And the fact that the life of an animal or even a plant is at stake can be a powerful motivator for students who might otherwise find it difficult to focus or be patient.

The implicit goal of organizations like MAC and 4-H, of course, is that youth learn something about the origins of their food. School gardens like the ones at Josiah Quincy Elementary and the L. D. Batchelder School give urban and suburban children the unique opportunity to plant, tend, harvest and eat their own crops. Often, these school gardens expose students to sustainable agriculture practices—both Bill and Lai Lai are conscious of their impact on the environment, avoiding pesticides and artificial fertilizer, rotating crops and, in Lai Lai’s case, composting.  With 4-H, county fairs put youth in direct contact with the Massachusetts agriculture industry, and members of the animal science program gain a familiarity with livestock that is rare among Massachusetts residents.

All the same, it may be impossible to measure the precise impact of a school garden, or a pet goat, on a child’s lifelong attitude towards food. There are no standardized tests, no scientific studies showing that agriculture education produces better eaters or more conscientious consumers. Yet the people at MAC and 4-H labor in the firm belief that any contact with agriculture in a child’s life, no matter how small, is better than none. Neither organization exists to create farmers; instead, their programs are intended to benefit the local agriculture industry by expanding its reach to non farmers. This, in turn, has a positive impact on the wider community: “When you support your local farmers,” says Debi Hogan, “you’re supporting the whole community. You’re supporting the people that work there, you’re supporting the food they produce. You’re supporting the gorgeous vistas, and the character of New England.”

More to the point, says Hogan, farms are good for the environment: In Massachusetts, where farms tend to be small, crop diversity keeps the soil healthy and farmers are more apt to use sustainable practices. Their farms protect the watershed, preserve the local habitat, and create a space for biodiversity. In fact, the farming culture in Massachusetts remains surprisingly close to its Colonial roots: Farms are usually small-scale operations, many are family owned, and business is conducted locally. It might not sound like much. But it’s a legacy that MAC and 4-H, along with thousands of educators across the state, hope to pass to the next generation, in whatever small ways they can.

Amelia Mason was an English major in college and now works in the foodservice industry to support her writing habit. She lives in Cambridge and plays in a band. You can reach her at amelia2631@gmail.com.