The winter rain has stopped for the moment. But it’s left its mark, as students from Ford Middle School will soon learn.
They fan out across saturated rows of cabbage planted in a farm field near Midland. One boy’s boot becomes mired in the mud and he needs help to pull free.
Their assignment: sketch a leaf and answer questions about plant habitats.
A girl stops to explain the leafy sketch she’s making: “It’s like — the veins and stuff.”
“This is not a test of your artistic skills,” teacher Matt Price reminds the eighth-graders. “It’s a test of your powers of observation.”
The garden plot the students are exploring is owned and operated by the Franklin Pierce School District, which bought the property in 1970 for $44,000.
Over the years, the property at 96th Street East and Waller Road has been used for a variety of district programs, sometimes suffering from benign neglect.
In the past few years, it’s undergone a renaissance, coming into its own as a producer of food and education. A little over an acre of the roughly 10-acre property is cultivated.
“This is our fourth or fifth year of working it and trying to bring it back,” says Sly Boskovich, director of college and career readiness programs for the 7,700-student district.
Students from Ford earn science credits at the farm, while students from the district’s GATES (Greater Alternatives to Educating Students) alternative high school can earn science and career and technical education credits through the farm program.
Ask students what they like about the farm, and they say they enjoy being outside and doing hands-on projects.
GATES student Alejandro Ortega said that when he was making up his class schedule, he sought out the farm.
“I asked for a class that didn’t have computers in it,” he said.
GATES classmate Liz Strong loves science and gardening, so the class is a perfect fit for her.
“I like going outside and gardening,” said Strong, who cultivates a tabletop bonsai garden at home. “This stuff really interests me.”
Students from several of the district’s elementary schools visit the farm, where they learn to plant crops. At harvest time, there’s a big payoff: Some of the produce shows up on their school lunch trays.
The farm produces a variety of foods: cherry tomatoes, apples, carrots, salad greens, beets and more.
Lisa Chatterton, director of nutritional services for the district, said she’s eager to use whatever fresh food the farm can provide.
If it’s food the kids helped cultivate, that’s a bonus.
“We try to let them know that, ‘These are farm potatoes,’ ” she said.
Chatterton said the farm operators let her know when crops are ready to be harvested, so she can adjust what she orders from outside vendors.
“The farm can’t give us everything, but it can make a dent,” she said.
Food produced on the farm also helps feed the community.
A collaboration between the school district and Harvest Pierce County lets community members volunteer on the farm in exchange for a share of the produce. They also learn about sustainable agricultural practices.
Food produced at the farm also goes to local food banks and a senior citizens lunch program.
Price, who previously worked for the Pierce County Conservation District, is in his second year of teaching at the farm.
“It’s such a unique property and unique opportunity,” he said. “It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Price said his goal is not to turn every kid who enrolls in his classes into a farmer.
“The farm is a case study where a lot of things can meet,” he said.
It’s a living laboratory, with lessons to teach about everything from economics to ecosystems to earth science.
“We’re teaching environmental science through agriculture,” he said. “It’s the scientific method on a large scale.”
Franklin Pierce Farm’s 2016 season
Pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables shared with food banks and school district cafeterias
Number of students visiting the farm daily
Grant money received through the Dropout Reduction Through Agriculture Grant and the Healthy Kids Grant. Money was used to remodel a barn, install a washing station and walk-in cooler, upgrade and repair a greenhouse, purchase rain gear, boots and tools for students and more
Number of volunteer hours donated over the February-November season