What does it take to bring food from the field to the table?
What does it mean to work hard?
Is it okay to eat the meat from an animal you once called by name?
Is the easiest way the best way, and what are the consequences of either path?
What are the next questions?
Welcome to the grade 9 farm trip, where students strive to answer these questions and more. For some SWS students, the questions have been arching toward the light for many years, planted on farm trips in grade 3 and grade 6. The answers come gradually, pulled by an unrelenting rhythm of hauling and shoveling, spreading and planting, feeding and moving, milking and harvesting.
Before the trip, the Class of 2022 watched the movie Food, Inc. and considered how the business of food weaves into their daily lives. Then, for five days, they camped and worked at Happy Valley Farm on Whidbey Island, caring for the animals and each other, sometimes well, sometimes wearily, sometimes happily, sometimes resentfully. Morning chores were followed by breakfast, then by farm projects or service trips to neighboring farms. In the evening, students completed another round of chores, then dinner, then a group activity.
“There are these daily rhythms,” farmer and SWS science teacher Jay Freundlich says. “You’re looking at how the life forces engage.”
During the day, most of the cows head for the pasture, where their feet knead the soil as their manure enriches it, and where they snack on patches of greenery. The students head for service projects, where they graze for knowledge—learning to heap manure and soil into mounds for squash; pruning invasive blackberries and holly to make room for native roses, maples, and dogwood; staining boards for a new fence; and erecting the frame for a new gate. The work follows what gardening teacher Dr. Charlotte Rasmussen sees as “the sense of rhythm on the farm—doing the chores in the morning and afternoon, and doing those bigger things they need to do during the day.” When the projects are done for the day, a couple of students relax by—no kidding— splitting wood.
“Mocha is in your FREEZER?” one student exclaims in dismay, upon learning that the adorable calf she met when she was in grade 6 is no longer a resident of Happy Valley Farm. Calves are born every year—that’s why the cows produce milk—and there’s a reason the male calves are given names of foods. Most of them will be sent to the butcher when grown, but there’s hope for Garbanzo, a fairly small male who may become the farm bull. “If he stays the size he is now, and he can get my cows pregnant, Garbanzo may stay on the farm,” Freundlich says, noting that he wants the herd to comprise cattle of modest size to help ensure students’ safety.
The farm’s current calf, Babe, was born to Buttercup. Babe is female, destined to reside in the herd and not in the freezer. She proved to be a crowd-pleaser for the grade 9 visit, but she had to share favored animal status with the nearly 100 lambs born to the flock of meat sheep grazing in a nearby field of a neighboring farm. Difficult conversations ensued: Would the lambs be slaughtered? Yes. When? “It needs to happen when they’re around seven months old,” says SWS teacher Tim Morrissey, himself a farmer, “or the meat gets too tough and muttony.”
Students on every trip milk the cows, and the spiral of child development can be traced through the questions the different groups ask about the process. Grade 3 students “ask questions about the calf—‘How come the calf’s not drinking the milk?’” Freundlich says. When students reach grade 6, their attention shows awareness of the reproductive cycle. For students in grade 6, he sees a focus on “how they were taken care of,” relating their own infancy to what they witness in the calves’ connection with the cows. In grade 9, students’ awareness makes another leap, asking questions about what will happen next to the calves, and how long the cows can continue to produce milk. “The ninth graders have more of a sense of the future than of the past,” Freundlich says.
If you ate soup at last fall’s Michaelmas celebration, you enjoyed fruits of Happy Valley Farm. This year’s grade 3 students, who planted veggies at the farm a year ago, returned last September to harvest them. “When we went to the farm, it was about the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of life on the farm,” says Rasmussen, who teaches gardening to students in grades 2, 3, 4 and 6. She’ll return to the farm this week with the same group of students. For Rasmussen, who holds a masters in biochemistry from Dalhousie University, a Ph.D. in genetics from OSU, and worked in conservation genetics for more than a decade, teaching gardening offers an opportunity to integrate outdoor learning and classroom lessons.
“I love teaching science through gardening,” Rasmussen says. “No matter how small you get to how big, things are interrelated. I love that there are so many interesting questions out there.” After Memorial Day, Rasmussen will return to the farm with grade 6 students, and she and Freundlich will punctuate the farm work with bicycle trips into the surrounding Whidbey community. The outreach projects will connect students to the greater community, but the trip will be grounded in their presence at the farm. “They do the chores, and there are some projects, but they are also going to Good Cheer,” a community food bank and garden, Rasmussen says. “It’s more about thinking about the community as a whole.”
To glean means to gather food from fields that have already been harvested. In ancient times, leaving some fruit on the vine for the poor to gather through gleaning was a moral mandate. We often use the word to describe the process of gaining knowledge in non-traditional ways. For two days on the farm trip, grade 9 students left Happy Valley Farm for other Whidbey Island projects, clearing and planting at Good Cheer’s garden, learning about organic seeds at Deep Harvest, and digging deep into farming practice at the Organic Farm School located next to Happy Valley Farm. It was on these outings that the lessons of the farm work—of taking responsibility for what you start, of being a caretaker of creation, of producing food in a way that respects the soil, of raising food animals with compassion—came into focus.
At an age when many students are adopting their own dietary mores, whether related to fitness, sustainability, or animal rights, the farm trip offers powerful lessons. For grade 9 students, “there’s more of a sense of ‘What does it take to produce the kind of food you want to eat?’” Rasmussen says. To be sure, there are complaints about all that manure, outraged claims about the work schedule, grumbles about why a weed wacker would be a better choice than a scythe.
But during an evening circle, there is also an explicit expression of gratitude for the work of the farmers of Deep Harvest Farm. And after heaping a dozen tarps with muddy, manure-soaked straw and hauling them from the fields, one grade 9 student turns to our guide at the Organic Farm School and says, “Thank you for the work you do, and for letting us share it with you.”
There are so many more questions—about food insecurity and social justice, about industrial food production and its environmental consequences, about how ethical farming practices can feed a growing planet. These students are ready to ask the questions and dig for the answers. Surely no trip to the grocery store will ever be the same.
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