Agricultural education takes root in Valley schools

By REBECCA EVERETT – Daily Hampshire Gazette; December 11, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — At Crimson and Clover Farm in Florence, harvesting root vegetables is just one of many routine jobs as autumn creeps toward winter.

But for some Northampton elementary school students, the task was so new and exciting that on a recent field trip to the community farm, they couldn’t help but run into the fields to dig beets and carrots.

“The majority of them had never pulled a carrot from the ground, even though they’ve all eaten them,” said Hope Guardenier, long an advocate of incorporating agriculture into curricula.

As the founder of School Sprouts Educational Gardens and a co-founder of the Farm Education Collaborative in Holyoke, Guardenier has helped schools around the Pioneer Valley start gardens, demonstrating the lessons that can be gleaned while kneeling in the dirt between rows of vegetables.

“It makes the learning the kids are doing more motivated and authentic,” said Mary Cowhey, a math teacher who helped start Jackson Street School’s gardening program in 2009 with Guardenier and other teachers. “They’re not looking at the parts of a seed in a book, they can actually open a seed pod, open a bean pod, and see the parts.”

Almost all Northampton students have spent time in their schools’ gardens — Guardenier said the city’s four elementary schools have each launched gardening programs, although the garden at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School is not very active at the moment.

In October, students got to see food production on a bigger scale when they visited Crimson and Clover Farm in field trips sponsored by Grow Food Northampton. Grow Food is the nonpro fit group that purchased the farm


Anna Meyer, Julie Erickson, Chris Ryan and Liza McElroy harvest carrots as Jackson Street School students arrive for a field trip to Crimson and Clover Farm in Florence. The Agriculture in the Classroom program began in 1981, but there’s been a surge in interest in such programs over the last decade.

Almost all Northampton students have spent time in school gardens, but in October students got to see food production on a bigger scale when they visited Crimson and Clover Farm. Above, fourth-graders Emma Ostiguy, 9, and Alany Garcia, 9, are shown what the tops of carrots look like before harvesting them.

All around the Pioneer Valley, schools are teaching lessons on topics from nutrition and organism life cycles to the economics of food production. They are working with farmers to show students the world of agriculture and fresh food — a world that, only a decade ago, many of them would have just learned about in books.Guardenier said the first area school she worked with to start a school garden was Williamsburg’s Helen E. James School 10 years ago. Since then, she has helped more than a dozen schools till gardens and advised teachers as they found new ways to integrate the plots into their lesson plans. Many more schools have done it on their own, she said.While teaching about agriculture in schools is not a new idea — the federal government created the Agriculture in the Classroom program in 1981 when it feared the country was losing its “agricultural literacy,” according to its website — Guardenier said there has been an “exponential increase” in gardening programs in the last decade.Locally, the rise is due to factors such as concerns about healthy eating, appreciation for the Valley’s agricultural heritage and the popularity of the local food movement, she said.

Complementing the agricultural curriculum are local initiatives and state and federal grants that have propelled Farm-to-School programs in the area. The programs seek to source more food from local farms to use in school cafeterias.

According to Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom, 77 percent of public school districts in the state said they have a farm-to-school program.

“There is a real desire to see more of them in the Valley,” Guardenier said. “But it’s happening all over the region, all over the state, all over the country, this agriculture-based learning.”

Guardenier, who lives in Belchertown, first started working in educational gardening programs in California in 1999.

She moved to New England in 2001 to work on her master’s degree in environmental science, and introduced gardening into the curriculum at a homeschooling program where she worked. People liked the idea, she said.

“Ever since then, most of the programs that we’ve started have been because schools, parents or community groups reached out to me because they wanted these kinds of programs,” she said.

She believes the garden tilled on the Helen E. James School playground was among the first school gardens in the Valley. Easthampton’s White Brook Middle School started a large garden in 2003 and many other schools in Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst and other communities were close behind, she said.

Guardenier believes the many facets of agriculture-based lessons are why it has taken hold around the country. In a time when there is public concern about obesity in children, the fact that gardening encourages children to eat healthy food is a key draw.

“A radish won’t appeal to most kids, but if they grew it, they’ll try it,” Cowhey said. “There are a lot of things in the garden that they wouldn’t have tried otherwise.”

Mary Bates, a first-grade teacher at Jackson Street School, said being in the garden also gets children to be more active. “In the garden, they dig, they plant, they weed, they water. It encourages the outdoor lifestyle,” she said.

The benefits of hands-on learning in gardens or on farms is also becoming more obvious, Guardenier said. “Gardens are a living laboratory on site at the school,” she said.

Compared to a classroom, they offer a much more stimulating, multi-sensory environment for students to learn, Bates said. Math lessons about how to measure a perimeter and English lessons about writing nature-inspired poetry are all more exciting and memorable in the garden.

There are also more organizations and initiatives to encourage and support agriculture in the curriculum, including the Farm Education Collaborative, which Guardenier and two others formed in 2007 to encourage more on-the-farm learning, and Grow Food Northampton.

Grow Food and the collaborative have been working together on after-school programs at Crimson and Clover Farm for two years. Grow Food picked up the $3,500 bill for the Northampton schools’ field trips, and will also sponsor Holyoke students’ trip to the farm this week.

“We wanted to broaden access to the farm to a bigger population,” said Lilly Lombard, Grow Food Northampton’s executive director. “Especially to those in the region who haven’t had access to farms like this.”

“Our mission is to advocate for food security, and you can’t do that without promoting agriculture. We need to cultivate a crop of little farmers,” she said. “That’s where it starts, with exposure.”

Lombard said the farm is a different experience for the students compared to the small gardens they are used to. “They can experience the beauty of the farm, the scale, and there’s a lot you can’t grow in a 4-by-8 raised bed,” she said. The farm also has livestock, honeybees and other attractions, she said.

As the interest in this type of education has grown, so has funding support from groups like the Northampton Education Foundation and the Easthampton Learning Foundation, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Funding from the PTO and grants from the Northampton Education Foundation, Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Lowe’s, among others, has supported the creation and improvement of the Jackson Street School garden since 2009.

The garden now includes a greenhouse, raised beds, herb and butterfly gardens, dwarf apple trees and berry patches. Composting happens in bins on site.

Cowhey attended a Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom summer course on educational gardens that inspired her to cultivate the garden program.

Bates, Cowhey and a few other teachers weeded and fixed up an old garden once used by an after-school program and, with Guardenier’s guidance, started to take their classes out to learn in it. Within a few years, it became a part of the curriculum for every class at the school. Now, Bates and other teachers are working on writing a curriculum focused on the garden so that teachers there and at other schools will have lesson plans to use if they don’t have a green thumb.

“It’s been really exciting. It’s really transformed our curriculum,” Cowhey said.

In October, fourth-graders from Jackson Street school got to see food production on a bigger scale when they visited Crimson and Clover Farm in field trips sponsored by Grow Food Northampton.

Eliaz Robles, 9, a fourth-grader at Jackson Street School, is one of many area schoolchildren who are taking part in learning opportunities at area farms.

Alany Garcia, 9, a Jackson Street School fourth grader, harvests carrots during the fall field trip.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at

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