student run community farm in portland, oregon

Student Run Community Farm In Portland, Oregon

Wed 26 Jan 2011

Story by Paul Hudak

I started working at Terra Nova High School in the spring of 2007, having moved to Portland after 10 years of living rurally and managing organic farms. When I first arrived at Terra Nova I thought, "Wow- that ball field would make a great student run farm!”

Our school is part of a worldwide network of schools called Big Picture Schools that focus on students’ interests and passions. Students at Big Picture Schools are encouraged to experience internships relating to their passions.

After realizing that Terra Nova would be a perfect place to work with students to start a farm as an on-site internship I approached, then principal, Gary Myers with the idea. With the full support of the Beaverton School District we set out trying to make this dream come true.

We spoke with folks at the Gray Family Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation, who we knew to have already financially supported the start up of environmental education programs here in Oregon. They shared the vision and agreed to help fund the program, initially for 3 years.

Along the way we have also received enormous grant support from the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps, another Oregon group that supports youth working on environmental restoration and sustainability projects. To help sustain the program the Beaverton School District gives primary support whilst other small grants and community donations and fundraisers help out as well.

Recently international touring act The Avett Brothers held a fundraising concert to support the farm that allowed us to set up a student scholarship program and allows paid summer jobs for students, not to mention enjoy an amazing show! See a review of this benefit here.

Our vision was to radically change the way learning is done through hands-on work on the farm. Two years later, we were growing over 300 varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs, including tomatoes, basil, corn, cucumbers, cilantro, potatoes and even kohlrabi! At the on-site farm, students run the day to day operations while earning credit towards graduation. Building community around the farm is of the utmost importance to us so we established a CSA and now grow food for 30 families.

Terra Nova students are involved in every aspect of the farm business. They decide which varieties to grow. Through mathematic calculations they figure out how much of each crop to plant to meet our customers needs. Students designed the irrigation system to conserve as much water as possible. They are involved in the garden fertility plan that involves testing the soil and then figuring out what organic amendments are needed to increase our soils health. And of course students are responsible for growing and caring for the plants, then harvesting them and passing them off to CSA members every week.

Currently, the Farm Crew earns credit in math, science, health, nutrition, language arts, PE and art by working on the farm. Students bring their own personal interests to the farm to make the program even more dynamic. Students have completed projects on medicinal herbs, beneficial insects, worm composting, and nutritional content of all of our crops. Basically if a student has a personal interest that relates to the farm, the teachers help them establish rigorous projects that, when completed, serve as learning tools for other students and our CSA members.

Of course when starting the program our students’ health was paramount to the entire concept. Having personally spent years puzzling over our country’s general disconnect from its food sources it was exciting to have the opportunity to work with youth in a program where such direct change could be made. We hoped to spur an interest in healthier lifestyles by giving our students ownership over the program and allowing them to experiment with growing and eating new foods. We have seen this exact outcome. Most of our students were unfamiliar with many vegetable varieties but only two years later, they are creating kale and collard recipes for our CSA newsletter. Recently we hosted a nationwide youth health symposium. The gathering attracted students, teachers, physicians, education policy advocates and farmers from around the country. For two days we talked about the importance of maintaining healthy lifestyles through diet and exercise within the context of an educational setting. This was an amazing and inspirational event for all. Terra Nova students even prepared the majority of the meals for the event from food grown on the farm!

Our biggest challenges have been the weather and the local deer. Until we raise enough money for a deer fence, we strategically plant enough so all can enjoy healthy eating . . . including the deer. The rain is another story. In the notoriously wet Northwest, we constantly pay attention to the weather and its effects on the plants, soil, and our schedule. We can set a plan in place but if the rains last longer than expected in the spring we need to make the necessary adjustments. Although difficult, it is ultimately a great learning experience for students in realizing the necessity to work with nature.

This coming season we are expanding to another ½ acre at a local community college. Also in the 2011 season we are increasing the amount of food provided to our school district's Nutrition Services Department. Last season we grew heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers that were served in school lunches district wide. This year we will add zucchini and lettuce to the list. What could make more sense than students growing food for other students to enjoy?

To learn more about the Terra Nova School Community Farm, please visit our student built website.

About the author: Paul Hudak is the Terra Nova Community Farm Program Director based in Portland, Oregon


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