The farm-to-school movement has been gaining ground lately as advocates encourage administrators to bring more local food into school cafeterias. But at Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, eating locally goes beyond farm-to-school: for this small college-prep boarding school, it’s farm-AT-school all the way. And now they want to do more.
Founded by local Quaker settlers in the mid-19th century, Olney grew from the soil of the four farms donated for the campus’s use. Over the years, working farms and gardens on the campus grounds have supplied the school’s dining hall with fresh vegetables, fruit from the orchards, and a variety of grass-fed meats. At a recent summit to share and discuss ideas about Olney’s future, I learned that many people see their past and present tradition of connecting local agriculture to the school as a way to bolster the school’s financial situation as well as attract a new audience of students eager to learn more about sustainable agriculture. Meanwhile, we enjoyed plenty of the school’s bounty, including a variety of rich dark leafy greens worked into a handful of dishes, plus fresh crisp apples.
During the summit, I took a tour — perched on a hay wagon towed by the school’s largest farm tractor — of the farm acres surrounding the heart of campus. Head farmer Don Guindon, who’s a graduate of the school, and head gardener Sandy Sterrett, who’s an experienced local CSA farmer, led the exploration from the Taber Farm, a former dairy farm (the dairy herd was sold in 2007) that offers 125 acres of tillable but very hilly land, to Twenty Acres, a windy hilltop that formerly housed an orchard planted with plums, peaches, pears, cherries, and eleven varieties of apples. They hope to replant this orchard in the near future. Closer to the main school building, we found two gardens with some vegetation dying back, pockets of greens still flourishing, and chickens foraging in between.
Guindon’s father, Cliff, the former head farmer, believed strongly in following the ideas laid out by Louis Bromfield, including Bromfield’s recommendations for crop rotation, plowing to reduce soil loss, pasture plantings, cover cropping, and rotational grazing. In addition, composting all of the leaves collected in Barnesville along with vegetable scraps from the school kitchen and manure from the school’s herds has added to the campus’s soil fertility, improving it steadily from when the land was acquired. Practices such as these have been well-noted and rewarded: in 2003, the school was designated as Ohio’s “Farm Family” of the year, and in 2006 the school received the Ohio Dairy Producers Environmental Stewardship Award. (Ohio-based newspaper Farm and Dairy provided a good glimpse of the farm activity at that time.)
Farm work doesn’t stand in pastoral isolation from the school, though. Olney teachers often connect the curriculum of their various academic fields to the work in the literal fields surrounding campus. This year, two Humanities classes planned and maintained their own gardens: Humanities 9 developed a traditional Victory Garden, using World War II-era resources to determine their plantings, and the Humanities 10 class, looking at early American history, planted a “Three Sisters” garden focusing on the Native American trinity of corn, beans, and squash. Chemistry and environmental studies classes regularly collect and analyze soil samples from gardens and fields, providing ongoing data for the farm. Students also become involved in animal husbandry, helping to care for the goat herd and, in the process, learning to care for others. (Abby Chew, a Humanities teacher at Olney, explored this connection in a recent Friends Journal article.)
To round out the historical view of farm life at Olney, alumni present on the farm tour recalled happy memories of picking apples, milking cows, and participating in other farm work during their school days, and the tour concluded with the opportunity to help plant garlic for the coming year. (As I had just finished doing that for my own boss, I gladly put my newfound “expertise” into service.)
As with most farmers, Guindon and Sterrett have ideas about what more they would like to see happen with the farm. Sterrett, a longtime produce farmer, would like to increase produce production — and thus the amount of produce supplied to the school kitchen — but at this time there is insufficient storage space, either in refrigerator or root cellar, to make this plan feasible. Plans for replanting the orchard also depend on this. (New planned construction on campus does include a large root cellar specifically for this purpose.) Both would like to grow more small grains such as oats, and they plan to fix an existing combine this winter in order to move that plan forward come spring. The EQIP funding offered to farmers this past year has allowed the school to make plans for a new hoop house that would allow winter harvesting of salad greens and green onions as well as early seed starting.
The strength of the school’s connection to the farm provides Olney with a valuable asset for increasing both enrollment and revenue. Ideas considered by summit attendees included expanding the herd in order to promote local grass-fed beef and pork (processed by a butcher in Barnesville already) both at home and as far afield as Columbus and Cleveland; developing a sustainable agriculture program for post-high school students; establishing a local food processing facility to encourage value-added food production; and operating an Olney Friends School CSA. These ideas come from only one of three key themes being discussed in regard to the school’s future, and no definite plans have been made to advance any of them yet, though Olney staff and faculty will develop more detailed proposals in the months to come.
At a time when other schools are just beginning to find ways to work small amounts of local food into their cafeteria offerings, it’s heartening to find a school that has it figured out — and has done so for years. As Sterrett and Guindon both noted, Olney is a great place for students to get close to the source of their food, by helping to grow or raise it as well as to help prepare and savor it. And with plans to expand this connection between farm and school in the future, Olney looks ready to lead the way for other schools to educate our youth on the value of agriculture in our lives.