A 100-Acre Classroom

Growing up, you probably didn’t give too much thought to your school cafeteria’s grilled cheese, but the students at the Hershey Montessori Farm School know all about their sandwiches. From the field to the lunch table, students at this school in Huntsburg are with their food every step of the way. About 50 middle school students—coming from as far as Australia and as close as Shaker Heights—attend the school on nearly 100 acres of wooded land in Geauga County. Half are day students, and half live on the campus, which includes a working farm. Learning through hands-on experience is a distinct part of the Montessori school model.

“We were the first farm school in the country,” says staff member Rachel McKinney, who serves as supervising adult for farm operations. “Marie Montessori believed that adolescents need to work with their hands as much as their heads. We consider the whole 100 acres our environment, not just the classroom.”

While the school is not entirely self-sufficient in its food supply, what they grow is impressive. About an acre is divided into plots that grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, potatoes, onions, leeks, dill, garlic, sage, bok choy, spinach, broccoli, and five or six successive plantings of lettuce.

McKinney explains that teams of two take turns tending to the farm on any given day, just as they take turns preparing food and doing other chores around the farm. In early afternoon on this particular day, no students are in the farm area, which includes a barn with goats, horses, cows, and cats, a chicken coop, and a bio-shelter. They’re up in the woods dressed in period costumes, doing a historical reenactment. We never had this much fun in high school.

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Growing and preparing food is only one of the many projects called “occupations” in which students learn by tending to the needs of the property.

“We did a food preservation occupation, preparing for the winter, canning,” McKinney says. “We raised a cow to slaughter.”

Students also learn about the circular economy of the food system by doing things like running a small CSA, and supplying milk from their goats and cows to Lucky Penny Creamery in Kent. The dairy in turn provides cheese for the CSA. They also tap maple trees and make syrup, which they sell.

“We have a micro-economy as part of the school system,” McKinney says. “We have a pancake breakfast for the local community. The money goes back into the land for seed and grain for our two horses. We try to use as many local resources as possible.”

Like a true farmer, McKinney ticks off the successes and challenges of the year.

“We had a good year in the garden. We produce many of our eggs and have been eating healthy quantities of winter squash. We battled some summer rains and late blight on tomatoes, which was discouraging, but were able to can some whole tomatoes and salsa,” McKinney says. “Peppers grew fabulously, as did greens and summer squash. Cucumbers also did well and so did cabbages. A few parents were excited to make sauerkraut.”

Plans for the 2015 season include moving around a new pair of piglets in order to clean out the beds. She also plans to rebuild the chicken coop to make a healthier environment for the laying hens.

“We have three student farm managers this year who have been helping to improve and take care of animal and garden needs,” McKinney says. “It is fun to work with an engaged and motivated group of students. We are always working toward our goal of providing as much fresh, healthy food as we can.”

To learn more about Hershey Montessori visit Hershey-Montessori.org, call 440.357.0918 or attend their next Visitors Day on May 4th.