Photograph by Chaunce M. Shrewsbury. GRITS Farm Pumpkin Field and High Schoolers working on a new Duck Pen. Todd Morrish can be seen on the far left.
Photograph by Chaunce M. Shrewsbury. GRITS Farm Pumpkin Field and High Schoolers working on a new Duck Pen. Todd Morrish can be seen on the far left.

A mile down Kjelstad road sits a quaint farm precured by Eatonville School District in 2016 and repurposed as an outdoor learning environment and alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar classroom settings.

Kjelstad Farm, now known as the Growing Relationships in the Soil (GRITS) Farm, became an Eatonville School District (ESD) program during the 2017-2018 school year. The district was gifted the 3.5-acre plot by the Nisqually Land Trust in 2016. Through the legal efforts of ESD Superintendent Krestin Bahr and the ESD board, classes began full-time in the fall of its first year.

The program provides physical education, science and career and technological education (CTE) credits for ninth and tenth grade participants. The credits are earned in an outdoor setting through farm management, natural resources curricula and construction projects.

With over 20 years of educational experience, educator Tod Morrish heads the program. Morrish taught science for 17 years at Eatonville middle school before teaching biology and natural resources at the high school.

It was during Morrish’s stint at the high school that the idea for GRITS came to fruition.

“[I’d] always thought of a more unique idea of teaching science,” Morrish said in an interview with The Dispatch. “Krestin (Bahr) is really cool about allowing big ideas to take place. Instead of ‘I don’t know’, she always takes the time to explore what we can do.”

The district sent Morrish to Garden-Raised Bounty (GRuB) trainings when discussion began about obtaining the farm. GRuB is a non-profit organization, “working at the intersection of food, education, and health systems to grow healthy food, people, and communities,” according to their site.

Already teaching natural resource science through a survivalist and homesteading perspective, Morrish integrated GRuB’s relationships-based programming around growing and preparing food, to create a unique curriculum. Morrish, however, continued teaching science with an outdoor proponent in the classroom for a little while longer.

Morrish stated that the kids’ eyes would just light up when they saw all the cool things they could do outside during their outdoor projects.

“I was thinking, man, if I could get those guys out there (on the farm), I could really connect with them,” Morrish said. “And get them to learn some science and things just through some of the things we [would be] doing.”

Morrish returned to teaching middle school for a year expecting the farm to be in the “dream-phase” for some time.

“I went back to the middle school for a year thinking the farm was going to be way off,” Morrish said. “When I got there, it was like ‘hey, do you want to do the farm next year?’ and I was like, yes!”

The new opportunity allowed Morrish to fully implement an outdoor curriculum. Morrish says he named the new program “Growing Relationships in the Soil” after what the program attempts to accomplish.

“Growing relationships with people while we grow relationships with the environment,” Morrish said. “It captures really well what we are trying to do.”

Learning to work together, how to communicate and accomplish things together are the biggest focus points at GRITS. Morrish says the program is really project based, forcing students to confront each other in a healthy way.

Time in a different environment, outside, gives students an opportunity to settle and discuss life issues says Morrish.

“Out here I get time to really find out what’s going on with kids…” Morrish said. “I really cherish that ability to really get down to the nuts and bolts of some of these kids of what’s going on.”

Students struggling with school, whom want a change of pace, or are just interested in being outside, getting their hands in the soil and who are looking to evaluate and grow are encouraged to apply.

“The target audience are kids that want to try something new or different or need to,” Morrish said. “A lot of the kids that are attracted to this program are kids that just feel caged when they are in a classroom. They just can’t take it.”

Morrish added, “Anyone can apply.”

The GRITS program’s first year followed the GRuB program’s focus on sophomore students. In 2018, however, Eatonville School District shook up the program to include 7th and 8th grade students from the middle school and 9th grade students from the high school.

Focus shifted during the second year from sophomores to freshmen. Studies show freshman year as the most impressionable age for many youths. Students continuing from freshman to sophomore year will likely fill leadership roles Morrish stated.

Middle school students spend their first two periods at GRITS farm Monday through Friday and high school students spend the second half of their day: 4th, 5th and 6th period.

This year’s student count for the program was 58, the most since the program began in 2017. Each student is provided jackets, gloves, boots, tools and academic materials.

“It’s really starting to flourish,” Morrish said. “Every year it’s just getting better and better.”

The farm itself continues to improve as well through various projects the students have completed. A storage shed is currently underway, cement stairs have been installed and the pumpkin patch is being improved where the kindergarteners pick their pumpkin each fall.

Benches and a goose pen were recently built by high schoolers and a mobile chicken coup is being designed by middle schoolers.

Green houses have been built and Morrish plans to grow edible greens this year. Plans are in the works for fruit trees as well.

Joining GRITS this year is Corrine Lucas, paraeducator. Lucas joins for her expertise in writing grants, gardening, composting, and organizational skills. Lucas brings with her, Pepper, a registered therapy dog.

“I’m developing some fun project that we’re moving forward on,” Lucas said. “I’m just so excited that it’s spring time and I’m ready to get things planted in the dirt.”

Lucas is working on the red-worm composting project, helping build a local herb farm with the high schoolers and is compiling a history of Kjelstad Farm for students to share with family and friends.

During an interview with the Dispatch one student stated, “I love being outside and learning things that I can’t learn from a classroom.”

Morrish added, “I get to escape from the classroom and so do they.”

Morrish states that building builds confidence. Learning to build, grow, work as a team and accomplish something helps build these students into people who will have a good impact on the people around them, he says.

“I realized how important it’s always been for me to teach kids to get along and have a good impact on the people around them,” Morrish said. “So that’s a major focus out here and it’s just fun to be able to do that. I really enjoy it!”