Learning down on the farm: How it will work

As a part of the Ohop Valley Restoration Project, 3.5 acres around a former farm’s barn and farmhouse, were gifted to the Eatonville School District by the Nisqually Land Trust. The Land Trust and Nisqually Tribe led the project to restore the valley and Ohop Creek to its natural state and improve salmon habitat in the valley.
On the Kjelstad-Burwash farm site that was founded in the late 1880s, the school district will grow crops this spring and, beginning next fall 2017, will teach students about agriculture, the science of farming and restoration, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), sustainability, and other subjects that connect to the farm and surrounding land.
Tod Morrish is the program director and farm manager. In the following interview, he talks about the project and the district’s vision for connecting students to the land and healthy eating.

What is the GRITS program?

Morrish: GRITS stands for Growing Relationships In The Soil. The program is inspired by the Grub program out of Olympia. Students from Eatonville High School will apply for the opportunity to spend their afternoons out at the farmstead. They will learn about farming and natural resources through physical labor and teamwork. It’s an employability program that reinforces good work habits and positive interactions with co-workers and supervisors. Participants should come away from the yearlong program with the skills required to finish school, an appreciation of hard work, and a plan for the future.

Who will be in the program?

Morrish: While anyone who applies will be considered, the target students are those who just need to try something different. There are many challenges that face high school students, and sometimes a change of scenery and methodology are needed to boost self-esteem, improve social interactions, or simply to work out frustrations. Students will be chosen from their applications to interview for a position at the farmstead. In their interview, they will be expected to identify their strengths and challenges and demonstrate a desire to grow in both areas.

Will students earn credits while out at the farmstead?

Morrish: They will earn a science credit in Natural Resources, a CTE credit in Farm Management, and a P.E. credit based on the hours of physical labor and other activities at the farmstead.

What is happening now to get ready for next year?

Morrish: The district applied for and received a grant from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) that is allowing us to get started this year. The grant focuses on specialty crops. We chose to plant pumpkins so that the local preschoolers and kindergartners cancome out to the farmstead to pick out pumpkins for their October field trip. Some elementary school students planted the seeds at their schools last month and will bring them out to the farm to put them in the soil with the help of some middle school and high school volunteers. They will learn a little about specialty crops like pumpkins and will be able to show pride in serving others.

What is the expected crop production, and how will the crops be used?

Morrish: The purpose of GRITS is focused primarily on student learning and growth. Crop production is the vehicle for the learning and growth. Crop choice and farming methods will be led by the students. The goal is for a successful harvest that can be used in the school kitchens and local food banks, but this isn’t thepurpose of the program. We expect that the variety and volume of crops will increase over the years and become a reliable resource.

Who will care for the crops over the summer?

Morrish: We will organize some volunteers to keep an eye on the pumpkin patch. We’re expecting to incorporate a summer program the following year. There are several possibilities for a summer program, but we are hoping that the students who enroll in the school year program will play a major role, either through stipends or credits offered.

What are the facilities like out at the farmstead?

Morrish: Right now, they are a little rough. This is just fine with me, however. I was inspired by a clip I watched about a preschool where the kids are outside, rain or shine. That’s the philosophy we will have out at the farmstead. We’ll teach the kids how to dress appropriately for the weather. We’re hoping to even provide wet and cold weather gear to the students while they are out there.
One of the outbuildings is being shored up this summer. That will suffice for our indoor space. We’re looking at low-cost options for restoring the barn and some of the other outbuildings over time.

What attracted you to this opportunity?

Morrish: Over the last several years, I ‘ve noticed that students -- people in general, really -- have been losing their connection to what I think of as real life. We’re becoming so reliant on our virtual world that we are losing touch with the real one. This has resulted in a decrease in physical and interpersonal skills. It has become sort of a passion of mine to connect science with survival and farmsteading techniques. To me, this is the ultimate application science.
I can't think of a better confidence-booster than to know what a human being needs to survive and how to use available natural resources to provide for yourself, the community, and those in need. These ideas, coupled with the physical and psychological rewards of hard work, can be the cure for kids who are struggling to find their place in this world.

How else will the farm be used?

Morrish: We hope to host a multitude of field trips. These could be for all ages and subject matters. GRITS farmers would act as hosts and teachers during most of these field trips to practice communications skills and demonstrate what they have learned.
The possibilities are endless. There are many people with many ideas about what the farm can become. I hope that we’ll be able to make these ideas a reality. It’s vital that we partner with school district employees, community members and local experts in order to make this endeavor a success.


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