Jul 14 2015

Schoolyard Farms

Shortly before lunch at Schoolyard Farms' summer camp, Courtney Leeds and Brooke Hieserich decided to shake things up for a few minutes. The ten elementary-school-aged campers had just finished a snack of celery and tahini, in keeping with the day’s theme of stalks and leaves, and were energetically restless. In the field across from the farm’s raised bed gardens, Courtney and her farm intern, Nick Pfeil, had spent the morning broadfork-tilling rock hard soil in preparation for winter squash, and they desperately needed water and a gentler task. Brooke passed out tiny gardening gloves adorned with roses and told her campers that it was time to be farmers and help clean up three raised beds that were well past their prime. The beds, full of lettuce, greens, and herbs, had gone to seed in the hot sun and needed to be entirely removed.

As her fellow campmates stayed in the paths and reached in and yanked, camper Willow had a more creative idea. She clambered directly into the raised bed to pull out the lettuce that was previously out of her grasp. Even though Willow is lightweight and small, standing directly on the garden soil compacts it and crushes the delicate microbiology that exists out of sight. If the only goal of this garden task were to preserve the sanctity of the soil, I suppose Brooke could have removed Willow swiftly while firmly instructing her to stay on the paths. But Schoolyard Farms exists to encourage such creativity, and Brooke couldn’t help but laugh as she gently told Willow, “Usually we keep our feet in the path, not the bed, but I’m liking your style.” Willow remained in the bed to pull out the rest of the lettuce roots, neither reprimanded nor oblivious of her actions.

As education director for Schoolyard Farms, Brooke’s teaching style is full of gentle reminders, serious comments, and thoughtful questions. I first visited Schoolyard Farms in late April, when Brooke was teaching thirty minute sections for three 4th grade classrooms on radishes: how they grow, how they taste, and how they’re prepared. She took the time to recognize that each child would have different familiarity with the vegetable, encouraging the children to try it before making up their minds. Brooke introduced a catchphrase to help cement the lesson, and while it’s been over two months since I heard it, I’m willing to bet that many of the kids remember the phrase as well as I do: “Don’t yuck my yum!” To translate: if you don’t like the radish, but your friend is enjoying her piece, don’t loudly exclaim about how disgusting it is, or how much you hate it, or dramatically shout “BLECH!”

There’s a lot going on in those four words. They’re concise. They’re memorable. They’re kid-friendly. (So kid-friendly that several 4th grade boys started singing it while clapping and dancing.) Ultimately, the phrase is a lesson each child might reference in the cafeteria or while eating with family members, long after their thirty minute radish class – which is precisely what Courtney and Brooke want.

Throw a dart at a food magazine, newspaper, or morning show special, and you’ve got a good chance of hitting a story about school food, school gardens, and farm to school education, including movements and programs that promote “knowing where your food comes from”. Nationally, school districts can join the Farm to School network or sign up to be a Food Corps site. The Farm to School network was started as a loose collection of schools in the late 1990s and formally became a network and communication hub for schools across the country in 2007. Today, their website reports that farm to school programs exist in 44% of U.S. schools.

As part of farm to school education, states and school districts align with three principles: the creation of school gardens, the procurement of local food, and the development of education programs around such food. Some schools work with school garden programming exclusively, while others strive to connect with specific farmers and make difficult choices about vegetables and fruit that have to be distributed in cafeterias that might have inadequate facilities. Savvy food service coordinators divvy up their slim operating budgets in creative ways, buying local food at its peak (and thus cheapest price), or freezing or canning the produce for use year round. Many states have created intense, specific guides for procuring local foods, guides that include case studies while outlining specific steps and hurdles (like this one out of Vermont.)

Along with creatively stretching their food budgets, schools can apply for grants – both nationally and within states – to implement farm to school programs. In Oregon, specifically, the environmental social enterprise umbrella Ecotrust has built a handy “food hub” for schools to find local growers of specific vegetables and fruits.

While Schoolyard Farms isn’t currently part of a broader farm to school movement – Oregon City Public Schools doesn’t yet participate in farm to school programming – Courtney, who co-founded Schoolyard Farms in 2011 with fellow Zenger Farm alum Justin Davidson, is following the principles of farm to school education while working within the constraints of the school system. But she’s created an organization that’s unique in its scope: instead of creating a garden that’s run by the school system, either by a school parent or staff member, Courtney works as the on-site farmer. The school garden is a school farm, one that has farmers working in the beds and fields daily, tilling, planting, and harvesting. And instead of creating a standardized curriculum that might work at any school, Courtney’s created an organization and educational programming that’s both permanent and still manages to be flexibly site-specific.

After completing her Zenger internship in the fall of 2011, Courtney assumed she’d follow a path similar to those forged by other Zenger alumni and work at a Portland area farm, like Sauvie Island Organics or 47th Avenue Farm. Zenger wasn’t her first experience farming, but it was her first true exposure to the rigors of all-day agriculture. Those eight to ten hours of physical labor, the intensity of crop rotation and the knowledge required for soil preparation were still fresh in her memory as she sought out additional experiences and learning opportunities. Courtney is originally from the Bay Area and spent almost four years working as a corporate market researcher in San Francisco before the 2008 recession dictated she start “figuring something else out”, especially because, as she told me when we met in mid-April, “I was never one of those people who knew what I wanted to do.”

She began exploring opportunities to which she felt an intrinsic connection (a connection that she felt deeply, without necessarily understanding why – not unlike how someone feels when they meet a best friend or partner, or finds a religion that resonates with them). Following her gut led her to apply to a WWOOF position, which she describes as idyllic and unrealistic (“a bunch of young people sleeping in tents in this dude’s backyard. Wonderful!”). The Bay Area in 2008 and 2009 was, and remains, one of the the main hubs for conversations around local food, sourcing, and sustainability, and Courtney took notice of Novella Carpenter’s work in Oakland, while volunteering at San Francisco’s Alemany Farm and Little City Gardens. Courtney also spent six months in Peru, and though it didn’t go precisely as planned, she used her time there to study Peru’s version of urban agriculture, becoming even more enthralled with permaculture concepts and the potential for interconnectedness between environment and food.

This history of flexibility, adaptation, and a willingness to learn means that, to an outside eye, Courtney makes running Schoolyard Farms look like an easier undertaking than it actually is.

Schoolyard Farms is situated in an “L” shape around Milwaukie’s Candy Lane Elementary, a school located in the southern section of Milwaukie, close to the Willamette River and about a half hour drive from downtown Portland. Before Schoolyard Farms took over, the property had been farmed for several years by other farmers and their apprentices, the latter of which abandoned the farm midseason, too overwhelmed to continue. This was the “scandal” that brought the land to Justin and Courtney’s attention, as news spread around farmer list-serves and message boards.

When Courtney and Justin first visited, they saw a unique opportunity in the abandoned fields. They noticed the raised beds, high tunnel, greenhouse, and shed. They saw irrigation systems in place. They gazed at the neighboring school and began to think about the missing link between the surrounding environment and the food grown there. The previous farmers had run a for-profit CSA, completely separated from the raised bed school garden, and Courtney and Justin initially considered keeping things the way they were. “We thought we’d do a CSA farm, and then we thought: this could be so much bigger. We’ll circle the food back to the school,” Courtney recalled.

Connecting the dots between her previous urban farming experiences in San Francisco, Peru, and at Zenger, Courtney had learned that urban farming (or farming in general) never succeeds in isolation. Urban farming is most impactful when the farm is “working with institutions, [like] schools, hospitals, and jails,” Courtney explained. At Candy Lane, she and Justin decided to expand upon the standard school garden and garden education model. “Our vision is [to] make these school gardens sustainable. [To do that,] we decided to scale up. That way, we can sell the produce to offset some of the costs of running the farm,” Courtney elaborated. They would farm, they would sell vegetables, and they’d teach students about farming, all while becoming a permanent part of the school’s landscape and not a “flash in the pan”, as many school gardens often are, dying when parents or staff members leave the school.

Over three years after Courtney and Justin first saw the property, I gazed at the land as Courtney broadforked the soil. The farm existed in various stages of cultivation and harvest, swiss chard catching the light, tomatoes setting fruit, allium flowers tan and crispy, yet still ethereally pretty. In a lot of ways, Courtney is doing the job of at least three people. She’s the head farmer, the one who plans, who sows, who cultivates, harvests, and sells the vegetables. But, as the founder, she’s also the grant writer and visionary, constantly balancing daily tasks with a broader picture and message; she’s as accountable to her board of directors as she is to her CSA customers and Candy Lane Elementary. And she also must be the friendly farmer face that students and campers see and interact with. That hot Wednesday at camp, she gracefully transitioned from broadforking to harvesting chamomile flowers, happily suggesting that the children dry them for tea. Switching from solitary, sweaty work to gentle and inspiring conversation isn’t something that everyone could navigate so smoothly.

In the beginning, she and Justin grew starts on their windowsills, while learning about non-profit management and honing in on their vision. She and Justin weren’t able to immediately start working within the school system – regulations, paperwork, and meetings dictated that the process moved slowly. Instead, they began tackling the land, setting up an eight member CSA and making tiny inroads with students at Candy Lane. That first year, a teacher informally brought her class out to the farm, and that summer, Courtney and Justin ran a small camp, the campers recruited via word of mouth.

Courtney remembers feeling overwhelmed but pushed forward by this bigger opportunity and the potential of what they hoped to create. “We had no idea how to start a non profit. A lot of that first year was: what are by-laws? What are articles of incorporation? How do we do this?”, Courtney recalled.

It wasn’t until their second year that parts of their initial vision began to sprout, like early season peas poking through the soil while the other seeds remain beneath it, content to wait until outside temperatures are slightly warmer. A new principal arrived, Justin and Courtney attended staff meetings, and half of Candy Lane’s classes began visiting the garden and farm. Schoolyard Farms expanded their CSA to sixteen members and began selling at edge season farmers markets. Utilizing advice from Jill Kuehler, Zenger’s former executive director, Justin and Courtney began the process of creating a board (currently a diverse make-up of Portland food thinkers, including members from the Oregon Food Bank and Ecotrust) and formally took steps to become a nonprofit. Unfortunately, around that time, Justin became sick and had to step away from daily operations (he remains on the board and does all of the organization’s graphic design). Courtney farmed by herself in the hot mid-summer heat, scrambling to find someone to help with her vision.

That someone turned out to be Brooke. And together, she and Courtney make quite the team. Brooke and Courtney both seem to intuitively know how to thrive within the constraints of working in a school system and with diverse audiences without sacrificing quality or forgetting Schoolyard Farms’ vision. Each year seems to build upon the previous. This year, in addition to the series of classes that Brooke taught to students during the school year – classes funded by a Healthy Eating Active Living grant – the summer camp schedule includes three sections of the farm camp I attended, as well as three ecology camps. Brooke and Courtney’s shared goal is to foster curiosity in a farm setting, to familiarize children with what lettuce looks like when it goes to seed, to show that tomato plants are full of hidden treasures when you look into them, and that basil’s fragrance can be delightful. Schoolyard’s education is experiential and open-ended, constantly asking questions: What do you think? What does this remind you of? What’s your experience?

As Schoolyard Farms has started to truly connect with Candy Lane’s community via this more informal curriculum, they’ve also had success supplementing the school’s salad bar with their lettuce and cherry tomatoes, foods that can go straight from garden to kitchen without having to be sliced or prepared. These informal inroads have led to thoughts of adding replicable structure to their educational curriculum, structure that will allow them to expand this education to other elementary schools in the district.

Viewing Schoolyard Farms interconnected systems, and in particular its integration into several communities, reminded me of permaculture and its tenets. Permaculture is a form of gardening, farming, and cultivation designed to mimic and honor natural systems. “Corn-beans-squash” is perhaps the most easy, and I apologize, most overused, analogy: the corn stalks provide the trellis on which beans latch onto and grow up; the bacteria (Rhizobia) that live on the beans’ root nodules convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant available forms; the squash grows across the ground, providing a “living mulch”. Each plant fosters bacteria and fungus that work symbiotically, not competing for the same nutrients but rather requiring different amounts, at different times. Schoolyard Farms isn’t a permaculture site like Seattle’s Food Forest or The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. Yet, unknowingly or not, Courtney has created a nonprofit that follows many of permaculture’s twelve guiding principles, guidelines that include catching and storing energy and producing little to no waste.

Permaculture advises on “observing and interacting” with the land. Before launching into planting and fertilizing, permaculturists watch light and water patterns, observe environmental changes, and get a feel for the land throughout the seasons. Courtney has followed this idea, both with the land, and also with the surrounding community. She didn’t force an agenda at Candy Lane, or create a curriculum before she interacted with students and staff. Instead, she watched and observed, slowly adding elements when the time was right.

Another principle of permaculture is to “integrate rather than segregate”, which means to foster relationships that work together, instead of apart. This is the heart of Schoolyard Farms’ mission. Schoolyard Farms wouldn’t exist without its broader community of farm volunteers, supportive parents and staff, and engaged students and customers. As evidenced by the growing number of kids in the camps, and the beautiful shelter and cistern that were recently built beside the raised bed garden, funded by grants and donations, Courtney has dedicated significant time to connect with people and organizations that can help her in the future.

Close to the end of our mid-April conversation, Courtney talked about this potential impact. “We got a GIS (geographic information system) to create a map for us with the acreage of all the schools in Multnomah and Clackamas Counties,” she told me. The map showed that, on the edges of the counties, there are schools with 15 acres of property, acreage that could potentially be farmed. And this past March, she met with another Oregon City school that has a “perfect flat piece of land”. Ideas started tumbling out, as Courtney talked about entrepreneurial opportunities for middle and high school kids, such as running and managing a farm stand and expanding Schoolyard Farms within Oregon City Public Schools. I expect that some of these ideas will come to fruition, but they’ll come to exist slowly and at the right time, with the continued focus on the current environment they’re in, and the impact they can have there.

Permaculturists advise to “creatively use and respond to change”, meaning that one’s “vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.” This vision is Courtney’s biggest strength: she exists comfortably in the present, with an eye to building something even more impactful than what it is today.