A Garden in Every School. A School in Every Farm

School gardens are a nationwide phenomena stretching back more than 20 years, beginning most famously with Alice Waters’ Edible School Yard in Berkeley. So you would think academicians should know by now if raising vegetables on school grounds can change student eating habits.

Apparently they don’t. Which is why the National Institutes of Health has awarded nutritionists at the University of Texas more than $3 million to study the garden effect on elementary school students. school2

One of the schools in the Texas Sprouts study is Decker Elementary, which neighbors Green Gate Farms. Two years ago, much to my delight, its students actually walked to our farm for a school tour. They got exercise AND a taste of organic food in the same trip.

Unfortunately, there are few farms like ours for schools to partner with. Which is both sad and ironic when you realize that most schools are built on land that was once farmed. As cities grow, the farms are pushed further out; they become quaint relics of an era that seemingly has no connection or relevance in our modern lives.

When I worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 15 years ago, understanding and controlling the spiraling obesity epidemic became a top priority. Back then, the possible benefits of linking farms to schools was never considered. Farms were so far down the food chain no one thought about inviting them to the table. Or maybe there wasn’t any room left once Big Food broke down the school doors and put their products in every hallway.

The year I left my job there,  CDC brought Michael Pollen to its campus for a high-profile obesity summit. They invited representatives from every stakeholder in the food system to pick his brain for two day. Everyone, that is, except the person who actually grows the stuff they had built their professions on. One of my proudest moments was crashing the meeting and taking a seat. My official job at CDC was speechwriter for the director but I introduced myself as an organic farmer.

Because of our education mission and close proximity to the city, Green Gate has been fortunate to partner with numerous schools as they grapple not only with obesity and lack of exercise but nature deficit and food illiteracy. Through the Sustainable Food Center (SFC), we have sold vegetables directly to schools (farm to school). We have hosted schools at the farm so students can incorporate their curriculum into the farm experience (school to farm). We’ve also partnered with the Dell Medical Hospital’s obesity prevention program to introduce adolescent patients, their parents and nutritionists to meals that include fresh organic vegetables (farm to hospital or prescription farming, you might call it).

More than one quarter of public schools now have gardens but they remain a niche rather than the norm, especially in low-income school districts. And surprisingly, only a few randomized controlled trials have studied their benefits. Smaller, less rigorous studies, such as SFC’s Sprouting Healthy Kids intervention have shown multiple benefits, including increased consumption of vegetables. The Sprouting Healthy Kids intervention consists of six components, three of which our farm was involved in — farmers’ visits to schools, taste testing, and field trips to farms.

As government-funded research slowly teases out the benefits of school gardens, a handful of innovative teachers are taking bold steps beyond the garden and into the farm.school

Today, for example, we had ninth graders from the Waldorf School for an orientation before they spend next week here absorbing themselves in the farm life. Tomorrow, fifth graders from the Austin Jewish Academy will be doing the same but taking their school-to-farm program to the next level: making the farm their classroom for an entire semester of Fridays and incorporating their subjects into the holistic and organic systems a sustainable farm depends on. And next week a dozen students from Tulane University will spend alternative spring break at our river farm.

From elementary school to university, the farm serves the students and students serve the farm. They experience hands-on learning that stimulates all the senses, that breathes fresh air into an education system that too often is as stifling, predictable, and sterile as the over-built environment in which it resides.

If what school gardens give students is a healthy snack, the farm has the potential to give them a full meal. Its time for NIH and CDC to get their heads out of the weeds and look around. There’s a whole new field out there waiting for research.



The Flood This Time

It happened two years ago on Halloween. And then it happened again this Memorial Day. And now it was happening once more — Halloween 2 and another cruel trick from nature gone mad.

River viewed from farmer's barn. Crested just five feet below 500-year floodplain
River viewed from farmer’s barn. Crested just five feet below 500-year floodplain

Frankly, I’m tired of breaking records. Worst drought. Worst wild fire. Most rain. Highest river levels. These aren’t the kind of records a farmer wants his land to be breaking.

It begs the obvious question. Central Texas is ground zero for unbridled growth in this country. Could the same be true for climate change?

Two weeks ago, after four months without rain, our farm was a dust bin. Here in Bastrop we were caught up in wild fires – another perverse replay of the state’s most disastrous wildfire four years ago. Today the Colorado River is lapping at our back door and we’re watching crops and top soil wash downstream.

Is nature trying to tell us something? Or is nature just acting itself — indifferently following its immutable laws?  Yet here is the difference. Humans have entered into the equation big time. Both in numbers and behaviors, we have become a force to be reckoned with; we, too, have a hand in all these broken records.

The farmer knows this better than most. He watches in horror as soil runs off the dirt roads he travels day after day. Dust in the wind. Mud in the river. Undisturbed land doesn’t have this problem.

The farmer living on the river sees the big picture up close. The river doesn’t hide or lie. Like an obedient pack mule, it quietly hauls off all the man-made mess of stuff; here and there it leaves evidence at the farmer’s footstep: a hoolahoop dangling from a banch, a plastic tarp wrapped around a stump, plastic bottles littered like stepping stones across his flattened fields.

Hoolahoop snagged in treetops. River crested at 37 feet.
Hoolahoop snagged in treetops. River crested at 37 feet.

Once again, the farmer feels lucky. He didn’t lose his home or his livestock. What he did lose is another layer of confidence in  human nature’s ability or willingness to slow down and ask the hard questions.

If, indeed, we are entering a new Age of Extremes, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to expect the unexpected. Yet how can one reason with the tricks of nature in distress; if recent history is no longer our guide, where is that solid ground we consider “normal” and base future decisions?

What do you say to one of your employees who lost her house the first Halloween flood, only to watch it happen all over again exactly two years later? Or to another employee whose family business was flooded in the Memorial Day flood. The store finally opened a few weeks ago and there they were throwing sand bags around it as the waters rose on Lamar Blvd in a perverse trick of déjà vu.

People are getting more than tired. They are getting scared.

A Bastrop friend canceled a long-awaited vacation overseas because she expended so much psychic energy watching the Hidden Pines fire attempt to repeat history. She had rebuilt her home after the 2011 Labor Day fire and wasn’t about to watch it burn down again. The fire may have succeeded if the winds were blowing a little stronger.

Closer to home, the farmer’s neighbor watched his newly expanded corn maze business get swallowed by the river. This spring’s Memorial Day flood grabbed half his goat herd. Yesterday it came back for the rest.

Barlett Hill Farm's corn maze and buildings under water.
Barlett Hill Farm’s corn maze and buildings under water.

“You just keep going on. One step ahead of the other,” he told the television reporter.

But what if those steps are headed in the wrong direction?

Maybe broken records is what you get from a broken system.

If so, fixin’ time is running out.










This Old Shutter

Farmers are notorious for their frugality.

New is anathama to them, a drain on their
hard-earned income and often inferior to what they replace. Old and used are

Imagelike lost friends, shouting for a second chance.

This makeshift kitchen in our barn is so crowded with lost friends I can barely move. The doors were pulled out of a remodeled mansion in West Lake. The clay bricks beneath my feet were hauled out of an abandoned field across the road. They sat stacked beside the barn for years, waiting for their resurrection.

The sink was found in an old warehouse before it was torn down. The wood-frame windows came from an auction at a Wimberely Farm ($20 bucks a piece whittled down to $15). The countertops were headed to the landfill when a friend remembered we were building a house.

The list goes on and on. Even the table I am writing on was abandoned by another friend who sold out to developers and couldn’t fit it in his U-haul headed to Ohio. Half of old Austin, it seems, is being demolished or renovated, waiting for cheapskates like me to breathe new life into its castoffs.

The cypress shutter that fills in the gap between two windows (also given to me) is my favorite find. An antebellum mansion just off South Congress was sold recently and I arrived late to the auction. Wandering off limits, I peered inside a dilapidated shed out back. It had recently housed chickens, but under a mound of loose hay was buried treasure — the green cypress shutters that once protected the windows — and privacy — of this three story home. As I pushed away moldy straw and cobwebs to assess their condition, the auctioneer caught me poking around.

Are they for sale, I asked innocently?

She was so tired from a thousand questions she simply nodded and said $50.

“Isn’t $50 a piece a little steep?” I asked.

“No, that’s for the whole pile. But you need to take all of them.”

Which is what I did. Eagerly. Voraciously. More than 20, some 8 feet long, all still working, including the one in this kitchen that makes me feel like I’m connected to a sliver of ruined aristocracy.

That mansion was sold to a California couple, for what I’m sure they thought was as much a steal as these shutters. Still, I felt guilty removing them. They were custom-made for this house, one of the first to be built on the south side of the river.

My guilt did not linger any longer than I did after I loaded up my van. This entire house was going to be remodeled – with new windows, undoubtably.

Besides, no one has use for old shutters anymore, except interior designers.IMG_0485

And farmers, of course.












Autumn, Early Rising

Autumn, Early RisingImage 6

My river rising with morning mist

Must vanish into that vast blue above

But here in its lingering I see:

Liquid dance of phantom skaters

Autumn’s lips kissing sweaty skin

Summer’s heat finishing the race

Like hot thoroughbreds cooling down.

My river bowing to the South

And from the South upstream flying

An eagle’s sun-dipped wings

Silent clapping


Farm Dating

At 4:30 on a Sunday morning the farmer was taking a hot bath. He had
wrenched his back and couldn’t sleep from all the stress and pain the endless summer season had thrown at him, made worse by the six stitches in his right thumb.

Here in the rustic bathroom of their makeshift barn was not the place he expected to find inspiration. Yet there it stood just a few feet away; a simple wicker basket — for holding toilet paper no less — had finally found its intended place after 12 years of sitting unused on a shelf.

Image 5This was no ordinary toilet paper container. The farmer had bought it from an Amish family setting up their wares on the edge of Kenyon College. Back then the farmer was still a writer, and farming was still a dream. Writing about farming for Rodale’s New Farm magazine was getting him closer to making that dream a reality. Going to conferences, like this first national meeting for farm-to-school pioneers, was the peak of his farm dating phase.

The main attraction of these sustainable farming conference were the farm tours. These farms were carefully chosen, like models for a fashion shoot, and he fell in love with each and every one of them, photographing and writing about them in rose-colored light.

There in Ohio, amid the Amish buggies and rolling hills so reminiscent of the Pennsylvania farmlands of his youth, he became love-struck. The wicker basket, its strips of ash woven and decorated by hands that loved their work, seemed an odd yet perfect metaphor for sustainable farming. He brought it home and was delighted that his wife placed it on the kitchen shelf; she also found it too beautiful to sit next to a toilet.

That’s why this morning it took him by surprise. After 10 years of farming everything had lost its luster and appeal, including this basket. Amid the chaos of moving to this second farm, his wife had put it there, unnoticed until now. Finally, this totem to simplicity, this garland from the farmer’s romantic period, was filled up with three rolls of toilet paper.

The farmer’s thumb still throbbed.The bathwater was losing heat. His back felt welded to the tub. Was it possible, he wondered, to experience that infatuation again, that over-the-rainbow anticipation of the dream so close to becoming real? Could the farmer, six months short of 60, fall in love again with the farm he had married 10 long years ago?

By now the roosters had begun to crow. He listened to them, differently from the previous morning. Really listened. Their crowing never waivered with age nor lost its fresh annunciation of a new morning. And so too had his commitment to the dream, his marriage to the farm and the ideals it inspired.

Everything he had done on this farm he had done with his hands. From this claw-foot tub he hauled halfway across Texas to the roof over their heads he hammered together in the heat of the Texas summer. This farm was his art, and he was still creating, even now, on his back, in the tub, next to this basket of surprises.

That was something to crow about.