Sep 23, 2013
Hotchkiss, Among Nation's Top Private Schools, Even Has a Farm to Teach Sustainability
Ninth-grade students at The Hotchkiss School in Salisbury harvest crops planted by the class that preceded them.
(page 1 of 3)
Think of the average Hotchkiss School student and the image of a field hand does not spring to mind. One of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions, Hotchkiss trains its young charges to be the leaders of the future. They come largely from families of means and often from urban settings—most have never planted a seed or weeded a row of plants, let alone harvested the produce.
But on a sunny day in July, six young Hotchkiss scholars were doing just that. Slowly, hoes and rakes in hand, they worked down a row of healthy looking plants, before taking a break and coming in for lunch.
“We lost a lot of potatoes this year because of the wet soils,” confessed Maren Wilson, a member of the summer crew who worked the fields. “You have to roll with it—that’s the fun of it.”
“It builds character,” added JJ McNulty wryly.
The very leadership qualities that Hotchkiss hopes to instill in its students require that these young people find out what it is like to grow crops in a sustainable way, to think about ways to conserve the Earth’s resources, and to seek innovative ways to meet the needs of a global population that is quickly outdistancing the planet’s ability to renew itself.
“Hotchkiss is really committed to aggressively taking on the environmental challenge,” said Joshua Hahn, assistant head of school and director of environmental initiatives, as he sat in the shade of mature trees that edge the fields on the school’s Fairfield Farm, a 280-acre parcel south of the main campus. The property was partially donated to the school by the family of Jack Blum, a former Connecticut Department of Agriculture commissioner, Hotchkiss alumnus and a former trustee. The school purchased the remaining 17 acres of the farm.
The farm provides organic, fresh produce for the dining hall and also serves as a living classroom where students learn everything from land stewardship to landscape painting.
“Boarding schools have a real opportunity to live what we teach,” Mr. Hahn continued. “An experiential pedagogy is the best way to teach—we can talk ad nauseum but if, when they walk out of the classroom, the school is not practicing what it preaches, it creates a disconnect. [Oberlin College professor] David Orr’s philosophy is that a school that wastes resources is teaching that there are unlimited resources, while a school that focuses on conservation teaches environmental education, too.”
There is plenty to be gloomy about if one looks at environmental issues today, but Mr. Hahn said Hotchkiss tries to engage its students in forward-thinking, creative solutions. “You won’t engage teens with a doomsday scenario,” he said. “Even as adults, we experience a paralysis of action around things we feel are outside our control.”
So, the school focuses instead on innovation, conservation and being in harmony with the Earth. “We’re turning our energy to trying to find solutions,” he said. “We’re looking for a regenerative, restorative solution. We think that approach manifests itself in a more entrepreneurial mindset.”