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.
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.”
Mr. Hahn admitted that it is hard for students from affluent families who have been sent to a school in the verdant Northwest Corner of Connecticut to fully apprehend the seriousness of the global climate crisis. But working on the farm, producing food that soon finds its way to the prep school’s dining room tables, brings a sense of reality to the process of feeding the world’s population.
“The school produces about 1.5 percent of the food that we eat on campus,” he said, “and, all told, about 39 percent of the food is locally or organically produced or is fair traded [a movement that helps producers in developing countries to achieve better trading conditions and that promotes sustainability]. We would like 50 to 60 percent of the food we serve to be in that category. We think that is doable this year.”
Central to that increase will be a new food storage facility. Ground was broken this fall and Mr. Hahn said the building will provide three rooms for cool storage of root vegetables on the ground floor while an upper level will feature a large deck that can be used for gatherings, an industrial kitchen and a Harkness Table, a large, oval table used in classrooms at Hotchkiss to facilitate discussions.
Hotchkiss has even used its economic clout to move its food supplier, Sodexo, a French multinational corporation, to consider alternative solutions. Sodexo, one of the largest food services companies in the world, is, according to Mr. Hahn, “embedded in the industrial farming system.”
But, he added, “We are in a partnership with them and they have to supply what we want. Sodexo has signed on to the Real Food challenge and will produce 15 to 20 percent ‘real food.’” As a result, “the kids will develop a different appreciation of what food tastes like,” he said.
Ninth-graders entering the school in the fall are immediately engaged in the farming enterprise. “The ninth-graders have a context-building experience with food, water and energy,” said Mr. Hahn. Their first task is to harvest the crops planted in the spring by other students. When spring rolls around again, the students experience the beginning of the growth cycle as they plant the crops that will be harvested by next year’s ninth-graders. During the summer the crops are tended by a team of students who live in the area.
To encourage more hands-on participation, Hotchkiss started FFEAT (Fairfield Farm Environmental and Adventure Team) as an alternative to sports. After classes, the members are bused to the farm, where they mend fences, feed chickens and clear trails, as well as plant and harvest crops. About once a month, faculty member, Charles Noyes teaches them how to prepare a dinner from the crops they’ve handpicked, and from the chickens they’ve raised and processed at the farm.
“They used to be kind of the ‘outlier’ kids,” said Mr. Hahn. “Now the program is oversubscribed. It is so restorative for kids who are running the prep school rat race to come here.” It is equally restorative for faculty. Throughout the year, the school uses the farm as an outdoor lab, with everything from environmental science classes studying soil chemistry to poetry classes drawing inspiration from the landscape. Mr. Noyes has been charged with helping other teachers to take full advantage of the opportunities the farm offers.
Mr. Hahn said that the school also interacts with area farmers such as Allen Cockerline of Salisbury, who operates Whippoorwill Farm and who leases a portion of Fairfield Farm to raise his grass-fed beef. “We are trying to figure out ways to have the kids engage with other people,” Mr. Hahn said. “We have a nice partnership with Allen, and we like the symbolism of our students working right next to a local farmer’s cows.”
The reality of a beef cow’s ultimate destiny is not lost on the young people. Indeed, the life and death of farm animals is underscored in a number of ways. The school raises its own pigs and chickens, which provide meat for the students. “We have about 200 chickens; not enough to feed the whole school,” Mr. Hahn said. “But the students have the opportunity to kill a chicken. It’s voluntary, but if they choose, they can either watch of be part of it.”
The issue of killing animals for human consumption is not taken lightly, however, and is incorporated into discussions of philosophy and ethics. “Everyone in the school experiences the farm, but some go deeper than others,” he said. “Some of the classes are elective.”
Mr. Hahn, who guides the program, has been at Hotchkiss since 2009. In making the announcement of his appointment, Hotchkiss said, “In the context of our world of growing environmental degradation, [this program] is an absolutely essential part of our educational mission.”
According to the school’s announcement, Mr. Hahn earned a B.A. in environmental studies from the University of Vermont and an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He worked at The Lawrenceville School for four years, including service as the Aldo Leopold Fellow. In that post he was charged with looking at and extending the school’s sustainable systems across all aspects of its operations, including curriculum and instructional leadership, physical plant and infrastructure, and residential life.
In 2006 he launched his own company, Stone Bridge Sustainability + Education, providing consulting services to schools in the areas of sustainability education and strategic planning. In this capacity he worked with numerous schools throughout the country. He served as the lead consultant to the National Association of Independent Schools Decade for Sustainability Leadership Project and helped to found the Independent School Adventure Network.
The assistant head of school, director of environmental initiatives post was a new position at the school. His task is to infuse awareness of environmental issues and sustainable living into all areas of the curriculum. He explores alternative sources and uses of energy as part of the process of making Hotchkiss a carbon-neutral school and oversees the development of the farm.
“One thing we are proud of is that we don’t turn kids into radicals,” said Mr. Hahn. “They come out with a balanced, nuanced perspective. They know it is not all or nothing. They know we can’t feed 1,000 people out of our fields, but they also know that our biomass project cut our carbon footprint in half and avoided $900,000 in fuel costs.”
Hotchkiss, Among Nation's Top Private Schools, Even Has a Farm to Teach Sustainability