A Manhattan Country School Farm trip would never be complete without a good-bye meeting. After the luggage is loaded on the bus, students and teachers take a few minutes to share their experiences of the trip with each other.
This week, the MCS 7-8s experienced their very first Farm trip. Each child and adult took the opportunity to talk about some of the things that where memorable. The comments usually began with, “I liked…,” “I loved…” or “My favorite thing was…..”
These statements where finished with the following:
- my textiles class
- jumping in the hay with my eyes closed.
- cooking with Donna
- feeding Chippy his bottle of milk
- the food
- making mint tea
- the cool breeze on the porch
- swinging on the swing
- the bonfire
- meal time together
- all of the food we planted in the garden
- playing in the creek
- our walks in nature
- spending time with my friends
The sixth-graders at the Manhattan Country School Farm last week enjoyed a mushroom hunt with our guest expert, John Michelotti—“The Fungi Guy.” John is a walking encyclopedia of everything having to do with mushrooms and fungi. He is eloquent and entertaining as he reels off one fascinating bit of mushroom lore after another.
First he gave a brief talk on fungi, mentioning that fungi usually is decomposing dead leaves and trees. But “just because there’s death that doesn't mean it’s not supporting new life.” The fungi help create new soil, which allows plants to thrive. Fungi can also exist endophytically, within plant tissues. Or they can be mycorhyzal, living among a plant’s roots. They can exist in symbiotic relationships with plants, where the plants provide sugars for the fungi, and the fungi free nitrogen and phosphorous for the plants.
John discussed how the actual living body of the fungus is called mycelium—tiny threads that work their way into wood or leaves or soil. In a single cubic inch of soil in the northeast forest, there is one mile of mycelium. Mushrooms, though much more visible, are merely the fruit of the mycelium, the way an apple tree grows an apple—which then spreads its seeds, or in the case of fungi, its spores.
The students then followed John up a trail into the Farm’s woods, and he encouraged them to look for mushrooms in a way different from how we look at plants. He said, “Look down, look under. Look in the dark spots, the moist spots.” He also advised the students to take note of how the mushrooms grow: singly or in clusters? On what species of wood or what kind of substrate? Are its spores held by gills or tubes or teeth?
Once the students started looking, it was astonishing how many mushrooms and fungi we found in just a few hundred yards. The big spotted shelf mushroom, “Pheasant Back.” The smooth white “Artist’s Conk,” on which any scratch or pressure leaves a permanent mark. Many LBMs (little brown mushrooms) of various species. “Violet-Toothed Polypore,” which has a purplish tinge to its edges. “Jelly fungus” and “crust fungus” and “slime molds.” The eerie “Dead Man’s Fingers.” Even one species that John couldn’t immediately identify, which was temporarily named “Alien Brain.” And endless clusters of visible white mycelium anytime we peeled back the leaf litter on the forest floor.
John mentioned that there are between 1.2 million and 5 million species of fungi in the world—more than all the plant and animal species combined!
And most importantly, John told the students to always double-check and triple-check any mushroom they ever pick to find out if it is toxic.
The students (and teachers) finished the walk fairly amazed at the hidden treasure—the richness and variety of life—right at our feet, amid the woods we walk in all the time.
For more information on John Michelotti, visit https://www.catskillfungi.com.
The MCS Farm’s Belted Galloway cow, Oreo, gave birth to a bull calf on Sunday, May 7. A Belted Galloway is considered a heritage breed of cattle, as it has stayed true to its genetics, has been raised in the United States since before 1925 and is or has been endangered, according to The Livestock Conservancy. Belted Galloways, with their distinct broad white belt that encircles the body, originated in southwest Scotland and are known to be efficient foragers, producers of high quality beef and exhibitors of strong maternal instincts. Oreo has been quite protective of her son, Carpaccio, who the 9-10s had the honor of naming during their spring farm trip this week.
Mom Oreo spends her day out in the green pasture while Carpaccio, during his early weeks of life, will stay in the barn to be showered with affection from our kids, who are helping him acclimate to humans. He’ll soon join mom and the other cows in the pasture to forage.
The final farm trip for Manhattan Country School eighth-graders provides a time for reflection, reconnections, visits to cherished places and new experiences. A couple of birthdays were celebrated with singing and cake, baked by classmates. The class worked throughout the week on their mural, which had the theme from the movie “Up.”
In nature studies they continued their investigation and discussion of the yearlong topic of honey bee hive collapse. Their action plan, to support the Farm’s own honey bee colony, was to plant a pollinator garden. They planted a variety of self-seeding wildflowers, perennial flowers and herbs in the lower garden.
On Tuesday, our long-time sheep shearer Nancy was here to shear the flock. Everyone watched the process that supplies fiber for our textiles program and a few even tried their hands at shearing. In a woodworking class with Garth, the class built several benches that can be installed on the hay wagon for seating during rides.
Thursday was a day full of events that serve as a rite of passage for a final Farm trip. The entire class walked the three miles to the Village of Roxbury for lunch at a local café and a stroll around the historic town. They returned from their walk to watch a slide show of their time spent at the Farm since, for many, the 7-8s. Thursday evening after dinner the kids circled around the bonfire to say their good-byes. The crackling fire under the stars provided the ideal backdrop for some emotional and poignant thoughts to be shared among friends.
Mushrooms, mustard and leeks, oh my! Springtime walks in the fields and forest at the MCS Farm provide not just the vital connection to nature, but the opportunity to feast. During this week’s farm trip, the fifth-grade class took to the forest in search of the wild leek or ramp. This highly coveted member of the allium family can be found from southeastern Canada to southern Appalachia.
The kids set out with shovels and buckets in hand, to harvest the pungent plant that is a cross between an onion and garlic. Foodies would be in heaven in the Farm’s forest, where we enjoy several large wild plots of leeks. Harvesting small portions from each plot is our way of maintaining a sustainable yearly crop.
Sadly, due to the discovery of this desirable early spring plant, over harvesting has become a problem. The lesson of harvesting and eating only wild edibles that are confirmed to be edible is highly stressed. There are always copycat plants in the woods that could be toxic. The kids dug and pried the small bulbs out of the soil, eating some out of hand, but saving most for the kitchens at the MCS Farm and West 85th Street. Pickled leeks, potato-leek soup and quiche with wild leeks are just a few recipes we create each year.
I want to share some early spring news from the MCS Farm. The Farm produced 23 gallons of maple syrup this season! It was a fickle winter with warm thaws and bitter colds that made the already challenging production of maple syrup a bit more challenging.
Our sheep gave birth to 15 lambs. We’ll keep some to replenish our flock to supply fleece. The remaining will be sold for meat in our local Roxbury community and through an auction at Big Night Out!
We raised 25 egg-laying chickens and 25 chickens for meat. The egg layers were introduced to our flock and will take the place of chickens that are no longer producing. The meat birds are being raised to provide chicken for a special event this May at MCS.
The tomatoes we grew in the greenhouse, under grow lights this winter are now bearing fruit. We’ve been eating delicious cherry tomatoes sparingly and are waiting for the larger salad tomatoes to ripen.
The Farm’s greenhouse produced lettuce and basil all winter and is now full of seedlings that will be transplanted to the large gardens as the weather and soil warms. Our tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, onions and cucumber plants are all thriving. Some of our potatoes were planted directly in the garden beds this week.
The MCS Farm recently hosted the fourth grade class from Bronx Community Charter School, founded by Sasha Wilson, a 1984 graduate of MCS. In the past few weeks, we also hosted fourth-graders from Little Red Schoolhouse and third-graders from Collegiate School.
The calendar indicated the first day of spring as Monday, March 20, however the deep snow on the ground at the MCS Farm painted a different picture. During nature classes, the 8-9s needed to don snowshoes in order to negotiate the two feet of snow left from last week’s winter storm. The students learned the history of the snowshoe and discussed what inspired early peoples to create them. Originating in Central Asia thousands of years ago, the concept spread fairly quickly to other native peoples in cold climates.
The kids were quick to identify snowshoe hares, bobcats and cottontail rabbits—animals with large paws that were successful at staying on top of the snow—as the snowshoe inventors’ inspiration. During their exploration, they discovered tracks of white-tailed deer, whose heavy bodies and narrow hooves cause them to sink deep in the snow.
Some students wore modified bear paw snowshoes while others had beaver tails. Modern snowshoes are made of lightweight aluminum and neoprene, but the Farm still keeps some wooden and rawhide shoes on hand. While snowshoes don’t prevent you from sinking, they do help spread your body weight over a larger area.
Snowshoeing is currently the fastest growing winter sport. This trend enables many people to hike through deep snow in beautiful places while enjoying the winter, or in our case spring, season.
In a week when Manhattan Country School’s seventh-grade students returned to the MCS Farm, there are several projects and activities to be highlighted. A new recipe for Shepard’s Pie stuffed baked potatoes was created and devoured by the class. Students worked on fiber arts projects to fulfill their textiles class graduation requirements. A class discussion on meat production was held to learn about that piece of our food system. In Garth’s woodworking class, students built trellises for the gardens and a garden bench to be used at West 85th Street.
However, the true highlight was Winter Storm Stella. The storm moved in after midnight on Monday to provide six inches of snow by daybreak. At about 11 a.m. the storm ramped up to an average snowfall rate of three to four inches per hour. The students took measurements throughout the storm. At 12:30 p.m. the Farm had 19 inches and at 5:30 p.m. 34 inches. The task of shoveling out would wait until the next day.
During this historic storm the Farm still kept operating. Animals were fed and cared for, meals were prepared and eaten and firewood was moved by sled instead of a wheeled cart. The snow itself provided countless activities. Kids jumped off the farmhouse front porch into its depths and massive snow caves, some large enough to fit several people, were dug out of the piles.
The following day everyone grabbed shovels to clear paths to the barn, chicken coop, textiles studio and rec room. Moving snow that now measured close to 40 inches was an arduous task, but as the saying goes, “many hands make light work.” Once the hard work of snow removal was complete it was back to playing. Snow caves multiplied, snow shoes were donned to hike through the woods and snow angels were everywhere.
The greenhouse at the Manhattan Country School Farm serves a variety of purposes: a sunny space to start vegetable and flower seedlings and grow winter salad greens, a warm teaching place for winter classes, even a space to dry wet boots. One challenge we have at the Farm is growing fruiting plants in the winter. While the sun provides enough energy to grow greens, the lack of total sunlight needed and the winter angle of the sun prohibit us from growing tomatoes, peppers and other produce in the depths of winter.
To maximize the growing space, we recently purchased a full-spectrum grow light. Over the years, we’ve enlisted the help of fluorescent bulbs to make up for lack of natural sunlight. However, fluorescents don’t provide the solar spectral from infrared to near ultra-violet that plants require. The light fixture we purchased employs LED technology, which uses different color diodes to replicate the sun at a fraction of the cost. Our hope this winter is to be eating both cherry and salad tomatoes long before our large outdoor gardens are ready to plant.
Moving bales of hay from the hay mow to the winter steer pen at the Manhattan Country School Farm can be an arduous, but fun task for students. This week, as part of farming class, MCS sixth-grade students worked together to move wagon-loads of 15 to 20 hay bales. Each bale weighs approximately 35 pounds; the beef cattle will consume 6 to 8 bales per day. This student-led task is necessary several times per week.
One hurdle that we’ve always struggled with is moving bales when the hay level drops in the barn. When the bales can no longer be hoisted onto the wagon, students must haul them, one at a time, through the downstairs stable area. This not only makes more work, it is an inefficient way of completing the task. To solve this dilemma, Garth, one of the MCS farming teachers, created what is essentially a human-powered crane. Using a hand-cranked winch, students can lift several bales at a time from the mow up to the wagon. A cable, which is threaded through a pulley system, is connected to a platform, which is actually a repurposed ping pong table flipped upside down. While some students are down in the mow loading bales, others power the winch. Once the wagon is loaded, the hay is transported by tractor to the steer pen and stacked. Through this exercise, the sixth-graders made connections back to their study of simple machines when they were younger. By employing a lever and pulleys, wheel, and axle to offset a load with force, those earlier lessons become a practical way of completing a job.