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Introducing New Initiatives at the MCS Farm

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Farm has recently begun two exciting initiatives. Both are part of the overall farm mission to do things in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner, to grow as much of our food as is possible and to involve the students in the work of the Farm.

Raised Garden Beds

The first initiative involves the cultivation of the lower garden. At one time, we plowed our gardens every spring and planted our seeds and seedlings in rows in the tilled soil. We spent the summer hoeing the weeds and the fall harvesting our crops. There were problems with this way of doing things. Plowing was generally done in May, which meant that we could not begin working in the gardens until the end of the school year. As a result, few kids were able to help with the planting. Once the garden was plowed, the soil was exposed. This leads to erosion by wind and rain and the loss of soil nutrients. In the ’90s, we began experimenting with other gardening techniques that would prevent erosion and allow for greater student participation. We now use raised beds in the upper garden and in a portion of the lower garden. We have continued to plow the remainder of the lower garden.

Last year, we did not grow any crops in the plowed part of the lower garden. Instead, we planted a cover crop. This consisted of some fast-growing plants that would sprout before the weeds. These grew and were mowed during the summer, adding nutrients to the soil. In the fall, we used a cultivator to prepare in-ground beds. The tractor-pulled cultivator turned the soil over in rows. We left space for a path and then cultivated another row. Doing this, we now have 13 beds, each with permanent paths between. This system is in many ways more natural than plowing the ground every year. The soil is not exposed to the elements and the permanent paths provide an ecosystem that will be the home of worms and a variety of helpful insects. 

This new approach also allows space in the gardens for perennial plants. We have long bemoaned our inability to grow things like blueberries or asparagus or apples. Once the ground was prepared, we planted a number of blueberry bushes and apple trees and began a grape arbor. By being in the garden, they are protected from the deer and our sheep and goats.

This spring, we ran the cultivator through the unplanted beds. This week, the 9-10s planted asparagus roots in one of these beds. We will use the others to grow some of our regular vegetables like broccoli, corn or tomatoes and to try some new things that we did not have room for previously. We are excited by the opportunities for new crops and for greater involvement by the kids in gardening this system will provide.

Honey Bees

The second new initiative at the Farm this spring is the addition of one hive of honeybees. Honeybees are a vital part of our agricultural system. Pollination is necessary for the production of fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables. And honeybees are the primary pollinators of these plants. You may have heard of the decline in the number of honeybees across the country. A number of diseases, both known and unknown, have caused bee colonies to die. Scientists who have studied this have made a number of recommendations that they believe will reverse this trend. These include asking farmers and gardeners to avoiding certain pesticides and to plant specific flowers. They are also encouraging more people to set up bee hives. The result is that people in urban, suburban and rural areas are all joining in establishing bee colonies. This is an important initiative. Having small hives across the landscape minimizes the possibility of the collapse of the entire beekeeping industry. The Catskill Mountains, in particular, have been identified as providing an ideal habitat for successful bee colonies.

Last fall, the Farm faculty shared with Michèle our interest in participating in this effort and raising honeybees at the Farm. Cathy, our farmwork teacher, attended a number of workshops to learn more about the process. We decided to move forward and purchased much of the equipment during the winter. The bees just arrived!

There are a number of students who come to the Farm who have an allergy to insect stings and, as a result, carry an Epi-Pen. The Farm faculty is trained to administer the new Epi-Pens, and carries them along during outdoor classes, on hikes and trips to the lake during Farm camp.

Before embarking on this project, we investigated and considered carefully concerns that might arise about stings and allergies. Stinging insects like yellow jackets and wasps are all around us in urban, suburban and rural areas. Our research found that having a beehive does not put children with allergies at additional risk. These insects only sting when they feel threatened in some way and honeybees are less likely to sting than native insects. We have carefully selected a location for the hive that is an out-of-the-way spot not frequented by the kids.  

In their first year at the Farm, our honeybees will need to establish their colony and learn where to find the sources of nectar in the different seasons. The plants we grow in our gardens and the wildflowers that grow in the fields will have reliable pollinators in the area. We will start educating students about bees and their importance to agriculture. For the older students this might entail an examination of the parts of a flower and discussion of pollination. This study will not involve interacting with the honeybees directly.

These two initiatives, along with the mushroom planting that John reported on in the fall, are part of our ongoing commitment to find ways to grow the food that sustains us in ways that sustain the environment in which we live.