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Dispatches From the Farm

Farm Class & Social Justice: Studying the Ethics of Labor in the NYS Dairy Industry

Date Posted: 
Friday, January 25, 2019

There are times at the Manhattan Country School Farm where we live in an agricultural bubble. 100% of the agricultural harvests are either consumed or utilized at the MCS Farm in Roxbury, NY or at meals on 85th Street. Our number one “product” is education -- educated and informed children, as such, we are somewhat shielded from the political landscape of farming. However our seventh and eighth grade students have been taking a deep dive into a political issue that has great bearing on the New York State dairy industry.

During winter Farming classes, the kids have been investigating the scale of dairy farms in the state and who provides the labor. The students learned that NY is the third largest dairy producer in the country, behind California and Wisconsin. They researched and learned that the price of milk paid to farmers is $17 per hundredweight. Milk is measured in pounds, with one gallon weighing approximately 8 lbs. and a hundredweight equaling 100 lbs. This is a fact they know intimately as they hand milk our cow and then hang the bucket on a scale to be weighed. They also discovered that the cost to produce this milk is $22 per hundredweight. Farmers are losing, on average $5 per hundred pounds of milk.

So how are dairy farmers staying in business? One solution has been for one or more family members to work “off the farm” jobs. Another is to grow or produce other crops or “value added” items on the farm for sale. A not-so-new, but growing strategy is to hire a less expensive labor force. While the work is extremely hard, dirty and dangerous, there is a ready and willing workforce. 83% of workers on New York dairy farms are undocumented immigrants. It’s nearly impossible for farmers to hire workers with legal documentation. Primarily, American workers have refused to do the work due to the difficulty, dangers, hours and wages. The seventh and eighth grade classes watched a documentary, where one segment showed interviews with people at an employment agency seeking a job. When told there were plenty of jobs on local dairy farms, the potential employees from the US were quick to say no, “I won’t do that work” or “those hours are too long.”   While there is a Visa program for visiting farm workers, it’s only seasonal. Historically, people from other countries, primarily Latin America would follow the harvest seasons of fruits and vegetables. No such worker Visa program exists for the dairy industry, which is not seasonal. There have been some attempts to change this law.

Being quite politically savvy, our students were quick to connect the dots of the current political administrations increased arrests, detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants and the need of the dairy industry to hire them.

Western New York has one of the largest Immigration and Custom Enforcement Detention Centers outside Texas and Arizona. Located in Batavia, New York, this ICE center, like many nationwide has site specific or “bed” quota. NYS dairy farms have been directly targeted in sweeps or raids that reduce or completely eradicate a farms work force. Often times, prospective farm workers have enough proper documentation for the farm owner to fill out required applications, but not enough to satisfy ICE.  During these sweeps, students learned undocumented farm workers are removed from the farm. Some are detained in the ICE detention center, but if the daily quota is filled, the people are often released, only to start working at another nearby farm. In the meantime, the farm that’s lost a group of trained workers hires new undocumented workers and the cycle continues.

The classes touched on the isolation many people feel when living and working so far from home and family. They explored what it must feel like to have language and cultural barriers. How do people without a driver’s license, let alone a vehicle, perform simple tasks like grocery shopping? The potential danger and inherent physical risks of dairy farming often lead to injuries. Will undocumented farm workers choose medical attention for injuries or stay silent to keep working in the shadows?

What happens next? Students will continue to research, investigate and discuss this issue on their spring Farm trips. They will eventually move on in their next stage of life, with a deeper understanding of these complex issues. Eventually, this shared knowledge will help inform their decisions as citizens and change-makers.

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Bee Grant Update

Date Posted: 
Friday, January 25, 2019

In early December, the Manhattan Country School Farm was notified that we were awarded a grant from the Whole Kids Foundation and their partner The Bee Cause Project. The Whole Kids Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Whole Foods, offered a monetary grant or beekeeping equipment to schools and non-profit organizations. In our application, we opted for the $1500 monetary grant to expand our existing honey bee program which you can read about here.

On Tuesday, January 22, a delivery truck pulled into the Farm driveway and delivered an enormous box. Like kids at a birthday party we tore into the box. Inside, not only was there a grant check, but two new hives, guides, curriculum books, signage and packets of honey-based lip balm and skin care items.

There are different types of hives, the MCS Farm uses the traditional Langstroth hive; another model is a Mason Bee hive. Mason Bees are gentle, native bees that are incredible springtime pollinators. By raising them and increasing their population, it takes stress off the already struggling honey bees. The added Langstroth and Mason Bee hives will be added to our “bee yard” located in the lower garden. This will provide students with a third hive to investigate and learn from and an increased honey production.

The $1500 will go toward the purchase of more bee suits, apiary and honey extraction tools and a fourth honey bee hive. While we were thrilled to be awarded the financial grant, the additional equipment was a huge bonus to the Manhattan Country School Farm.

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8-9s Farm Trip - See you again in January!

Date Posted: 
Friday, November 16, 2018

We often hear or use the phrase, “paying it forward.” This usually pertains to doing a good deed for others or a random act of kindness. We’ve been using this phrase the past couple weeks at the Manhattan Country School Farm to reflect on our gardening practices.

Our students, first and foremost are soil farmers. It’s necessary to supply new, organic matter to our vegetable gardens. The basis of preparing and building soil with a balance of nutrients each plant requires is vital in providing healthy and delicious foods for our community.

The past two weeks our 8-9’s Oeste and Este classes were at the Farm. Oeste was busy in the gardens, harvesting the last of our root crops like potatoes and carrots. They pulled weeds and fed them to our chickens and turned the soil over by hand. During meal preparation, each class added potato peels, fruit skins and egg shells to our compost bucket. When cleaning our cow stalls the kids dump the manure, old sawdust and hay into the spreader which is either broadcast on our hay fields or piled in the compost barn. The mix of animal and plant waste is then turned periodically to aid the decomposition process which creates rich organic soils.

The Este homeroom arrived with the task of adding the nutrient rich compost to the garden beds during Farming class. With the bucket of our tractor full of compost, some kids shoveled it into wheelbarrows while others dumped it into the beds and spread it around. This process continued throughout the week, seeing most of the lower garden finished. Almost every meal served at the MCS Farm has direct connections to our garden. However, this week we enjoyed an ingredient connected directly to the process of decomposition.

In September, our 5th grade class inoculated logs with oyster mushroom spores and stacked them totem style in the farmhouse basement. As the mycelium spread through the logs and began the process of breaking down the wood fibers it also “fruited” providing us with beautiful mushrooms. Wednesday evening dinner was pizza prepared by kids in cooking class. The topping choices were sweet Italian sausage made from our pigs and beautiful oyster mushrooms growing in our dark basement.

Even though every student a MCS doesn’t perform each task in the garden due to the seasonality of their trips, they do have knowledge that someone has come before them. The 9-10’s and 6th grade will do the bulk of the planting on their spring trips in May, but every member of our MCS Farm community will enjoy the fruits of all labor and our practice of paying it forward.

Please be advised that the MCS Farm is closed to school groups for the upcoming holidays and 6-week hunting season. We will resume farm trips in January 2019. Season's Greetings!

Sixth Grade Farm Trip: Halloween Edition

Date Posted: 
Saturday, November 3, 2018

Immersion in rural culture, language and traditions has always been a hallmark of the Manhattan Country School Farm experience. Throughout our student’s childhood at the Farm, they have the opportunity to celebrate customs linked to food, gardening practices tied to the weather and seasonal holidays and observations.

The MCS 6th grade class stayed at the Farm during Halloween.  While the urban and rural practice of dressing like someone you’re not and going from door to door for treats is similar, the logistics are quite different. Interviewing the class prior to going out, we all learned something new from each other. Some kids who live in “high rise” buildings receive a list of apartments that are participating.  In some city neighborhoods, kids travel from stoop to stoop to be greeted by other costumed people with treats. Some MCS kids start at the top of their building and work their way down, while others do the opposite.

In Roxbury, NY there is a historic main street with a couple of neighborhood streets off it. Many houses are decorated for the occasion with traditional jack-o-lanterns, spider webs, corn stalks and more modern inflatable creatures. Our kids split up in three groups of seven and along with two adults and moved through town. At some houses they were greeted by ghoulish masks or funny faced individuals. Some streets are only lit by porch lights of the houses on the block as there are few street lights. Our groups probably covered more than a mile to fill their bags as opposed to many flights of stairs. One unique stop was to the house of a craft soap maker, who in addition to giving out sweet treats, also offered homemade soap shaped like pumpkins! The night wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the firehouse. Our Roxbury volunteer firefighters provide hot dogs, doughnuts, apple cider and hot chocolate to the revelers.

9-10's Host Visiting New York Educators at the MCS Farm

Date Posted: 
Friday, October 19, 2018

During the 9-10's fall Manhattan Country School Farm trip, students and staff had the opportunity to host several visitors. Most of the guests traveled from New York City-based pre-schools, and two visitors were from the food justice organization, Insurgo Project. They were accompanied by Monica Amaro and Vicki Roberts from the Admissions team.

The visitors observed and participated in cooking, farming, textile and nature studies classes alongside students. In nature studies, the 9-10's learned map and compass skills for an orienteering course and worked on dyeing wool and weaving on tapestry looms in textiles class.

Students in the cooking class are responsible for preparing a meal for an average of 25 kids and adults. However, during the visitor’s stay, the lunch of tacos and toppings, needed to feed 40! The class worked collectively to slice tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and onions. They grated mounds of cheese and prepared guacamole. In addition to the lunch, the students also baked four loaves of pound cake for an afternoon snack.

Our visitors were clearly impressed by the MCS student’s level of production, and even more so by their involvement in every aspect of running our farm. The mantra of the day was, “We do!” There were countless questions ranging from:

“Who cares for the honey bees?” “We do!”
“Who cares for the cows, pigs, sheep and chickens?” “We do!”
“You serve your own maple syrup?” “Yes, we do!”

The pre-school folks truly appreciated our practice of “learning through play” and child-initiated “free-times,” because it is part of their pedagogy and early childhood curriculum back in New York.

As practitioners of Farm-Based Education, it is fascinating to step back and view our program through the eyes of visitors. Our 9-10’s were incredible ambassadors, both through their verbal descriptions of the MCS Farm experience and teaching our guests by demonstration. It is truly extraordinary to witness the shear amount and depth of learning, work and play our children involve themselves in.

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MCS Farm: "The Great Leveler"

Date Posted: 
Friday, October 5, 2018

Norte and Sur Fall Farm Trips

In several conversations over the years with our founders Gus and Marty Trowbridge, they described the intent of the MCS Farm as a “social experiment”: a place where children from diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds work, play and learn together. The Farm, as Gus put it, is “the great leveler.” On the first seventh and eighth grade Farm trips of the year, seventh graders also experience the Farm for the first time in a mixed-grade setting.  Up until this point, they have only traveled to the Farm with their grade, but at the start of the year, the class was split into two homerooms, Norte and Sur, mixed with 8th graders.

The Farm invariably provides the common space for students who have become very comfortable in its environs, routines and systems. Dishwashing, hauling firewood and cleaning bathrooms are all examples of tasks assigned on the job chart regardless of student grade.  At the start of a trip, it is not unusual to observe kids sticking near classmates from their own grade. However, when jobs and classes begin, the seventh and eighth graders organically mix due to the task or student’s desire to participate in specific activities. While family-style meals could be a place where kids segregate themselves by grade, particularly during this first trip of the year, students are routinely requested to sit with different people at each meal. This is a practice that our students have been familiar with since they first started coming to the Farm and provides an opportunity to talk to and bond with kids whom they previously may only know by face.

As the week progresses, the social barriers melt away and it would be impossible for an outsider to know which children are in the seventh or eighth grade. Playing cards on the front porch, a game on the ball field or taking a day-long hike are all subtle exercises in group dynamics and chemistry. The nighttime schedule of games, like Manhunt, Ghosts in the Graveyard and Sardines, evening snack and similar bedtime rituals all provide comfort for our kids at their home away from home.

All of the above, invariably, occurred during the recent seventh and eighth grade fall Farm trips. The Norte class visited during the last week of September and the Sur class followed during the first week of October. Students from both grades enjoyed getting to know one another better in their mixed groups as they created their beautiful textile projects, worked in the garden, did morning barn chores, shared delicious student-prepared meals of lasagna and garlic bread and pork chops and homemade applesauce, and snacked on apples plucked straight from he trees and cinnamon rolls, the delicious result of the students' yeast requirement!  

The Class of 2018's Blue Stone Walkway Debuts at the MCS Farm

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Each year, through the generosity of the families of graduating students, a gift is made to Manhattan Country School. The MCS Farm has been the recipient of several gifts over the years. For example, our “wood-fired” bake oven was gifted by the class of 2011.  This year, the Class of 2018 gift allowed us to build two new walkways, replacing the two worn sidewalks around the farmhouse.

One sidewalk is made of poured concrete while the other of native bluestone.  Bluestone is extremely hard, durable, fine grained sandstone. The stone can be found from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Albany, NY. However, the finest examples are quarried in the Catskill Mountains. The MCS Farm once owned a bluestone quarry at the top of New Kingston Mountain, but sold it off many years ago. More than half of the sidewalks in New York City were made up of bluestone at one time. Notice the next time you’re walking in West Harlem, Park Slope or Yorkville on the Upper East Side for examples of this.

The 2018 Eighth Grade gift has allowed us to repair and replace the very treads our kids walk on daily, with a locally sourced and historically significant material. We purchased the stone from a Delaware County, NY quarry and hired a local contractor to perform the installation. The walkway on the north end of the farmhouse, near the ball field is complete and quite stunning. The concrete walkway, near the driveway, which will also be replaced with bluestone, is scheduled to be completed soon.


Crawfish, Corn and Getting Lost: The First MCS Farm Trip of the Year

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Manhattan Country School Farm provides countless unique experiences for our students during the 17 trips they take to the farm from the 7-8s through eighth grade. One of the pivotal trips for each class is the first one they take during the school year. The fifth grade had the distinction of being the very first class to have their first trip this year - essentially spending their first week of school at the Farm!

The MCS Farm education program and the systems and routines that inform meals, chores, classes and free time provide an ideal backdrop for building classroom community. Most of our fifth graders know each other quite well, having been classmates for several years, however two new students joined the class this fall and quickly bonded with their classmates through the unique MCS Farm experiences. The Farm also provides an ideal space for students and teachers to make connections, allowing the Fifth Grade Teacher Shani and her 20 new students the chance to get to know each other better as a classroom community at the start of the new year.

The children, Shani and the entire Farm staff worked to harvest bushels of paste tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, snap peas and onions. Some were eaten fresh, some added to recipes and some frozen or stored for winter use. In textiles class, our students set up their backstrap looms for weaving. These simple looms from the Mayan tradition allow the artist to create exquisite cloth. The kids will return to weaving on these looms on their winter and spring trips. In nature class, students experienced a long standing MCS tradition of getting "lost" in the woods and safely finding their way back to the farm house (all of this happened under the watchful eye of Annie, our nature teacher), and many of the children spent free time picking and eating apples and catching crawfish in the stream.

Scroll down to see photos from the first farm trip of the year!  To see more photos and videos from the MCS Farm, please follow us on Instagram at #mcsfarm.


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Farm Camp 2018: Week Two Features Impressive Farm Skills, Fun and Family

Date Posted: 
Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Farm Camp 2018

Week two of Manhattan Country School’s Farm Camp featured our campers farming, gardening, cooking, eating, swimming and camping under the stars. I believe that the amount of work, responsibility and skills our kids possess is often underestimated. They are truly running a farm. Through barn chores before breakfast and again before dinner, they care for the animals that take care of us. They weed, cultivate and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we consume during Farm Camp and the rest of the year. They prepare meals for a group of 25 from scratch using products from the Farm. They keep the house they live in clean from top to bottom. They are responsible for their own social and emotional well-being and that of their friends. Unless you see these extraordinary people in action, it’s hard to imagine all they do while at the Farm.

On Wednesday we had the pleasure of hosting Alexandra Horowitz—a noted scientist, bestselling author and MCS parent. Alexandra helped our kids and staff explore the world of animal cognition. On a daily basis we interact with farm animals on several levels—feeding, milking, calling them from the pastures and socializing with them. Alexandra will be creating some simple studies for our students to conduct. They’ll gather data on animals’ behavior around different people, facial recognition between species and different cues for calling animals to the barn.  

Thursday morning our second overnight camping group packed up and hiked to the Mountain Meadow. The first camping group had set up the tents previously, which allowed this group to move right in. They devoured bean burritos made over an open fire, read in hammocks and gathered around a roaring campfire at night.

Friday night was our first annual “Thrift Store, Farm to Porch Dinner.” The kids shopped at the Roxbury Library Thrift Store during the week to find an outfit for the night. Clothing ranged from vintage 70s to preppy. Some kids turned the items they purchased into something different, turning a t-shirt into a dress, for example. We dined on MCS Farm-raised pork chops, potato wedges, apple sauce and garlic toast. The group ate at a large farmhouse table on our porch, which was strung with lights.

On Saturday morning we traveled to the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York. The museum is a living history village, complete with blacksmith shop, broom maker, apothecary, general store and an inn. Most of the buildings have been moved from around the region and reassembled at the site. A carousel with hand-carved animals is the centerpiece of the village.

That afternoon we went to Interskate 88 in Oneonta, New York, for laser tag and roller-skating. This trip is a long-standing tradition at Farm Camp and never disappoints. Circling the smooth wooden floor on four-wheeled skates while listening to the DJ’s music is something to be remembered.

Our campers’ families traveled to the Farm on Sunday for Family Visiting Day. This is such a sweet tradition that allows families to gather at their kid’s home away from home. This day gives our students the opportunity to lead tours for their families through the barn, the farmhouse, the forests and meadows. Following a casual lunch of barbeque, side salads and delicious desserts families gathered in small groups around the lawn, which made for a very special day.

Farm Camp 2018: Week One Offers Gardening, Cooking, Woodworking, Weaving, Water Fun and More

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Farm Camp 2018 Week One

Week one of Manhattan Country School’s Farm Camp is in the books. The vegetable gardens have never looked better. The kids have been harvesting, eating and processing broccoli, lettuce, snap peas, summer squash, onions, raspberries and kale. Campers in cooking class have been creating delicious meals with these ingredients and others produced right here at our farm.

Farm Camp 2018 Week One

The kids have started many different projects in textiles class, including needle felting, rug hooking and weaving on the large floor loom. They even collaborated with the woodworking class by sewing bean bags for a game called corn hole. The kids in the woodworking class constructed and painted the platform for this bean bag toss game, which was added to the many things campers can do during their free time. In nature class, one group spent time pulling cattail plants from the pond at the MCS Farm at Meeker Hollow. The cattails are spreading rapidly and taking over much of the pond. The group then planted a native arrowroot plant in its place.

Each afternoon, the campers traveled to Belleayre Lake to swim and boat. The temperatures have been steadily in the high 80s, making the fresh water lake the place to be. Evenings were spent playing some of the usual MCS Farm games such as capture the flag, sardines and kick the can.

Farm Camp 2018 Week One

We spent Saturday at Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, N.Y. This world-class facility provided an indoor climbing wall, swimming pools, a gymnasium, racquet courts and a bowling alley. That evening, after a dinner from legendary Brooks Barbeque, we saw the movie Ant-Man. On Sunday, the campers visited Zoom Flume Water Park, where they spent the day in the Lazy River, Mighty Anaconda, Typhoon Twister and Wave Pool.

Monday was our first overnight campout. A group of kids joined Garth and Joe on a hike to the Mountain Meadow. They pitched tents, suspended hammocks from trees, cooked over an open fire and, of course, ate S’mores before crawling into sleeping bags for the night.

Stay tuned for what week two has in store.