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.
Backstrap weaving is an ancient fiber art practiced for centuries in Central and South America and China. Weaving has historically been a way for artists to communicate feelings and tell stories with the use of patterns and symbols. It’s also a time-honored tradition for fifth-grade students at the Manhattan Country School Farm.
The students take a multi-step approach to creating their cloth. They choose their yarn colors and sley the strands through a reed or heddle during the fall Farm trip. They create the pattern they will follow to make a woven piece during their winter and spring trips. While sitting on the floor with their backstrap loom or telar de cinteron tied off in front of them, they slide the shuttle back and forth. The shuttle holds their yarn and acts as a vehicle to transport the thread through the warp and weft.
This project connects the students directly to several academic disciplines. Working in grids and determining latitudinal and longitudinal lines relates to math. History is easily explored, as backstrap weaving is the oldest known weaving technique. Physics is at play as the weaver uses the frame, his or her body, and even gravity to provide the needed tension. Once this process is set in motion, our fifth-grade fiber artists are free to explore various topics of conversation as they weave in front of the roaring fire of the wood stove in the textile studio.
Sliding on snow, be it on skis, sleds, a snowboard or your belly is a cultural tradition in northern climates. Manhattan County School seventh- and eighth-grade students had the opportunity to learn the sports of skiing and snowboarding at Belleayre Mountain during their winter Farm trips. Some students had never experienced this sport, while others had.
The day started with lessons based on previous experience and skill level. The quality instruction by Belleayre Snowsports helped students progress from the beginner hill to the “magic carpet lift,” essentially a conveyor belt that transports people to the top of the trail. Kids were taught the basics of turning and stopping and they continued working on these skills after the lesson ended.
The more experienced skiers and riders spent their morning riding the chairlift, which took them further up the mountain to the green (easier) trails. After a break for lunch, several students who had never been skiing or boarding were confident enough to join the others on the chairlift. For many students this experience took them a little outside of their comfort zone, while for others it was a chance to demonstrate a skill and hobby to their classmates and teachers.
The MCS Farm has acquired a second beehive, thanks to Cathy Cammer, farming teacher, program coordinator, and resident beekeeper. She entered a contest and won a new beehive kit from Hudson Valley Bee Supply valued at $280.
Cathy introduced honey bees to the lower garden of the MCS Farm in the Spring of 2016. We purchased our supplies from Hudson Valley Bee Supply and have benefitted from their vast experience and knowledge.
Our honey bee colony thrived over the summer and fall, pollinating the flowering plants, building winter stores of honey and providing students with an introduction to the workings of a bee hive. Installing a second hive will benefit our growing colony, which in the spring will be looking to split its population and move into a second hive. Without a second hive in place, the swarming group could be lost to the wilds.
To learn more about the honey bees at the MCS Farm, read "Introducing New Initiatives at the MCS Farm."
Progressive educators at Manhattan Country School have long recognized the importance and championed the practice of child-directed play. At the MCS Farm, several free times are scheduled into the kids’ daily routine.
This week, the 9-10s class, like all classes visiting the Farm, took full advantage of their free time. Visiting with the animals in the barn, taking turns on the swing, tossing a football on the ball field, hiking to Thyme Hill to work on their fort and chatting on the front porch are just a few of the ways kids use this time. Providing time after a meal, a class or a job to create one’s own fun is vital to a child’s social-emotional growth. While teacher supervision is always provided, teacher creation and organization is not.
Affording kids time and space to explore, create, make mistakes and discover at their own pace provides invaluable life lessons. Some students may find themselves outside their comfort zone climbing a tree, jumping in the hay or even petting a cat. Others may experience these activities with ease. The MCS Farm has created a well-woven safety net just below the children’s feet. This encourages students to hold themselves responsible, while negotiating the landscape of the MCS Farm community with their classmates and teachers.
The practice of living sustainably is something that permeates many parts of our lives. When it comes to agricultural practices at the Manhattan Country School Farm, our practice takes the idea of sustainability a step further to what’s known as restorative or regenerative agriculture. This practice is evident to all of our students through daily routines, but was especially clear to our sixth-graders during their fall farm trip.
During farming class, the students were tasked with adding compost to the raised beds in the vegetable garden. Creating compost is essentially building nutrient rich soil. Compost is created several ways at the MCS Farm. Students in cooking class add eggshells and fruit peels to the compost bucket, which is then dumped into the compost tumbler by other students. When cleaning the animals’ stalls during barn chores, students scoop manure, sawdust and hay, which is spread directly on our hay fields and pastures or later mixed in the compost barn.
Over several months, the pile in the compost barn is mixed to create beautiful soil or “black gold.” By building our own organic soil, we avoid the need for chemical fertilizers. The sixth grade class was responsible for topping off the soil of more than 40 raised beds. They discussed soil structure and the nutrient needs of the plants we grow and eat. The connection will come full circle for the class during their spring farm trip, when they plant new fruits and vegetables in the very soil they helped to create.
Cultural immersion is a way for people to understand the customs, practices, rituals and language of the people of a particular location. Learning by doing is the ultimate intercultural learning. Manhattan Country School students have long been immersed in the rural culture of the Catskill Mountains. Living, working and playing at the MCS Farm allows our kids to experience a way of life in a place that is quite different than their urban homes.
MCS fifth-graders had an opportunity to experience Halloween in the Village of Roxbury this week. While the custom of wearing costumes and trick or treating is not foreign to our students, the logistics were. Rather than trick or treating through large apartment buildings, the fifth-graders lived like locals and walked from one single-family home to another in a neighborhood. While the amount of “loot” they acquired was less, the experience is something they’ll always remember.
The students also took part in the annual Roxbury Central School Halloween Parade. Led by the school’s marching band, students from pre-K through sixth grade marched through the village’s Main Street, which was lined with onlookers. Kids decked out in Halloween costumes waved to the crowd as they walked up the street and then back to the school. Our MCS class walked with the RCS fifth-graders, who also happened to be their pen pals in the 9-10s. Celebrating a common ritual in a slightly different way gave our students an opportunity to be immersed in the local Roxbury community.
This week and next the MCS Farm will be hosting third-grade students from Little Red Elizabeth Irwin School (LREI). This long-standing relationship with LREI began more than 25 years ago and enables MCS to continue its commitment to educational outreach. The farm-based educational program that the LREI students will be involved in is very similar to what MCS students experience when at the Farm. The key difference is MCS students spend 17 weeks at the Farm while LREI students spend only one.
As a private school with a public mission, the MCS Farm also hosts a number of other independent and public schools throughout the school year. Among them are Children’s Workshop School, The Town School, Bronx Community Charter School and Collegiate School. Local Catskill Mountain students from Margaretville Central and Roxbury Central schools make day trips to the Farm. In the past, the Farm has also provided farm-based educational programs for Bronxville Elementary School, Friends Seminary, The Earth School and Community Roots Charter.
The rental of the Farm program is a source of revenue for the Farm. The money charged to visiting schools is used to meet the Farm’s operating budget.
MCS students, who spend many weeks at the Farm, graduate as informed citizens with experience in farm work, textile work and cooking; an understanding of nature; and knowledge of sustainability issues. Similarly, future decisions of students from other schools who spend only a week at the MCS Farm are informed by a very special time spent at a very special place.