A golden beam from the setting sun shines over a wooden fence rail

Teach: Imagine a Farm

Imagine a Farm

Imagine a farm that would be a resource for local students at all levels, supports new and established farmers, and helps community members learn about agriculture, nutrition, and ecology.

Years ago, I had an idea and this idea kept whispering in my ear until it became it a dream. And now I’d like to share this dream with others of a special place for learning, growing, and healing.

Imagine if Montgomery County Public Schools had a farm of its own. This farm could provide fresh food to students; serve as a field trip site and provide employment, internships, and Student Service Learning hours opportunities. It could also host Montgomery College and Universities at Shady Grove students, as well as homeschools, preschools, and private schools. Imagine a farm that would be a resource for local students at all levels, supports new and established farmers, and helps community members learn about agriculture, nutrition, and ecology.

Let’s bring the successful model of a school system farm to the Ag Reserve (Image: Friends of Great Kids Farm).

As a Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve resident, I savor the open spaces, wild places, and fruitful farms that surround my Poolesville home. My family and I enjoy exploring the parks and visiting the local farms and historical sites the Ag Reserve is so rich with. Often, I photograph and write about our explorations and one of these forays sparked my idea: what if Montgomery County Public Schools had a farm of its own? And what if that farm also welcomed students beyond MCPS, farmers, and the broader community?

On this particular day I had been hiking around the southern part of Woodstock Equestrian Park, off Wasche Road, and taking photos of the remaining structures and ruins from the farm that once occupied that spot. As I was leaving and driving home, it was then that I first noticed that the acreage across Wasche Road over to Martinsburg Road is peppered with signs stating it is property of the County. The transformative possibility of that land in this corner of the Ag Reserve revved up my imagination, which brings me to this blog post that I am finally writing today.

The sunset view from Woodstock Park across Wasche Road.

IMagine a farm for our students

Montgomery County Public Schools

Somehow, this idea formed in my brain, influenced by my work with food studies, food justice and food insecurity, that it would be really amazing if Montgomery County and Montgomery County Public Schools could together create a community farm. This farm could provide fresh food to students and staff; serve as a field trip site to learn about agriculture, ecology, and nutrition; and provide employment, internships, and Student Service Learning hours opportunities. And if an Ag program returns to the (newly rebuilt and expanded!) Poolesville High School, this farm would be an ideal site for hands-on learning.

An Ag program at Poolesville High School would benefit from an educational farm (Image: Montgomery County Sentinel).

Montgomery college & Universities at Shady Grove

This farm could also partner with Montgomery College and Universities at Shady Grove to be a site for education about agriculture, natural sciences, environmental preservation, and internships. University of Maryland is expanding its viticulture program at the nearby County-owned Crossvines site outside of Poolesville so this farm could be a natural complement and convenient location for that cohort of students and faculty where appropriate.

The Crossvines, just outside Poolesville, will offer local food, support for local wine producers, and event space (Image: Crossvines).

Homeschools, private schools, preschools, & Youth organizations

In addition to MCPS students, this farm could host local homeschools, preschoolers, and private school students. Youth organizations such as 4H and Scout troops could also benefit from the farm as well as contribute by volunteering to support farm projects.

imagine a farm for our new & small-scale farmers

New Farmers

As the average age of farmers rises, with many readying for retirement, it is imperative that we are able to provide the next generation of farmers with support. This farm could serve as a site for new farmer training and also lease small plots to serve as incubators for new farm businesses. With the high cost of land in Montgomery County and so many new farmers looking for land, these types of initiatives would make farming accessible for a more diverse range of our community members.

LandLink connects farmers in need of land with those who can offer it (Image: LandLink Montgomery).

Food Hub

A food hub located here could serve a valuable resource for small scale established table crop producers as well who want to sell to large institutions (such as school systems, hospitals, and large businesses) but don’t have the volume. This would support established farmers and strengthen our local economy while improving the nutritional quality of community members’ diets.

The farm could be a multipurpose site and also house a food hub (Image: NC Food Hub Collaborative).

Teaching Kitchen

A teaching and demonstration kitchen could provide students and community members with culinary training, knowledge around diverse produce, and increase diet quality. Since most schools have long ago eliminated their Home Ed and other non-professional track culinary programs, there is a chasm of lost food knowledge that is an often-overlooked contributor to food insecurity.

Imagine Benefits for our community

Food security

The 2020 COVID lockdowns highlighted the economic disparities and social safety net gaps in our nation and local communities. Food banks were stretched to their limits as huge numbers of people faced economic uncertainty. All MCPS students were provided free meals in an effort to close the gap and ensure that they could continue to be healthy and ready to learn, even in the midst of unprecedented events.

As our international and interstate industrial supply chains faltered, many local farms and producers stepped up and were able to provide food where vast agricorporations failed. When most people think of “national security” they tend to think of intelligence efforts and military missions but a robust and thriving local food system is a key part of community security as well.

No further explanation needed (Image: American Farmland Trust).

holistic health

The research out there is voluminous and unanimous: a diet rich in fruits and vegetables results in positive physical and mental health outcomes. This farm could be a conduit for getting more local and optimally fresh produce onto the plates of students and community members across our county. It could also provide classes in gardening and cooking, to empower folks to grow and enjoy their own food. Lastly, we must not underestimate the healing power of green and open spaces in a metropolitan area like Montgomery County.

Supporting local farms is delicious (Image: MoCo Happening).

Community service

Community members, non-profit organizations, and corporations who want to give back to the community can find a home for their efforts at this farm. As anyone who has spent time on a farm (or even just gardened!) knows that there is a never-ending list of tasks year round and serving as a volunteer site would strengthen community ties.

imagine Great Kids Farm

This may seem like a utopian pipe dream, but it’s been done, and done in Maryland at that! Baltimore City Public Schools has Great Kids Farm just outside the city line in Catonsville. Since 2008, its 33 acres of fields, orchards, animals, and greenhouses as well as forests and streams to explore have provided learning, growing, and healing opportunities for BCPS students and staff and the wider community.

Growing, cooking, savoring together (Image: Friends of Great Kids Farm).

In addition to field trips during the academic year, Great Kids Farm offers summer day camps for BCPS students; serves as an internship, employment, and Student Service Learning hours site; holds student summits; and has hosted African-American Foodways Summits. Students can be immersed in engaging experiential learning that builds their skills to be good caretakers of themselves, their communities, and the ecosystem. They offer a range of impressive programs and resources on the farm, in classrooms, and virtually to support Farm to School programming.

Economically, how does Great Kids Farm function? The farm itself is a non-profit and has been owned by Baltimore City Public Schools since the 1950’s and is supported with a range of partnering community foundations, businesses and corporations, organizations, and community members.

imagine action

Dreams can be beautiful ideas but in order for them to become reality, they take hard work, dedication, and no small amount of daring.

Our Agricultural Reserve itself started as a beautiful dream and its enormous benefits and positive impacts to all in this region continue today. Farming is hard work and we need to better support our existing farmers and help interested community members to enter the field successfully. The protected fields, forests, and wild spaces here enrich our lives with more robust ecosystems, cleaner water, and fresher air. Jacques Cousteau said that we protect what we love and creating a working farm for the community that directly benefits all would certainly help us to better appreciate, understand, and maybe even fall in love with the Ag Reserve.

As an educator of over 20 years, I have shifted my thematic focus in most of my courses to food studies and employ an experiential model to engage and empower my students. I like to say that as an English professor, my students can read, write, and research about anything and the benefits of a food studies focus are myriad. I’ve experienced first hand over and over again the transformative power of teaching about food and would love to see this opportunity become a regular feature of all students’ learning throughout their educational journey. (The two images below show some of my former students learning at Rocklands Farm and an apiary.)

A farm such as the one dreamed about and shared in this blog post would be a big step toward making that a reality for young people in Montgomery County. Maryland’s Department of Agriculture already promotes Farm to School and just over the county line, Farm to School Frederick is established and growing.

Obviously, this is very much a long term project but even Maryland’s largest tree, a mighty Sycamore along the Potomac here in the Ag Reserve started as a small seed. I’ll be sending this blog post to MCPS and my local, county, and state elected officials; sharing it on social media; and following up as needed.

If this idea resonates with you, take a moment to reflect and consider what you could do to support it and help turn it into a reality. Let’s create a farm that would be a resource for local students at all levels, supports new and established farmers, and helps community members learn about agriculture, nutrition, and ecology. A reality of nutritious food being savored in cafeterias, students enjoying the fresh air, local farmers thriving, and people not only dreaming but working together–for a healthier, vibrant, and more inclusive community.

Let’s bring the successful model of a school system farm to Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve!

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