In 1982, English teacher Margo Morris had an idea: to establish a farm on the grounds of the school at which she taught—Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, Connecticut—so that students could gain a practical education with their hands in the ground. She was in for a rough ride—but she turned that rough ride into part of the education she provided. Thirty-one years later Sprout Creek Farm is proudly thriving, providing a hands-on education to children and adults year-round and selling its products throughout three states.
Bringing Reality to Learning
“I co-founded Sprout Creek Farm way back in ’82 while I was an English teacher in a high school,” Morris told Calmful Living. “Part of why we did it was because of the education shift at that time—we were suddenly starting to ‘teach to the test’ so that students could get into the college of their choice. We thought, ‘Ugh, this is life? This is reality? This is learning how to get to what? The next unreality.’ That’s where we decided to start an enhanced education. We felt we needed to ground kids a lot better. And we thought, what better way to do it than to create a farm? It’s a real thing. This was our attempt to bring basic realities to kids and actually have them participate in all of it.”
Not that anyone except Morris and her cohorts meant for that to happen. “We got permission from the school to do it,” Morris continued. “We later found out that the only reason we got that permission was because they thought it would fail, and they wouldn’t have to think about this mess that this couple of teachers had created.”
The proposed farm received no assistance, save that given by a few charitable individuals. “People gave us things, including edibles,” Morris said. Unfortunately, one of those items was not a tractor—something they had to covertly ‘borrow.’ “We started by hotwiring the tractor at the school,” Morris giggled. “The school kind of turned a blind eye to what we were doing because we were way behind and in back of and down a hill on the campus. We were quietly making our way through the design of this thing, involving kids in every aspect.”
Making Survival Part of the Education
Despite the naysayers at the top of the hill, the farm carried on. In 1990, while still under the auspices of the school, it was able to move off the campus proper onto a property with a lot more acreage, where they created year-round programs.
But Sprout Creek Farm was never able to secure stable funding, leaving them to survive by hook or by crook. “One of the things that I think made us more creative than we might have been is that we didn’t have any funding at all,” Morris said.
Morris and her team turned that lack of funding into a remarkable piece of the students’ education. “It made the farming aspect very real,” she related. “It’s what happens to real farmers. We understand a lot of the pitfalls, a lot of the struggles: what happens when the weather doesn’t cooperate and you haven’t got enough saved up; what happens when your machinery breaks down and you can’t afford to do anything but fix it yourself—all that kind of stuff. So I feel actually grateful that we’ve had that kind of a scenario to cope with and to deal with. It’s made us pretty creative.
“For the students, it activates their innate ingenuity. There’s so much that’s buried in human beings that we’ve forgotten, that we don’t use anymore. It’s a kind of creativity that has very concrete results, and if we don’t build that into our education—because it’s no longer built into our parenting—we’ve lost the game.”
That lack of funding, interestingly, also propelled them in the direction of sustainable farming, long before it was called sustainable. “Probably because we were so unsubsidized, we did things the old-fashioned way,” Morris explained. “We read a lot, and Rodale Press was one of the few organizations that was out there back then that questioned the status quo and did things differently. I don’t think anyone called it sustainability. We didn’t call it organic. . . . I don’t know what we called it.”
Sprout Creek Farm Today
These days Sprout Creek Farm, now located in Poughkeepsie, New York, is quite the operation. They have two dairies—for goats and cows—from which cheese is sold throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. They raise chickens, both broilers and hens for laying, and pigs as well. All animals are free-grazing, through various types of hay grown in a variety of soil compositions designed for different forage.
Just as in the beginning, it’s all about the education. Day camps take children as young as 5 years, and residential programs begin at age 10. Students participate in the working farm and also learn environmental lessons through nearby preserved wetlands and forests. They additionally gain knowledge about the less fortunate through taking food to shelters and soup kitchens, and talking to the people there.
Adults are at the farm too in the form of college interns, and even as beginning farmers who want to learn how it’s properly done.
As one might guess, the students never forget their experiences at Sprout Creek Farm. “We hear kids say things like, ‘I’ve learned more in ten days then I’ve learned in four years of high school,’” Morris concluded. “You have to take some of that as a little hyperbole because they’re kids. But the point that they’re trying to make, I think, is that what they’re learning is not compartmentalized. There is an integration point and it’s perceivable—even if it’s not very describable to them—which is something they need.
“They’re learning all around something, not just whatever the curriculum says you have to know. So let’s say we’re having a program where they’re here for ten days and it’s in the middle of goat birthing. The objective is to teach them everything about what mothers and babies need, but not just keep it in their heads; they have to learn how to literally deliver babies. If that means finding all their legs and the head and getting these in the right position, then they’re coached through that and they learn to do it.
“Once they get through activities like that, they feel they are actually more open to receiving information because they’re doing things with it. It’s not that their learning more; it’s that they’re learning deeper—that’s the objective.”
For more on Sprout Creek Farm, please visit www.sproutcreekfarm.org