A little ways north on Route 206, just past the Lawrenceville School golf course, a movement is growing. A focus on experiential learning opportunities is reinvigorating the Big Red Farm, currently an eight-acre spread that is home to School-owned pigs, grazing sheep, and a wide variety of fruit and vegetable crops.
Developed from the spark of an idea some six or seven years ago, the farm’s potential for teaching lessons in animal science, food production, environmental ethics, and sustainability is limited for now only by its lack of infrastructure and the absence of a comprehensive program. But Director of Experiential Education John Hughes and Farm Director Steve Laubach are hoping to change that.
“The Big Red Farm was a really good idea,” says Hughes, “but while the farm became part of the School, the School hasn’t yet fully absorbed it.” A Farm Advisory Committee, populated by faculty and staff across academic and staff departments, was convened earlier this year to re-evaluate the role and function of the farm. “We’d like to increase our livestock, for example, whether through ownership or through strategic partnerships with nearby farms,” says Hughes, “but we need barns, we need electricity.”
On a trip to the farm in early April, fields were awaiting spring planting, piglets huddled together for warmth in their trough, and the only source of shelter for the humans working the farm was an open, unheated shed. “We develop most of our seedlings in the greenhouse attached to Kirby Math and Science and in grow boxes in the science labs,” explains Ian MacDonald, one of two farm operations managers hired this year. “We’ll transplant them once they are strong enough to survive in the fields.”
MacDonald estimates that 8,640 seedlings have been started so far this spring, including in the two hoop houses constructed by student volunteers. These spring vegetables – lettuces, chard, broccoli, cabbage – will be followed by eggplants and squash, peppers and garlic, and 1,080 tomato plants. Yearly crops are supplemented by perennials – fruit trees, asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries and strawberries.
Much of the produce from the farm, as well as its animal products, is consumed in Lawrenceville’s two dining halls during the school year. In the summers, the farm supplies the School Camp, where Jan Wise, who shares day-to-day management responsibilities with MacDonald, serves as assistant director.
MacDonald and Wise were lucky finds. Both happened to be living on campus, and both had significant farming backgrounds. Jan worked on her family’s 12-acre organic farm in the Poconos raising fruits and vegetables before coming to Lawrenceville with wife Kelly Wise. Ian studied horticulture, taught outdoor survival skills, and, most recently, spent six years at nearby Cherry Grove Farm developing the profit-making potential of 2,000 chickens, 70 pigs, 50 beef cows, and 18 dairy cows for cheese.
So far, says Laubach, student involvement has primarily been through the lifetime sports option, the Big Red Farm Club, and individual Houses. This past winter, he piloted a campus-wide maple sugaring project, with volunteers collecting 120 gallons of syrup. Last summer, MacDonald, then working as a volunteer, created Big Red Farm Hot Sauce from farm-grown peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Applications are currently being accepted for seven paid student internships in summer 2018.
Laubach sees increasing interest in both the curricular and co-curricular promise of the farm from campus constituents, and next June he plans to use faculty Woods Grants to help colleagues develop a farm curriculum that crosses academic disciplines. “We’re working with three main program areas,” he says, “the farm and related curriculum, the co-curricular aspect, and community service. There’s a growing recognition of how the farm can be a larger part of the both the School community and the wider community.”
For its part, the Farm Advisory Committee is exploring three big questions: 1. What is the potential for the farm? 2. What do we want to do with it as a school? 3. What do we need in order to meet these objectives?
The wish list includes, along with heat and electricity, an outdoor classroom/kitchen/event space. “Just imagine if we could take students through the entire chain of farm-to-table food production in one afternoon,” says Hughes. Electricity would enable heating and venting of the hoop houses, extending the farm’s growing season year-round.
“We’ve proven this experiment can work,” he adds, “and we know there’s inherent value for us. Now we need to find the right scale to have the maximum educational impact.”
In its earliest days, produce was grown on three acres of the farm’s land, with a decline to less than an acre in the last growing season. This summer will take production back up to between three and four acres, plus the hoop houses, plus the perennials.
For Laubach, any consideration of the farm must acknowledge the “amazing legacy” of pioneering environmentalist Aldo Leopold, Class of 1905. Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, proposed the concept of a moral responsibility to the natural world and remains a classic of conservationist literature. Laubach, who earned his Ph.D. in environmental science in the shadow of “The Shack,” where Leopold developed his now-famous “land ethic,” says, “The Big Red Farm is about as good a way as there is to extend that legacy to today’s students.”