Feb. 9, 2023 — The greenhouse on the NMH farm is ready for seedlings, thanks to students — and their teachers — in the farm semester program, a new multidisciplinary offering that combines coursework in science, English, and the humanities with hands-on work on the farm.
The program, launched in January 2023, consists of two upper-level courses — “The Science of Farming: Sustainable Land Use,” taught by science teacher Mary Hefner, and “Reading and Writing the Land,” taught by English Department Chair Meg Eisenhauer — and farm work guided by NMH farmers Jake Morrow and Emma Lindale.
The program was made possible by a generous gift aimed at expanding the farm’s role as a resource for learning, offering opportunities for interdisciplinary and experiential learning.
“We get to learn about the land while also reflecting on our awareness of the land,” said Lucas Macedo, a senior from Brazil. “I feel like this class is really going to prepare me for college.
“It’s interesting how it’s all connected,” added Macedo, who plans to attend Cornell University to study agricultural sciences. “We have a lot of hands-on learning, and I am hoping to learn more about agriculture and farming and nature as a whole.”
Students meet every day during two class blocks, which allows ample time in the classroom and outdoors. It’s a chance for a small group of students to share a large chunk of time together each day to dive deeply into the science, culture, and practicalities of making the food we eat.
“It’s a very compelling educational model,” Eisenhauer said. “A cohort of students having an immersive experience that is both rigorously academic and also experiential — and it’s woven together.”
Most days begin in the farm classroom, a small, red building that at one time served as the school’s farm office but more recently housed the plant and property department’s paint shop. It was renovated with new siding, paint, and insulation, the addition of a bathroom, and new lighting, flooring, and classroom furniture and equipment.
On a recent morning, students discussed “Trace,” a book of essays by Lauret Savoy, a professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College. Savoy’s writings explore how America’s still-unfolding history and ideas of race have marked its people and the land. Eisenhauer wants students to hone their skills of observation through reading and discussing literary texts. “You should keep your antennae up for what it is that you are noticing as you read,” she told students.
Students also worked with Hefner recently to examine seeds and plant structures under microscopes to learn about how they are formed and how they work. Later, they took a walk outside to collect a leaf, branch, or another item from nature to study and then recorded their observations in the big gray field notebook that each student uses in class.
These literary and scientific examinations will inform essays that students are drafting based on their journal work and observations. Soon, the students will head into the greenhouse to start planting peppers, tomatoes, leeks, lettuce, and other greens that will eventually be harvested and served in Alumni Hall. They’ll also grow flowers for campus landscaping and gardens and are creating seed catalogs to document their plantings and for others to use as a reference.
Senior John Hanscom is a day student from Hadley who was attracted to NMH in part because of its farm. “I come from another farming community right down the road and so here at NMH I want to be part of that,” he said. “I’m excited about this class because personally I learn best hands-on, and this is a great opportunity to do that.”
While the program has only just begun, Eisenhauer and Hefner say their students are engaged and motivated in the classroom — and undeterred by the demands of farm labor, even on the coldest of days in mid-winter in New England.
“Young people in this age bracket are so capable and competent, and we don’t often enough give them opportunities to contribute in the ways that they really can,” Eisenhauer said. “They are operating as a team and thriving in it, and that’s such a good thing developmentally for teenage people.”