Originally published by RSF Social Finance in the Winter 2016 RSF Quarterly
Abbot Hill in Wilton, New Hampshire, is home to High Mowing School, a Waldorf boarding high school, and Temple-Wilton Community Farm, one of the first biodynamic community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in the U.S. Also nearby is the Yggdrasil Land Foundation, an agricultural land trust committed to protecting biodynamic farmland. The result of such close proximity has been an extraordinarily collaborative project between High Mowing, which purchased farmland adjacent to its campus, and Yggdrasil, which purchased the conservation easement rights. The protected land is now used by the school, and is also leased to Temple-Wilton to support its grazing and feed needs. In the midst of all this activity, Brad Miller, a biodynamic farmer turned teacher at High Mowing, developed an innovative horticulture program that engages students in the many facets of stewarding land while learning life lessons from it. Katrina Steffek, RSF’s chief operating officer, spoke with Mr. Miller about what his students gained in their study of diversified and balanced farm ecosystems.
Katrina Steffek: Tell us a little bit about High Mowing School.
Brad Miller: We’re in our 73rd year since the founder, Beulah Emmet, started this school. She chose this place, which was originally her summer farm home, to provide young people with something she realized was needed: fresh air, trees and granite. A fire here in 1970 destroyed the majority of the old school building. All of Mrs. Emmet’s personal possessions were destroyed; however, nothing of the students or the new school was damaged. There’s an interesting metaphor in there: that this is really a place for students.
How did you first get involved?
Miller: I have been involved with the school since 2009. I was running a CSA program on the property and renting land, and I started volunteering with students. In 2010, I offered two horticulture classes. Within two years, I was full time at the school, and we had integrated horticulture and garden work across the science curriculum and more. Now the program is a signature one for the school.
How has the horticulture program affected students?
Miller: For those freshmen who went through it four years ago, when we broke ground together and erected the greenhouses, they have a sense of accomplishment. The students that arrive now often can’t tell that the garden hasn’t always been there, so it’s different. Now they are maintaining or nurturing something that’s not for them but for the future, which is very hard for an adolescent to grasp. When that happens, it becomes more than just taking care of the carrots or the beets. It’s about soil microbiology. It’s about resource management. It’s about fair and equitable distribution of resources. That’s what they are actually more concerned about.
So it's eliciting additional lines of though around resource allocation and environmental stewardship?
Miller: You just hit on it there, Katrina. That's what I hear from them: environmental stewardship. How do I participate in that? How can I be an advocate for that?
But I sense a real difference in your program, where it’s not so much a lesson plan just outlining best practices. It’s more of a conversation that starts with the ground and soil, and then spurs students to deeper learnings.
Miller: A colleague and I have researched and discussed how so many land grant universities and alternative farming programs teach the mechanics of farming, and so few teach about one’s heart connection to the land. That’s conversation and language that I have with the sophomores, juniors, and especially the seniors. As they mature, we go from direct planting, seeding, compost management, and the alchemy of that to conversations about how we know whether a practice is right. How can I assess what’s best for this place? How would I know in my own life if this is the right choice? It becomes a metaphor for how these students are going to ground themselves and move on in their lives.
Other than the connection to Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, why is the biodynamic aspect important to the horticulture program?
Miller: It’s necessary to know the science and the basis for how to grow food. But if one doesn’t meditate and have a self-development practice, one is going to miss the very subtle influences that farming, weather, and nature unfold. It isn’t a linear exercise. So often when I was first farming, 16 or 17 years ago, I would say, “I grew that.” If something was in the way, I took it out. It was very self-centered. As I became more exposed to people practicing biodynamics for 10, 20 or 30 years, I would hear, “I don’t know, let’s wait and see.” This was a completely different approach. With the kids, rather than say, “I’m the expert,” I now say, “I’m learning, too.” And when we look at a situation closely, we sometimes see it in a different light. A pest may not be a problem because it ate four plants; we still have 600. If we wait, is it going to be a problem next year? My experience is now that things come and go. And so with biodynamic prep, it seems to be less of the application of the physical and more of the time spent preparing, thinking about it, and being in the right space to apply it—those quiet moments when you step out of the doing and you start being in your garden.
What’s changed in the garden since transitioning to biodynamics?
Miller: It’s now a place for living things. There is a multitude of species that are in balance with each other. I haven’t had disease pressure. I haven’t had pest pressure or predation where it harms the garden. Things are in check. Our bird life is up. Our insect life is healthy. It isn’t wilderness, but there is wildness. On this property, we’ve had bear, coyotes, owls, foxes, weasels, groundhogs, a mountain lion, wild turkeys, deer, and a whole range of arthropods and insects. We’re now looking at the microbial life underneath, and the kids are starting to realize that the soil is alive. Where before, one of the most common things out of their mouths was, “Oh, that’s dirt, and you just put a seed in dirt and it’ll grow.” Just like their own thoughts and their own dreams, not every seed grows. It takes some nurturing. It takes some maintenance to get it to grow and to bear fruit.
How do these lessons translate into your conversations with students?
Miller: They are less conversations than observations of what students are experiencing in the garden. I have students who would never want to farm or garden—and yet the garden has provided them a platform for place. They now understand that you have to care for something and that it goes through cycles. In a very subtle but profound way, I think it plays very well to the adolescents' own sense of time.
Teenagers are known for having an inward-looking lens. Does the horticulture program aim to bring them out of this mode?
Miller: We don’t want to take that away from them because it is their time to be inward. One of my past mentors told me it was more important that the young people see that I care for the garden deeply as a teacher here. They’re not going to remember the lessons. They’re going to remember me and the effect of how I treat the land or vegetables or even a tool. A tool? Miller: That’s been probably the biggest lesson: whether I pick the tool up and put it away even though it’s wet, we’re tired, and the bell rang. Do we take the time to finish what we started or do we walk away? I had to point out to students that when you leave, you also leave the chickens, pigs and plants that still need your help. You can’t just walk away. Rarely do teenagers, young people—and we should even say adults now—recognize or sense where they’re needed. As soon as somebody is needed, their life is validated. So then it’s not just a rake, but our rake and the next year’s students’ rake. It’s not disposable.
What do you see as the future of the horticulture program?
Miller: It’s really an exciting time because the program has more to give. If we look back to Mrs. Emmet’s original impulse to provide adolescents and young adults with an opportunity to be educated in and amongst nature, we are perfectly positioned at High Mowing. We allow young people a rapidly disappearing opportunity to cultivate their education while immersed in nature. We’re now looking at starting a fifth-year program for people out of high school who want to do a semester or a year here. We have people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who want to come here to work. So we’re trying to create a program that can enriched their lives as well.