Woodstock Union High School Teaches Sustainability Through Agriculture

Woodstock Union High School offers students diverse opportunities to learn about agriculture and food production. Along with classes on horticulture and forestry, students can pursue independent studies on topics of interest to them, from hydroponics to wildlife management and much more.

Last year, the agriculture program added a class called Locally Grown, using the school’s greenhouses to grow produce for the WUHS cafeteria. Students in the class care for the plants and keep careful records. They collect compostable food waste from the cafeteria to make soil-enriching compost.

The class is team-taught by agriculture teacher John Hiers and place-based learning coordinator Kat Robbins. On the day I visited last week, Ms. Robbins gave a short presentation on sustainability and had students work in pairs on an activity to consider economic, environmental and social impacts of human actions. Soon they went off to the cafeteria and greenhouse for that day’s tasks.

The teachers explained to me how food education, in addition to providing hands-on experience, is an integrated, multidisciplinary study. Math, chemistry and other subjects are all incorporated into the practice of cultivation. Students see how different areas of knowledge, and different natural and social systems, are connected and interrelated.

The greenhouses, which are filled with many varieties of thriving garden and house plants, are managed by Christine Frohloff. The students seem to really enjoy working in them.

Mr. Hiers pointed out to me that 10% of WUHS’s graduates go on to agricultural studies in college or directly into the field after high school. Currently there are 107 students in agriculture classes. In addition, the school offers a Future Farmers of America club and the Earth Beat environmental group.

Sustainable Woodstock encourages this focus in our community’s schools. Knowing about food systems and having the skills to grow, distribute and prepare food are relevant and necessary elements of a resilient and self-reliant local economy. These experiences also promote an appreciation for nature and an understanding of ecological processes.

Environmental education writers like David Orr, Gregory Smith, and many others have long suggested that one of the causes of industrial society’s destructive exploitation of the planet is a system of schooling that detaches young people from direct experience of nature. Abstract subjects and concepts have taught us to aim for mastery over the world rather than a respectful and reciprocal relationship with it. Author Richard Louv has written eloquently about the “nature deficit disorder” that afflicts young people in our society. WUHS’s agriculture program offers an effective alternative.

Earlier this year, Sustainable Woodstock gave John Hiers a certificate of appreciation for his contribution to sustainability through education. Kat Robbins, a former board member, remains connected to our work by serving on our advisory board. We welcome further collaboration with educators as well as parents in our community. Let’s explore ways to encourage young people of all ages to develop meaningful, experiential relationships to the natural world and skills in growing food.

In a future column I will highlight local food programs in some of the elementary schools in our area. To learn more and find out how you can get involved, see the Farm to School section of the Vital Communities website: vitalcommunities.org/valleyfoodfarm/uvfts/.

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