Friday, February 26, 2010

Small Farms and Small Schools: Locally Grown and Personal

The last couple of months have been inspirational (and possibly revolutionary?) for me in terms of how I see food and its role in my life.  I've always loved to eat.  I mean, I really love to eat.  During the final meditative pose in yoga I often find myself planning my next meal, and then the meal after that.  For those of you who don't practice yoga, this is a big meditative no-no.  But thinking about the foods that will soon cross my path makes me happy, so I indulge, or succumb, depending on how one wants to see it.

Two months ago I ordered Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  (And then a couple weeks ago I ordered four more of his books.)  The book has informed and challenged me in innumerable ways, both personally and, potentially, professionally.  This might sound a little silly, so I'll try to explain.

The Omnivore's Dilemma chronicles four meals: the industrial/processed, the industrial organic, the pastoral, and the personally hunted and gathered.  The most intriguing section of the book for me focused on pastoral farming, highlighting Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia.  Salatin grows grass, on which he feeds his pigs, chickens, and cows (instead of corn--the more common industrial version of the same farming process).  Salatin rails against industrialized farming, and even the "organic" label--he prizes the locally grown and sold over organic foods that have been shipped cross country or even internationally.  Pollan writes of Polyface Farm, "My guess is that there aren't too many farmers today who are up for either the physical or mental challenge of this sort of farming, not when industrializing promises to simplify the job...yet [these farmers] relish their work, partly because it is so varied from day to day and even hour to hour, and partly because they find it endlessly interesting" (220).

It's the only page in the book that I dog-eared.  I marked this passage because the sentiment so closely parallels how I feel about the school where I teach.  Like Polyface, our school is small, which allows us to be flexible and creative when problem-solving.  Salatin created an Eggmobile for his farm, a portable hen house which he tows around behind the grazing cattle so as to allow the chickens to peck through the cows' waste, "breaking the cycle of infestation and disease" (211).  Okay, so our school doesn't have an Eggmobile, but we have similarly hare-brained yet ingenious schemes that support our kids in equally innovative ways.  And we can do this because we aren't "industrialized", we don't focus on test scores in this era of the standardized test.  Just as industrialized farming would have us believe that corn is (rather covertly) the answer to all of our food problems, our education system would have us believe that standardization and higher test scores are the answer to all of our schools' ailments.  It just ain't so.

Polyface can't be cloned, it can't be scaled, it can't be standardized--it is Joel Salatin's creation of love.  In the same way, fabulous student-centered, small schools can't be mass-produced.  (Sorry Bill Gates...)  Each one is its own creature with specific circumstances and needs.  And children are not factory products to be sorted, standardized, and stamped on their way out the door.  Assessing them through standardized testing is easier, but those test scores tell us very little about children beyond how well they take a test.  Students are individual people whose lives are utterly complex; they bring these complexities with them into the classroom each day.  Just like the workers on Polyface Farm, good teachers find our task at hand---a.k.a. educating the children--endlessly interesting.  Because we know them.  We know if they fought with their mom, or if their dog died, or if they haven't eaten breakfast, or if they performed well at their band's gig last night.  And we know how they learn best.  Or, at the very least, we try our damndest to figure it out.

All I'm saying is we should value a little local love and interpersonal relationships.  Bigger often is not better.

*Tune in for Sarah's next educational soap box: Jamie Oliver and the promise of family-style dining in the someday school's cafeteria.


  1. Oh how I love this post. I've been on the same inspired track as of late and the auntie has been on me about ordering Pollan's books. It was a hot topic this past weekend when she and my Mama were visiting. Thanks for the reminder. Ordering...NOW!

    p.s. I'm always thinking about food. When I'm eating breakfast, thinking about snack. Eating snack, thinking about lunch. And so on. I love food and other people who love it as much as I do!

  2. So here's a way-late post to this -- wonder if you'll ever see it? It's mid-April and I'm far enough through my copy of Omnivore's Dilemma that you sent me to freshly appreciate this essay of yours. It's an outstanding book, and we should go on a breakfast date sometime to further discuss . . . .
    I love you