Editorial: Farming is a great way to get students into learning

  • Farmers at work alongside River Road in Whately on Wednesday. Recorder File PHoto

Friday, June 16, 2017

Why did it take so long for local public schools to seize on Franklin County’s oldest industry — agriculture — as a way to energize learning?

The three-year-old farm-based curriculum at the Hawlemont Regional Elementary School in Charlemont has been a big hit with students, staff and the local farming community, boosting enrollment and enthusiasm. Charlemont tree farmer Jay Healy, a former state agriculture commissioner, has noted the HAY program (Hawlemont, Agriculture and You) has galvanized Charlemont and Hawley residents young and old. It is credited with reversing enrollment declines and was instrumental in Heath choosing to send its children to Hawlemont next year.

Encouraged and inspired by this success, the superintendents of Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland and the Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls are planning to extend the concept to their secondary schools.

They have begun discussing the creation of an “animal science” program at Mohawk that would be offered to Franklin County students through both high schools.

Mohawk/Hawlemont Superintendent Michael Buoniconti said he and Tech School Superintendent Richard Martin envision a state-certified vocational animal science program, building upon what has been done at Hawlemont, where the students and teachers care for sheep, goats, pigs and other animals and grow vegetables, all the while incorporating those farm activities in the core academic lessons. While the Mohawk School Committee briefly heard about the idea in last month’s superintendent’s report, it has not yet come before Tech School committee.

Buoniconti sees barns and other animal housing built on the Mohawk campus, but run by both schools.

A farming program at Mohawk, available through both schools, could save money for local towns that now pay tuition and transportation costs for agricultural students going to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton.

With the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture nearby, it makes lots of sense to create an educational pipeline from Franklin County to a higher education degree in agriculture. Interest in farming has grown in recent years along with locavore habits and a new generation of farmers who have opened specialty farms and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

“The next step is for us to develop a draft proposal for this program,” said Buoniconti, who hopes the superintendents will be able to present such a plan to Mohawk and Tech school boards. If both committees support the idea, the next step would be review by the state.

At Hawlemont, local farmers lend their chickens, goats and other animals to the school for the school year and provide the feed for their animals. Buoniconti said he hopes that, along with having small animal livestock at Mohawk, it would also be possible for the agricultural students to visit local farms and get hands-on experience.

If the Hawlemont experience is the model, local farmers will be thrilled to continue mentoring the area’s young people in a vocation they obviously love. We would encourage the elected school committee members at both Mohawk and Tech to embrace an innovation that has deep roots in the past and a bright future.