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Hawlemont School farm program taking root

  • Hawlemont Principal Travis Yagodzinski next to the Pizza Garden at the school growing pizza toppings and herbs. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Hawlemont Principal Travis Yagodzinski next to the Pizza Garden at the school growing pizza toppings and herbs. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Checking out the Library Story Garden at the Hawlemont School in Charlemont are Librarian Mary Boehmer, first grade teacher Samantha Slater and principal Travis Yagodzinski.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Checking out the Library Story Garden at the Hawlemont School in Charlemont are Librarian Mary Boehmer, first grade teacher Samantha Slater and principal Travis Yagodzinski. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hawlemont Principal Travis Yagodzinski next to the Pizza Garden at the school growing pizza toppings and herbs. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Checking out the Library Story Garden at the Hawlemont School in Charlemont are Librarian Mary Boehmer, first grade teacher Samantha Slater and principal Travis Yagodzinski.  Recorder/Paul Franz

CHARLEMONT — When they go back to school on Aug. 27, Hawlemont’s pupils will see a new landscape: new “pizza” and “story” gardens, peach- and apple-tree seedlings, a chicken coop, barn and greenhouse, and — indoors — a “farm kitchen” where Hawlemont classes can make food and sample their harvests.

Hawlemont is gearing up for its first year with a farm-based academic curriculum. And many teachers, staff and school volunteers have become virtual farmers over their so-called school “vacation” months. They have been coming to the school to design and dig new gardens, plant and transplant herbs and seedlings from their home gardens to the school’s.

Also, the staff and teachers have been taking professional development agricultural workshops to help them in their classroom preparation.

“The kids are going to be so excited,” said teacher Samantha Slater, who designed what she calls the Pizza Garden: A pie-shaped garden with raised beds that resemble sliced-pizza wedges. The beds contain tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, and oregano — pizza toppings that Hawlemont students may some day be eating on pies made in the school’s future farm kitchen. Her garden is lined with red mulch, to represent tomato sauce, and she said the school psychologist and her husband helped to build it and other teachers contributed plants.

Librarian Mary Boehmer has created a “Library Story Garden,” as a place where students can gather on benches facing a reader or a story teller. The garden includes perennial herbs, a flagstone walkway and “book stones” upon which Boehmer has painted the book covers of some of the children’s favorite stories. A sundial sits at the center, and on Sept. 1, Boehmer will show the children how to set the sundial to reflect astronomical true north.

“Sam (Slater) and I are doing a permaculture class,” said Boehmer. “Another thing we’re looking at is sustainability, so we don’t have to replace everything every year.”

The gardens started in 2009 by fourth-grade teacher Kimberly Orzechowski are still going strong and include an edible flower bed, vegetables and a “Three Sisters” garden of squash, corn and beans. Another mature vegetable garden on school grounds has potatoes growing in raised beds made from recycled tires. The main vegetables — onions, cabbage, kohlrabi, and lettuce — are surrounded by nibbled soybean stalks. “The soybeans are for the deer,” Slater explained.

“They eat the soybeans and leave the other plants alone.”

Boehmer said staff have had professional development training with Wildside Gardens in Conway and that the school is in contact with the Conway School, a graduate program formerly called the Conway School of Landscape Design. “We’re hoping to get some of the Conway students to come here.”

Slater said the work isn’t just being done on the outside of the school. “We’re inside doing curriculum plans and planning field trips.”

Barn, greenhouse plans

Next week, Eric Dean of Dean Structures and Excavation Inc., will begin preparations to build a greenhouse and a 26-by-36-foot barn. Dean, a school parent, builder, and a former School Committee member, has volunteered to oversee the construction. The barn and greenhouse will have electricity and plumbing.

“When our barn is done, we will have two cows, sheep and baby goats,” said Boehmer.

The livestock at Hawlemont will be “on loan” from local farmers; the animal owners will be responsible for food and veterinary care of their own animals, but children will be taking care of them while they’re at the school.

The first cows to occupy the barn will be Dexter cows, which grow to be about 4-feet-high, according to Boehmer. “They’re like mini-cows,” she said. “They look like Great Danes.

“They’re child-friendly, bottle-fed and halter-trained.”

Students will learn about the timing and planting of seeds. They’ll participate in the canning and preserving of fruits and vegetables in the farm kitchen, which is separate from the school cafeteria kitchen. Also, groups of students will have daily chores that will include feeding animals, watering gardens and recording weather conditions.

The school plans to bring local authors and guest speakers into the school. Some of the food grown here may go to local food banks, be served in the school cafeteria, go to senior citizens or be sold at school fundraisers.

For several years, Hawlemont, like other West County schools, has been looking for ways to boost enrollment and make best use of its available resources.

Last September, school board Chairwoman Ivy Palmer, a small-scale farmer, raised the idea of a school-based farm program, to give children a “hands-on” educational experience, using agriculture as a teaching tool for children.

Community support and enthusiasm grew and this spring, the school received a $130,000 Community Innovation Challenge Grant to pay for farming equipment and educator training programs.

Hawlemont’s inspiration was the transformation of the Walton Public School in Kansas, which was on the verge of closing in 2006 because of low enrollment. The school had only about 100 students until it was converted to an agricultural-curriculum charter school, now called the Walton Rural Life Center. The school now has full enrollment, and a waiting list through 2018.

Since member towns Hawley and Charlemont are farm towns, the new curriculum plans seemed a good fit with the community’s heritage and family histories.

“I think a big part of this is the staff is so excited, too,” said Slater. “We had a staff work day here, and everyone came to work,” she said.

“We’ve had wonderful school support,” added Boehmer. “There’s almost so much community support we’re taking time to figure out how to use it all.”

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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