For the future of Sun Valley
The Sage School’s Garden Project
At 9:30 every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday morning, the seniors and juniors of The Sage School shuffle into the 2,400 square-foot greenhouse on the southern end of the building. Daily tasks for students include all of the pleasantries of maintaining a farm, planting seeds, shoveling dirt, watering plants and, perhaps most satisfying of all, harvesting.
With the patient help of master farmer Dan Freeman, the greenhouse has been producing food for the last 10 months. The 40-by-60 foot structure is currently filled with eight beds of flourishing tomato plants and an aquaponics system (a method of growing plants in water that merges aquaculture, fish farming and hydroponics) that includes four fish tanks and five plant beds that are now reserved for growing lettuce.
But the greenhouse hasn’t always been full of life. “When you look at the greenhouse now, it’s hard to picture it as it was last year,” says Sage School junior Daniel Carnduff. “We built this, ground up.”
When the Sage School moved from its original location next door to the Advocate’s Attic to the old Hailey Nursery building on Airport Drive, the greenhouse was empty. It had no garden beds, no soil, no plants—just a huge patch of bare concrete. With the help of Billy Mann, owner of Sage Brush Solar, the students turned the empty structure into a fully functioning growing space in just a few months. They built eight 12-by-10 foot garden beds, installed solar panels on the outside of the building, and put together the entire aquaponics system. The high school students then moved 30 yards of soil into the greenhouse and filled the beds. Finally, the greenhouse was ready to grow. Soon, tomatoes plants were sprouting up from the beds and tilapia were swimming freely in the tanks. When school got out for the summer, Dan took over full time maintenance and sold the produce at the local farmer’s markets.
School started up again last September, and by that time the greenhouse was a jungle. Tomato plants 15 feet tall shot up from the beds to the ceiling. Instantly, the students were immersed in the farming process. After maintaining the tomatoes for a few months, they pulled all the beds in December to prepare for the winter crops.
Throughout the following months, lettuce, spinach and radishes grew happily in the soil beds. The school sold produce to local restaurants like CK’s in Hailey and through Julie Johnson, owner of NourishMe in Ketchum and to the mother of Sage School student Alagna Ashurst. The greens were a big hit as the greenhouse allowed the school to grow lettuce during the winter—when no one else locally could. Towards the end of March, they pulled everything again and transplanted tomato sprouts into the beds, and so the process continues. Working with a greenhouse means The Sage School has the potential to grow year round. They could not grow anything, however, without the experience and expertise of Dan Freeman.
After 12 years of farming, Dan joined The Sage School faculty in the spring of 2011. In effect, Dan teaches farming and gardening, but working in the greenhouse hardly ever feels like a class. “I’m not teach-y, I’m not preach-y,” Dan smiles as he explains his teaching strategy to me, “I’m just practical.”
And it’s very true—Dan has no curriculum or agenda to follow. “I just want the students to see what it’s like when something’s getting done. That’s what farming’s all about: paying attention and solving problems,” he says. This philosophy is just one of the things to be learned logging hours in the greenhouse, for the impacts of running a greenhouse are far-reaching and significant. While shoveling dirt for five days is incredibly tedious and may not seem like the best use of school time, it’s hard to argue with the results. Few classes offer an end product as satisfying as a plump tomato or a freshly cut salad. Harry Weekes, head of school, sums up the benefits of learning in the greenhouse: “Patience, adaptability, creativity, response, innovation, immediacy, entrepreneurial-ship, quality, learning how to care about yourself by caring for something else—all of this comes from farming.”
The Sage School greenhouse is currently in its 11th month of production. Though the last year was successful, Dan expects much more produce this year. We learned last year how important it is to trim and trellis the tomato plants early and often; we have now started the plants on a schedule to stay on top of the growth. This added maintenance could bring tomato production up by 4 to 5 times last year’s output. That’s what it’s all about: paying attention, solving problems.
Walker Nosworthy recently graduated from The Sage School and will be attending Quest University in Squamish, B.C., in the fall of 2013 after taking a gap year to attend a mountaineering course in Canmore, Alberta.