Farming as an Education: Conversations with a Schoolteacher

Exploring the intersection of agriculture, learning and philosophy

Agricultural education comes in both formal and informal packages. The formal route: official training programs, seminars, apprenticeships, workshops. The informal route: hoping you don’t decimate an entire crop of tomato plants while learning on the job how to prune them. 

Education can happen at your kitchen table, nose in a book by any of the great agriculture revolutionaries. It can happen by communing with the land, feet (hopefully bare) touching the soil, absorbing some trust in the natural processes that will compensate for any mistake you might make in your learning. The irreplaceable vehicle for agricultural learning, though, is conversation. Language and discussion are the bloodline of the burgeoning effort to make farming more sustainable, more inclusive, more reciprocal, and more possible. And when out in the field, elbow-deep in the work of cultivating food, conversation is the pulse of agricultural learning.

I first met Hayden Schulingkamp on Gibbet Hill Farm in the spring of 2019. We were both working on the farm crew there for the season. Hayden is the kind of person who listens deeply, responds thoughtfully, and won’t hesitate to quote Aristotle at a 7 AM farm crew meeting if it applies. Hayden is also a person of great morale, which is perhaps the most valuable asset on any farm, especially in the hot summer months. To believe in the mission of growing food while tending to romantic tasks — seeding trays in a steamy greenhouse in the dead of winter, for example — is one thing. But to maintain that enthusiasm on a ninety-five degree day in August, with the sun beating down as you hand-weed or harvest, is another. (When you unpack your CSA share or your grocery store haul onto your kitchen counter, you can be sure that someone, somewhere, fertilized those foods with their own morale.)

An anecdote to illustrate Hayden’s morale occurred on a midsummer afternoon while the Gibbet crew was out harvesting cherry tomatoes in the field. Cherry plants can grow to surpass five or six feet tall and are trellised toward the sky, so some shade was available. Still, the humidity hung around us like a soup, and morale was fading fast. 

From his section of cherry tomatoes, Hayden began eloquently reciting a Greek myth with a fantastically-distracting narrative arc that entranced us all, complete with boomingly-alive characters and moral repercussions. This tale sparked conversations among us about religion, folklore, belief, death. What began as a sweaty, sluggish afternoon chore transformed into a seminar stage for philosophical debate, the airing-out of ideas, and ultimately, learning.

Hayden’s story

Louisiana serves as the backdrop for Hayden’s early years. While he has brought with him to Massachusetts his southern hospitality and his well-loved copy of Patout’s Cajun Home Cooking, it’s this fertile Southern state where Hayden grew his roots.

Although it began from an early age, Hayden’s love of learning deepened during his undergraduate experience at Louisiana State University. He found, as fortunate students do, some amazing professors who created classrooms where debate, curiosity, and discussion-based learning flourished. In one such class — Conservation Biology — Hayden grew his first community vegetable garden, which inspired his turn toward farming.

After four years of a double-major’s courseload and a schedule that was “filled to bursting” with classes, Hayden found himself with eight months of unstructured time before the start of his Master’s program, and still many questions on which he craved insight.

“I knew I needed to do something completely different,” he said of that break. “I thought I’d try farming.”

Hayden wrote a letter to Slice of Heaven Farm in Folsom, Louisiana, where he then began working. While there, his mentors opened up for him what he described as “an entirely new realm of human experience.” Thus began Hayden’s journey into farming.

“I think I was a little surprised at how philosophical and spiritual farming was,” said Hayden. Once he began, Hayden noted the connection to his body and to the earth that had been absent from his undergraduate curriculum, and certainly from his upbringing.

“I felt like there was a world of fundamental skills that I didn’t really know anything about,” he said. “My suburban upbringing did not teach me about growing food, about building, about cooking… These are skills that I find very humanizing.”

Hayden and I, in the distance, broadforking the soil on a rainy day.

Hayden is now a high school Latin teacher in the Groton, Massachusetts public school system. He compliments his professional teaching life with farming during the summer months at Gibbet Hill Farm, where he has farmed for the past two seasons. The two endeavors, he believes, are not wildly different.

“Both formal education and farming are activities that engage us as human beings by inviting us to be creative,” said Hayden. “They invite our participation in life, and when they’re going well, both a classroom and a field are places of conversation.”

Dialogue and the verbal exploration of ideas happens quite naturally on a farm because, quite frankly, there’s nothing else to do. Farm tasks can be infamously monotonous and repetitive, but that type of labor has the capacity to clear the mind by occupying the hands, and so many ideas and questions can spring from that clarity.

“There’s that Buddhist assertion: Just thin carrots. Just breathe. Just walk,” Hayden said. “We do have that place of meditation on the farm, but I really appreciate when we interrupt that with our conversation and our interaction with each other.”

Farming with philosophy

The seasonal rhythm of agricultural work lends itself well to being woven into one’s life without necessarily having to be a person’s main career path or primary source of income. Farming can dovetail with other careers, providing opportunity for people to become engaged in the process of growing food without being an all-or-nothing lifestyle path.

As any farmer would tell you, agriculture is a constant, gentle, available form of education — one that deeply benefits individuals and communities that participate in it, regardless of the capacity.

“Farming gave me a community, and connected me with people who are living with great intention,” reflected Hayden. “And, it has given so much texture to my life. To never use my hands to create something… life would be so much flatter for me. I would be so much flatter, I think.”

Agriculture offers communities place and purpose through which to gather and connect, to share knowledge and conversation.

Personally, agriculture added a depth to my life as well, one that wasn’t there before I picked up my first broadfork or harvested my first carrot from the soil. I didn’t grow up with a profound connection to my food — or any connection, really — and developing that connection through agriculture has given a new depth to my relationship with my plate and my surroundings. It has also deeply impacted the way I see the world. It has given me information about the earth, our societies, and the connection between the two that my college education alone could not provide

The educational promise of agriculture is strong and growing stronger, with people all over New England forging new connections to the process of growing food. Community Supported Agriculture programs are popping up all over the region, work shares are available at farms in many counties, and some schools have even incorporated garden-based learning initiatives. No matter how we choose to engage with agriculture — through buying local, volunteering on the land, or dedicating our careers to it — we have so much to gain, and so much to learn.

A Love Letter to Garlic

Oh, garlic. Sweet, sharp, creamy garlic.

The crop that thrives under harsh conditions, growing and evolving independently underground during the freeze of winter. Buried deep in its nest of soil and mulch, mycelium and ice, taking its rest and trusting its timing.

The eager one, first to emerge from its hibernation come spring, gracing desolate brown and grey New England fields and gardens with little shoots of bright green hope.

The experimental one, boldly trying out different styles and incarnations, from tender scapes in July to withering brown fronds in September. And all the while, it remains firmly rooted to the earth by its growing bulb.

The ever-present one, hung from rafters and windowsills as the fall descends, curing for storage in those cooling days. Inarguably reliable, gracing our kitchen shelfs long after the plants have returned to the soil.

And the forward-thinking one, its biggest cloves kept for seed for next year’s planting, for next year’s bellies; the plant’s own genetic structure improving each season.

I am always amazed by the sturdiness, ingenuity, and consistent growth that a garlic plant displays; always awed by the birth, death, rebirth cycle that plays out year after year, season after season.

And in the kitchen — whether smashed, sliced, or minced; roasted, stewed, or sautéed — garlic’s unapologetic pungency is unmistakable and worthy of celebration.

Leadership & Regeneration at Gibbet Hill Farm

Supporting Young Farmers, Local Communities and the Land

Gibbet Hill Farm is a three-acre diversified vegetable and herb farm located in Groton, Massachusetts. Owned by the Webber Restaurant Group, this small organic farm supplies fresh produce year-round to the company’s restaurants and caterers. Sprawling across the slopes of Gibbet Hill iself, the farm offers sweeping views of the Merrimack Valley and borders an expansive pasture of about 40 black angus cattle. 

For the past four seasons, the farm on Gibbet Hill has been managed by seasoned grower and Vermont native Kayleigh Boyle.  She arrived at Gibbet from Gaining Ground Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, where she worked for eight seasons prior, both in the field and behind the scenes in the office. After discovering that her inspiration was most engaged during her time in the fields, she followed the path toward management and, eventually, to Gibbet.

I spoke with Kayleigh about her experience at Gibbet, her background, what inspired her to pursue agriculture as a career, and of course, about all things farming.

Farming As An Education

“Farming is an education unto itself,” Kayleigh said. “It’s a way for all of us to see what we can do when we put our heads down, and it’s incredible to see such tangible products at the end of the day.”

Having begun her career at Gaining Ground, a volunteer-oriented farm, Kayleigh was introduced to farming initially as a conduit for community engagement, one that exposes the human inclination to contribute to meaningful, tangible work.

“I think it’s a human need, and it’s empowering in so many ways,” Kayleigh said. “No matter how small a task someone does on a farm, they can really see the incredible impact they can make.” 

Regenerative Agriculture

Gibbet Hill is a regenerative, no-till, organic farm— a status that has been spear-headed and sustained by Kayleigh’s work and commitment. In the world of agriculture, these distinctions have profound impacts on the health of the land.

Regenerative agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It goes beyond being simply sustainable, beyond just maintaining resources, to become a truly regenerative, holistic form of land management.

No matter how small a task someone does on a farm, they can really see the incredible impact they can make.

One pillar of regenerative agriculture is the adoption of a low- or no-till approach to soil management. Tilling is defined as digging up, agitating, and breaking up soil, particularly with machinery, prior to planting. A no-till philosophy adheres to the idea that by disrupting the soil as little as possible, the microscopic ecosystems and beneficial fungal networks that make soil healthy can be preserved, and more organic matter can build up in the soil over time, thus improving the overall health of the land.

“No-till revived my excitement around farming,” Kayleigh said. When she discovered that many organic growers actually borrow techniques from conventional farming (like using broad-spectrum, organic-certified sprays), she decided to dive deeper into what truly regenerative farming would look like. “Some large-scale organic farms can be just as detrimental to the land as conventional farming; it felt like I went one level deeper from organic to discover no-till.”

Gibbet’s beds, decorated with compost, prior to planting.

The impact of successive seasons of farming with no-till practices are evident in a palmful of soil scooped from any bed on the farm. It’s soft, fluffy, evidently aerated, and teeming with insect life. Other regenerative practices implemented by Kayleigh and her crew include cover cropping, plant species diversification, and use of compost — all of which improve soil quality, as well.

Regenerative agriculture not only enhances land health, but it also inspires a different kind of relationship with the land, one that honors the natural ability of an ecosystem to heal and regenerate when disturbed. This new kind of relationship ripples out to affect local communities both culturally and socio-economically. 

Benefits To The Local Community

The local community benefits not only from the gorgeous views of Gibbet Hill and the open space that the farm preserves, but also from the numerous ways that the farm engages the community. The main exposure to community members, of course, takes place at the restaurants, which serve farm-fresh produce and meat whenever available. Over the course of the summer, farm and restaurant staff host biweekly Farm Dinners, where community members are invited to share a meal up at the farm, which is outfitted with tables, string lights, and portable stove tops for the evening.

It felt like I went one level deeper from organic to discover no-till.

As for its farmers, Gibbet’s business model (a restaurant owning its own farm) provides an avenue for each member of the field crew to make a living from this work. While farming is often associated with small paychecks and razor-thin margins, Gibbet’s closed-loop model offers a more sustainable example of an agricultural career — one that will hopefully gain traction in New England and beyond.

Buying Local

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kayleigh launched Gibbet’s first Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, during the 2020 season. CSA members picked up boxes of fresh produce from the farm once a week from spring to fall to reduce the need for shopping in grocery stores and to keep folks connected with the land. For its first year, the CSA reached capacity quickly, serving over 75 families in Groton and surrounding communities.

Kayleigh stands beside the cattle pasture as she hauls a fraction of Gibbet’s 2019 garlic harvest.

“I think there were many reasons why people flocked to buying from CSAs and farm stands this year,” Kayleigh said. “I’d like to think people were thinking of the health qualities of buying more nutrient-dense food grown right around the corner from where they live.” She noted that many CSA customers expressed appreciation simply for the ritual of picking up produce at the farm to take home and prepare, and that it added to their overall feelings of health.

As the shift toward local food grows, the shift toward small-scale regenerative agriculture continues to expand and provide boosts to local economies. And as the cultural awareness around local food deepens, communities are presented with the opportunity to learn how to work with nature rather than against it.

Kayleigh will continue to push this cultural shift forward in her next farming endeavor, in which she’ll establish her own small-scale regenerative farm business in her home state of Vermont. Breadseed Farm, co-managed with her partner, will open for its first season in 2021. As Kayleigh moves on, the management of Gibbet will be handed down to Maria Cross, Gibbet’s former Assistant Farmer.

As this piece of land is handed down for continued stewardship, the cycle of care and intention will continue. Says Kayleigh of this transition: “To be leaving this land better than how I inherited it… that’s a really good feeling.”

Regenerative Agriculture, Regenerative Thinking

Shifting Our Models, Changing Our Minds

When you picture a farm, what types of images come to mind? 

Do you visualize lush fields, clusters of varying crops planted side-by-side, all accented by bursts of color and every imaginable shade of green?

Or do you imagine endless rows of corn stalks neatly arranged in long strips, rolling on into infinity, interrupted only by a stray tractor in the field?

Both of these images are realistic, as both versions of farms (and many more versions, at that) can be found all over the U.S. and the world. Depending on your geographic location, you may live down the street from a community farm or an urban plot. You may have a slice of Eden in your own backyard in the form of a home garden. Maybe an orchard graces your hometown. Or, perhaps you drive by those infamous fields of monocropped corn and soy everyday on your way to work.

It’s true that farms take many shapes and forms. It’s also true that no matter where people settle, the urge to plant seeds and grow food seem to travel with them. Indeed, that urge is an evolutionary instinct and a fundamental necessity.

As a farmer and an environmentalist, I’m interested in putting that classic image of monocropped corn on the shelf for a little while, and instead talking about other ways farming can look. As a person working in this industry, I’m acutely aware of the outside view of farming as an ecosystem-destroying,  land-desertifying behemoth of an industry. And farming can be that, indeed it is that, when practiced in certain ways. But like anything, there are a number of ways to farm, some of which actually have the capacity to heal ecosystems and strengthen communities. The approach I’m referring to is called regenerative agriculture.

According to Rodale Institute, the industry leader in organic agriculture research, regenerative agriculture is “a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.”

That’s a lot for one approach to offer, but regenerative agriculture really can usher in all of these benefits — and at the very least, it holds more promise to do so than conventional, industrialized agriculture.

Let’s break down each of Rodale’s regenerative pillars: Environmental, social, economic, and spiritual.

The environmental impacts of regenerative practices are immediately evident when comparing the regenerative approach to industrial agriculture. Industrialized agriculture is defined by monocropped fields, heavy use of chemical inputs, and intense soil disruption. It is scientifically proven that these practices destroy topsoil, lead to desertification of land, release tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, and leak chemicals into our food and our water systems. 

In contrast, regenerative agricultural practices can actually turn that damage around and improve the resources used, rather than depleting or destroying them. For example, regenerative ag can take carbon dioxide from the air (where it does damage) and put it back into the soil in the form of carbon (where it actually does a whole lot of good) through a process called carbon sequestration. 

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.

From a socio-economic standpoint, regenerative agriculture holds the capacity to be deeply healing not only for ecological communities but for human communities as well. Investing in regenerative agriculture at the community level inevitably creates space for the establishment of local businesses and the generation of revenue to stimulate a local economy, while making healthy, nutrient-dense food available to community members. As the global pandemic and economic crisis reveal the weaknesses in our social systems, the value of regenerative models, in agriculture and beyond, offer less fragile structures in the face of social and economic turbulence.

Finally, there’s the spiritual, or cultural, perspective. The shift from industrial to regenerative models takes us, individually and collectively, from a “use, abuse, and abandon” mindset to an “if it’s broke, fix it” mindset. In other words, regenerative models of growing food, supporting economies, and feeding communities takes the attitude of extraction and exploitation that rules our current industrialized agriculture system and replaces it with an attitude of responsibility to preserve, protect, support, and work with rather than against nature. This step is perhaps the most crucial, as the physical shift toward regenerative models requires first and foremost a shift of mindset. The cultural implications of adopting an attitude of responsibility in our ecosystems, economies, and communities are enormous, and are certainly a major reason why more regenerative farms are cropping up across the country and the globe.

There’s a quote of Aldo Leopold, the American author, scientist, conservationist, and environmentalist, that reads: “When we see land as a community to which we all belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” This perspective, to me, encapsulates the environmental, social, economic, and cultural implications of shifting to a regenerative mindset, and ultimately toward tangible regenerative models in agriculture and beyond. 

To protect and defend anything, we must first identify it as something to which we belong and as something that we respect. To imagine that we will change anything in this world — be it environment, social fabric, economy, or culture — without first deeply resonating with and respecting that thing is naive and unrealistic.

The regenerative mindset offers us an invitation to cultivate that resonance, respect, and ultimately, rebellion. 

The resonance of a gardener planting a seed, turning over a bed, feeding the soil.

The respect of a naturalist touching the bark of a maple tree before harvesting its sap to boil.

And the rebellion of a farmer, planting something other than all those rows of corn.