By Emily J. Weitz; photography by Michael Heller
The gardens at Hayground started the same year as the school, and in just that way, the seeds have grown. From a few raised beds back in 1996, the Hayground School now has a verifiable working farm — with two greenhouses, 44 vegetable beds in two outdoor gardens, a field with garlic, potatoes, and onions, a rooster and lots of chickens, herb gardens, and a sustainable permaculture patch. They’ve worked on agricultural and preservation projects with the Cornell Cooperative Extension and have contributed to the Hayground Farmers’ Market, which draws in droves of customers every Friday throughout the summer. And the gardens feed the kids: Every day, the students plan, cook, and serve lunch to each other.
“We followed the dream of one of our founders, [Nick & Toni’s owner, the late] Jeff Salaway,” said Jon Snow, The Hayground School founder and director, “who had always hoped we would have our own kitchen and cook our own lunches.”
Once the kitchen was constructed, they looked at the gardens in a whole new way.
“Once we started the cooking program,” said Mr. Snow, “the gardens became really important.”
Students were learning about the connection between what we grow and what we eat. They were taking in the many considerations that farmers need to weigh, from climate to cost to chemicals. And the way they learn in the garden is, no pun intended, organic.
“I love getting my hands dirty and getting to be free,” said Noah Topliff, a 10 year-old Hayground student and farmer, “and not have everybody telling me what to do. It’s relaxing.”
With six compost piles and other methods of composting on the property, students were learning to use everything from the kitchen to create rich soil. The school takes coffee grounds from Java Nation and uses cut grass from their own vast fields.
“We use everything,” said Mr. Snow. “We’re really scientists about it.”
Students learn about the cycle of a seed through observation.
“The seed cycle is magic,” said Mr. Snow. “That’s nature’s gift and that’s where we can begin to see a beautiful design.”
From there, they learn how to plan a meal based on what’s growing in the garden at that particular time. Then they go into the restaurant-quality kitchen, and they learn how to cook it.
“I like the process of cooking,” said Lucien Heilman, 10 years old, “because it gives you life lessons, like how to be able to take care of yourself, cook for yourself.”
The process of serving that food to their friends teaches about accountability and results.
“It’s about following through,” said Mr. Snow. “Let’s say you’re at lunch with all your friends and you burned everything. You’re not going be the most popular kid. Outcomes are tangible in the garden and the kitchen, and you see the importance to yourself.”
Each student spends 10 weeks in the garden, then 10 weeks in the kitchen, and they switch these roles throughout the year. In this way, they’re able to understand the changing seasons as well as the complete cycle of food.
“The garden and the kitchen are like two science labs for us,” said Mr. Snow.
Add to this another layer: The Hayground Farmers’ Market. The students have a stand, where they sell their produce every Friday throughout the summer. They stand side by side with other farmers on the East End, and they learn about the issues facing farmers in this region.
“We talk with growers,” said Mr. Snow. “We’re really interested with the problems farmers encounter.”
One reason Mr. Snow wanted to host the weekly farmers’ market at the school was to show other schools and districts what the kids at Hayground are doing. He also wants to teach others that this is possible.
“It is a great way to show the community that the kids are serious,” said Mr. Snow, “and to show educators and principals that kids could follow through and keep a garden.”
When they started with the greenhouse, The Hayground School was the pioneering school on the East End. Now, lots of schools including Sag Harbor Elementary and Bridgehampton School have greenhouses and gardening programs. But Hayground continues to innovate, to push the envelope further, and to get the students back to the land.