As FoodCorps Service Members, we are constantly thinking about how to connect traditional school subjects to gardening and nutrition. We often teach science classes in the garden where kids can learn about plant parts, soil, garden critters and much more. It is also common to connect the garden to math (measuring) and English (reading and writing garden stories.) One of my favorite ways to connect gardening and nutrition with school learning is through social studies. One example of this is a project that Mrs. Houchin’s 3rd grade class did where they replicated farming methods from the turn of the century in Butte, Montana.
Butte is a very unique copper mining boom town in Southwest Montana. Now a city of only 34,000, Butte was at one time the largest city west of the Mississippi. Old buildings, steel mine shafts, and open pit mine and some beautiful mountain ranges dominate the landscape. It is also really cold here – even by Montana winter standards! Last year it snowed on June 17th and the temperature dropped down to 22 degrees on September 10th. Despite the unpredictably cold nights and environmental scars, Butte has three striving school gardens, several community gardeners, an abundance of backyard growers and is home to the SIFT Farm at NCAT (the National Center for Appropriate Technology) headquarters. Contrary to popular belief, it is very possible to grow food in Butte!
Farmers and gardeners have been using creative ways to extend the growing season here since the early 1900s. Last year my coworker sent me an article from the 1906 Anaconda Standard about the Chinese Gardens in Butte (can be read here). The article read:
“Queer isn’t it, that near Butte, despite all of the croakings and assertions that nothing can grow within miles of the smoke area, the most fertile areas in the state should exist? But that is strictly the case and they are found within a few miles of Butte on Basin creek and the Nine Mile. They are the Chinese gardens and are so cultivated that thousands of bushels of roots and other vegetables are raised every year from a few acres of land. And generally they are raised at a good profit too, one garden of 10 acres averaging $8,000 worth of produce every season.”
One technique they used were “hot beds.” A hot bed is essentially a cold frame, placed over an area of buried manure. The decomposing manure heats up the area from below, and the sun shining through the windows of the cold frame heats up the area from above.
Mrs. Houchin’s class learned about this old farming technique and headed out to the garden to build their own! It took a whole class period to put the cold frame together and dig a deep enough hole. The next week we placed some food scraps and some hot sheep manure from an NCAT staff member into the hole, covered it with topsoil and placed the cold frame on top. Then we planted some lettuce in the soil underneath the cold frame. The students measured the temperature of the soil inside and outside of the hot bed for a few days. Unfortunately, the Butte wind blew the cold frame off the bed and broke it. As with most of my FoodCorps experiments, it didn’t work out like I had planned, but I still think it was worthwhile!
The students took away different things from this lesson. For some, the idea of decomposition really stuck with them. One boy stopped by the garden after school and said “I really need to tell you something,” and then continued with a story about how he had some food molding in his desk, just like the food scraps we buried in the hot bed. I hope that others will take away the curiosity and awareness that there are lots of different ways to grow, gather and eat food.
Whether students are learning about diverse food traditions and gardening techniques, food justice and farm worker’s rights, or the Chinese gardens of Butte, I hope that they come away with an awareness of the varied ways that people connect with food and the land.
Andi grew up in Maine and first fell in love with growing food after working harvest seasons at various farms. She picked strawberries as a teen, worked on a rutabaga farm, and volunteered through WOOFF on a family farm in Alaska. Andi studied Anthropology at Middlebury College, where she became interested in how people relate to their environments, in particular how we relate to food. After graduating, she spent two years working at a school for experiential education with middle school students. She loved working with the kids, and wanted to integrate farming and nutrition into her teaching. She went on to spend a season working on a diverse vegetable farm to expand her knowledge about growing food. She is excited to serve a second year with FoodCorps so she can continue to combine her passions for teaching kids, farming/gardening, and issues of food access and sustainability. Andi serves in Butte, Montana, where she works with three schools, teaching food and nutrition lessons, helping to build and maintain the school gardens, organizing a farm to school Committee, and helping the food service director purchase local food through a Harvest of the Month program.