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A student harvests lettuce at Rivers School in Weston.
A student harvests lettuce at Rivers School in Weston.Andrea Pyenson

Inside the big white shipping container parked behind a classroom building on the campus of the Rivers School in Weston, it smells like a verdant field on a warm spring day, with a degree of humidity that is completely at odds with the cold, dry air outside. A variety of lettuces, herbs, and a smattering of other vegetables grow on vertical towers in adjustable rows. The sixth-grade students who maintain the school’s Freight Farm cycle through in groups of four to reap the bounty of work they started at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year. The first harvest day was in late October.

“They all love to come in here,” says Emily Poland, who teaches eighth-grade science and is the farm director at this independent school for grades 6 through 12. The Freight Farm and related projects are built in to the sixth-grade curriculum, incorporating humanities, social justice, and science, among other subjects. Students spend time there once a week planting, cleaning, and harvesting. Farming is a club activity for the school’s high school students, who can go in during their free time.

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The Freight Farms container at the Rivers School.
The Freight Farms container at the Rivers School.Stephen Porter for the Boston Globe (custom credit)

Based in Boston, Freight Farms manufactures technologically advanced hydroponic farming systems. In 320-square-foot, climate-controlled shipping containers, users can grow up to 13,000 plants at a time, vertically, without soil. The company was founded in 2010 by Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman. Several area schools, among them Rivers, Boston Latin School, and Worcester State University, are using the farms to grow food for their own communities, for their neighbors, and as educational tools.

For Poland, managing the farm was a natural extension of her teaching. “I like to create curriculum. I care about food. I like to be outside,” she says. One of the sixth-graders’ annual activities, which combines academics with community service, is cooking a meal for the Natick Open Door at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. These are hosted every week and attended primarily by seniors. Poland explains that planning the meal incorporates math skills because the students have to scale recipes to feed up to 45 people. And naturally they use their own greens in the salads.

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The students run a farmers market in the spring. And this year they are maintaining a (very micro) CSA, which one parent won in an auction. The school’s chef, Michael Clancy, also gets involved, using the students’ produce in the dining room, and helping them cook with what they grow — so far this year they have made pesto and herb vinaigrette. “Their pride is really amazing,” he says.

Boston Latin, a public exam school for grades seven through 12, acquired its farm in 2013 after students in the Youth Climate Action Network won the $75,000 prize in the Global Green Schools Makeover Competition. Farming is a student-run after-school activity here, under the guidance of eighth-grade history and civics teacher Cate Arnold, whose evident affection for her students appears to be reciprocal.

Though roughly 70 students have signed up as student farmers, there is a smaller core group that farms regularly, with an even smaller leadership team that is trained by Freight Farms. At the beginning of each academic year the leaders meet to plan what they will grow, who will work to train new students, and organize schedules. They keep track of chores on a whiteboard in the farm.

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Addy Krom, a junior, notes of the farm, “You can come in, it’s a whole different environment. All the stress from school [goes] away.” Adds sophomore Azalea Thompson, “This makes locally grown food more accessible to the city.” The students give the food they grow to faculty members, bring some home, and are working to create a CSA. With Arnold’s help they are also trying to reestablish a more consistent connection to a food pantry in Jamaica Plain, where a former Boston Latin parent, recently deceased, used to deliver their greens.

At Worcester State, Mark Murphy, associate director of dining services, oversees the Freight Farm, which sits outside of Sheehan Hall, the school’s newest dormitory and site of its main cafeteria. Rich Perna, former director of dining, made the decision to purchase the farm five years ago, says Murphy, “to bring hyperlocal produce to the campus.”

Murphy has been responsible for the farm for the last two years. An employee of Chartwells, which has the contract for all of the school’s food services, he grows almost all of the greens for the cafeteria, as well as for alumni catering events, and the salad bar in the food court in the building next door. “I’m learning from trial and error,” he says.

At full capacity, Murphy explains, the farm produces about two acres’ worth of crops. He is constantly looking for different varieties of lettuce that will appeal to the students and is currently “trying to figure out a gourmet mix.” In addition to three varieties of lettuce, he grows kale, rainbow Swiss chard, parsley, and basil. He coordinates with the cafeteria’s cooks, telling them what he is growing so they can plan menus to incorporate the farm’s production.

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Though WSU students are not currently working in the farm Murphy says he promotes the fact that most of the greens in the cafeteria are grown right outside the door. And, he says, “We’re trying to get the word out to get students involved.”

Through a partnership with the Worcester Public Schools and its program that helps young adults with differences transition from school to the workforce Murphy has three part-time helper/trainees. Once a week three students, who have completed high school with a certificate, come (often with a job coach from the program) to seed, plant, harvest, and clean. Murphy is in the process of hiring one of the students, who has aged out of the program. She “has a lot of passion for the farm,” he says.

“I never thought we’d be growing food inside a container,” Murphy says. “I think it may become a necessity someday.”

Andrea Pyenson can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.