A feature from the 2023 Farm Prodcuts Guide.
The high school forensic students working in Avon Grove Charter School (AGCS)'s Micro-Farm have a problem on their hands. They have been asked to determine why there are more feathers than usual around the chicken coop, yet no birds appear to have been harmed. It's all a part of a larger case they are investigating for their forensics class with the birds' molting serving as a clue.
Micro-Farm manager and agriculture teacher Krista Lauterwald encourages students to look for clues around the school's poultry hutch and ask her questions. Afterwards, the teens excitedly compare notes and then head inside to present their conclusions to the rest of their class.
"Our students learn in both indoor and outdoor classrooms here," says Lauterwald of the more than 1,200 students in grades 4-12 who regularly engage with the school's self-dubbed "micro-farm" housed on its 23-acre campus.
The AGCS Micro-Farm Project grew out of the AGCS Green Initiative launched in 2003 to connect students with the natural world through project-based, discovery-oriented learning. As Lauterwald says, "You can't appreciate our food system if you aren't aware of our food system."
Thanks to a series of grants, private donors, and community support, the farm now includes eight sheep, one goat, two alpacas, five ducks, three chickens, and four rabbits. Fleece from the livestock gets used in the high school fiber arts program. During the pandemic when the school was closed, Lauterwald was fortunate to be onsite to film and share the birth of a lamb the students later named "Hope."
The "Bee Academy" is another popular feature. Students can participate in an after-school program to learn about beekeeping on the farm's three hives and harvest honey for the annual tasting event and honey sale.
Middle School Principal GeriAnn Lambert loves seeing how students respond to the Micro-Farm: "It's really fun to see otherwise shy students shine when they talk about the animals." Citing the school's diverse student body which draws from the Avon Grove, Oxford, Coatesville, Kennett, Octorara, and Unionville regions, she says many students may live near farms, but the school may give them their first hands-on experience with farming.
Produce from the substantial garden, raised beds, and greenhouse is used in the cafeteria and surplus is donated to the Chester County Food Bank. During the coldest months of the year, the farm's greenhouse allows Lauterwald to teach students about hydroponic and aquaponic garden systems.
Recent class projects have included everything from painting the systems of the body on a goat, to experimenting with the growth rate of tomato and radish seeds, and even carving the periodic table of elements into pumpkins.
Lauterwald is excited to share that recent Farm to School grants have enabled AGCS to bus its 600 students in grades K-3 from the nearby lower school campus to visit the farm. Those same students are eligible to attend the AGCS Fun on the Farm summer camp program where they learn how to care for the animals and prepare snacks from the garden.
Lauterwald believes food is a great way to connect students of all ages with farming: "I always tell students that if you are interested in food, you should be interested in agriculture."