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.

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