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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 6th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 13 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 13, Issue 13

Growing opportunity

A Los Olivos school teaches self-reliance and life lessons through organic farm


Tucked away in the tawny-colored hillsides off Figueroa Mountain Road, just a quick jaunt from Michael Jackson’s old Neverland Ranch, rows of elephant garlic, tomatoes, and orchard peaches thrive in the near-summer heat.

The not-so-simple life:
Midland freshman Crawford “Wallis” Cooley harvests garlic in the school’s 10-acre organic garden. The harvest will provide enough garlic for the school to use in its meals for the next year.

This plot of fertile land isn’t your typical garden. But, then again, the Midland School in Los Olivos isn’t your typical school.

Drawing comparisons to a summer camp, Midland was established in 1932 by founder Paul Squibb, emphasizing community and a love of nature. Originally just for boys, the school went co-ed in 1976. It currently has about 80 students in grades 9 through 12, many hailing from different parts of the state, even internationally. They live on campus in cabin-like dorms throughout the school year.

Of all of Midland’s unique features, perhaps none is more distinguishing than its 10-acre organic farm. Michael Ableman, an expert in urban farming, started the farm in 1996, and according to Midland spokeswoman Karen Readey, it fits right in with the school’s philosophy of self-reliance.

“The reason we do it is because we don’t want to take things for granted,” Readey said. “You learn responsibility to the community, but then you also learn how to be responsible individuals. Beyond our lessons, it’s in all that we do.”

Midland has no janitorial staff; students perform all the labor, from cleaning classrooms to waiting tables. They’re also required to participate in a sport each term, but for the third season there’s an option to take a non-competitive activity, like yoga, horseback riding, or working in the garden.

All incoming students are required to enroll in a class called Midland 101, where they’re taught school history and the geography of the area. In the 102 class, each student is given a garden plot. They prepare the soil, plant, and tend to it throughout the season, learning the entire food cycle from farm to fork.

According to Midland teacher Katie Hames, who works with the students in the garden, the farm has evolved from a focus on production to include education; a place where students can learn all about biology, ecology, and native plants and insects. Through trial and error, Hames said the school has figured out what students like to eat, and what its cooks like to prepare.

“It’s a perfect size to supply the kitchen, and in the fall, it’s just amazing to me how much we can produce in this small of an area,” Hames said. “And it gives us the flexibility to be able to plant stuff just for fun.”

All the produce harvested from the garden is used either in school meals or donated to the Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue. Currently, about eight of the garden’s 10 total acres are planted, including tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, and seedless grapes. There’s also a shade house containing butternut squash, watermelons, cantaloupe, and artichokes.

Planting alternates between two separate plots, an upper and a lower field, each year. The lower field has rows of cover crops like rye and heirloom wheat, which Midland’s steers will graze down for the next planting season. The 10 cattle, and four pigs kept in the farm’s pigpen, will provide enough meat for the students throughout the year.

Additionally, the garden is home to a fruit orchard with several varieties of peaches, apples, and berries. Much of it will be saved for jam, for the students’ enjoyment. All the produce and beef is kept in the kitchen’s large walk-in cooler or freezer, and will eventually end up on the dinner table.

For the most part, farming is low-tech. Students learn about organic practices in their conservation and agriculture classes, and do everything from building compost piles to tilling the land, planting, pulling weeds, and cultivating.

For the past two semesters, it’s been the job of Midland junior Miles Dakin to provide slop for the pigs and compost for the farm. He regularly hauls garbage cans full of raw vegetable scrap from the kitchen to the garden, where it’s mixed with manure and applied prior to planting.

“The compost is just to put more nitrogen and carbon into the soil so the plants can grow better, and so we’re more sustainable,” Dakin explained. “By having our plants have these nutrients, they taste better, they grow bigger, and they’re stronger.”

With the help of local landscaper Greg Donovan, the students’ latest project in the garden has been planting hedgerows of native plants, such as sage and elderberry, to attract pollinators.

“We planted these plants all along this road that essentially bloom all year round,” Dakin explained. “We just try to have habitat for butterflies and bees. Because we’re organic and we don’t spray, we want to increase any insects that are beneficial and eat other insects.”

Freshman Crawford “Wallis” Cooley, 15, came to Midland from Sonoma County, where his parents manage a 200-acre vineyard. He’s worked on the school farm for two seasons and regularly visits to drive tractors and perform random jobs. He enjoys the work and hopes to start his own organic farm someday, selling his produce to farmers’ markets.

“I knew the rough outline of farming, but I never knew in depth like this,” he said. “We get to hang out here and do work and write and observe, and it’s awesome because I love the outdoors so it’s a beautiful place to do it.”

In addition to the farmland, Midland owns 3,000 acres of surrounding area, providing students with room to explore and learn. The Midland curriculum is rigorous, with a focus on energy conservation and sustainability.

The school also has its own wells, and students have installed solar panels, supplying Midland with about 20 percent of its energy. Cell phones are a no-no, and though students can have laptops, they aren’t allowed movies or videogames. Each morning, they’re also required to chop wood to feed their shower fires for hot water. Cooley said the hard labor has given him an appreciation for where things come from.

“I collect the wood, then I cut the wood, then I stack the wood and make the fire, and I heat the water,” he said. “It’s all a strange, but interesting process.”

Midland held its graduation on June 2. Back in the garden, Midland teacher Hames will plant pumpkins, squash, and melons for the students to enjoy when they return from break. In the fall, Hames said, the garden supplies the kitchen with about 90 percent of the produce needed for meals. Anything the school can’t grow themselves is purchased from local farmers.

Along with using the farm for education, she hopes her students become accustomed to eating healthy food and realizing where their food is sourced.

“It’s a good thing for the kids to be aware of, in terms of where their food’s coming from and where it’s grown,” she said. “So many people have lost touch with how you actually grow food, so it’s a skill people are going to need more and more. It’s pretty simple, but it’s great to be exposed to it when you’re younger.”

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas at

Weekly Poll
How should the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District improve its A-G completion rates?

Align graduation requirements with university entrance requirements.
Ensure that students and parents are well aware of A-Gs and what they are before high school.
Improve support services and summer school classes for students who fall behind.
Completion rates are fine as is. Not everyone wants to go to a four-year college!

| Poll Results