A boy and a chicken at Common Ground Urban Farm

From the Ground Up

It’s hard work catching a chicken. Kids squat and chase in pursuit, feathers fly, parents look on equally amused and alert. “I don’t think I have ever touched a chicken before in my life,” says one mother. Changing that sort of thing is exactly what Common Ground High School, Urban Farm and Environmental Education Center is all about.

It’s a sunny weekend in early April, kicking off the Open Farm days that run every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with opportunities to explore the farm. This particular day is a special one, featuring a $10 seed planting workshop with full-time staff member and Farm Manager Shannon Raider. She uses organic soil and guides visitors through the process of planting flowers and vegetables like tomatoes (okay, okay, technically a fruit), green beans, and pumpkins.

Jessamyn Ramona, 6, is visiting with her dad and friend, Pauline Makinano, 11. They gladly pose for photos while watering their freshly planted seeds. “Gardening was my favorite part of the trip,” says Jessamyn, while Pauline says with a wide smile, “I loved getting my hands dirty!”

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Jessamyn will attend Common Ground’s summer camp, one of many community programs geared toward families. “A big part of our mission is to connect kids, parents, and the New Haven community to both the natural world and the sources of their food,” says Joel Tolman, Director of Development and Community Engagement. “We try to open as many doors to do that as possible,” whether that means captivating the 4,000 students who visit each year as they dig their first carrot out of the ground or motivating a family to take a first hike in the surrounding West Rock Park.

Either way, Tolman hopes community members find a compelling reason to return—after-school workshops and summer programs, perhaps, or visiting the Saturday market to buy fresh eggs raised right on the farm. Those eggs are cleaned by students like sophomore Stephanie Torres, by the way, who works on weekends to help kids pick up those elusive chickens and collect and prepare their eggs for sale.

The piglets are also a popular attraction. They just arrived a couple weeks ago and will remain on the farm for the season. A dozen or so students will be involved with their daily care as the piglets mature. The pigs will also be involved in lessons, including a comparison of their digestive tracts to humans’.

Come fall, the pigs will be sent to a local slaughterhouse, then served for school lunches. Some students will eat them and some will not.

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None of those students is likely to feel compunction about eating from the 15 campus maple trees that were recently tapped for maple syrup, at least. The harvest was celebrated with an early March pancake brunch open to the whole community, which featured a fully operational Sugar Shack, part of the outdoor classrooms at Common Ground.

That outdoor learning theme is extended by more than a dozen exhibit boards and posters along trails throughout the grounds, each written and designed by Common Ground’s high school students and young participants in after-school programs. They worked with staff at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History to create the exhibits, which outline “lessons from the land” on a variety of topics including human and natural history, science and technology, and environmental and agricultural practices.

Common Ground will put some of those principles into practice as plans get underway to build a new community-gathering and teaching space in time for the fall 2014 semester. The construction will allow the high school to expand to 225 students from its current enrollment of 175. Energy will be generated by solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling; trees felled to clear the site will become lumber for the building and campus. Architectural highlights include airline hanger doors that open to nature for a seamless indoor/outdoor flow.

In the meantime, there are plenty of spring activities to engage the community (and engaged we are; more than 10,000 visited Common Ground last year). You can try your hand at cheesemaking with locally produced milk, or participate in a family cooking class that will harvest strawberry and rhubarb and then transform the bounty into healthy fruit tarts. You could take a lesson on home composting, or listen and sing along during a barnyard jamboree for kids.

Beyond the campus, Common Ground gets around, with a mobile farm market in collaboration with City Seed to get to elderly housing complexes and public housing neighborhoods, increasing their access to fresh food.

But it all comes back to the farm, which is the classroom and focal point of the community programs. “It may seem like a lot of different pieces,” says Tolman of their many initiatives and accomplishments, “but our job is to make sure all those pieces connect.”

Not just with each other, but also with the students and their community. “Our students do their best work when they do something they really care about, and it has a public purpose,” says Tolman. “I think that’s a reason our students have had so much academic success. They’re doing something real.”

Common Ground High School, Urban Farm, and Environmental Education Center
358 Springside Avenue, New Haven (map)
(203) 389-4333

Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.

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