Farm to School program at BFA Fairfax has a successful first Harvest Dinner

A platter of roasted Brussels sprouts, cooked squash, carrots that have been sliced and baked, and mashed potatoes are just some of the dishes that grace the tables. 

Bags of thyme, sage and parsley are for sale alongside jars of honey and heads of garlic.

Every October at BFA Fairfax, 200 community members come to the annual harvest dinner, hosted by the school’s Farm to School program. The program runs year-round and is comprised of classes, an after-school club and a summer volunteer program.

Fred Griffin, who heads the farm’s operations, says the first year’s Harvest Dinner was hugely successful. “We had 200 community members come in and eat the food from the garden we planted, and things were rolling.”

The history of the program is a long one by high school standards. “Four years ago, I’m recovering from having ankle surgery,” Griffin says. He got a phone call from Tom Walsh, BFA’s elementary school principal and the supervisor for grounds and buildings.

“He asked if I’m willing to work with a Farm to School club if we form one… and I say, ‘Yeah!'” Griffin has worked as an English teacher at BFA Fairfax for nearly 20 years and is an experienced home gardener. He has gray hair, which he cuts every three months, and wears wire-framed glasses. He uses his hands whenever he speaks, his voice creaky but eager, much like the man himself.

Since that phone call, Griffin has led the Farm to School program from its humble beginnings to the community staple that it is today.

The Farm to School banner is made of many smaller programs. The three core groups are the class, club and summer programs. Each works in several ways to benefit the farm, the community, the school and the students.

The club and summer program work on the farm as a critical source of labor and operate fundraising and networking for the farm. The classes are different. While they also contribute a large amount of labor, there’s an emphasis on learning and sustainability.

Four years ago, the class was only an experiment. “What we did was do feasibility studies, environmental studies, endless field trips,” Griffin says. In this class, students laid the groundwork on farm projects, and proved they could pull it off. “We put in a small garden,” Griffin says. “We grew squashes, that was it… about 200 squashes – the cafeteria didn’t know what to do with them.”

After this planning and trial phase, Griffin says it was time to move forward. “Three years ago, the school started… a multi-disciplinary class. I worked with guidance, and it was a partially English credit and partially science credit… It filled right up.

“That first year, we moved ahead, we got a greenhouse up… We started to work on a tool shed. We had a local carpenter come in and provide building plans and act as a resource. The class gave us a source of labor,” Griffin says.

The class hasn’t changed much since. Griffin, along with the help of other faculty, was able to put together an interdisciplinary system that he’s been working with ever since, adjusting and improving it as needed.

Griffin says the fall class runs from September to January, beginning outdoors, doing farm work while it’s still warm out. “We’re harvesting, we’re preserving by canning or drying,” Griffin says. The class also presses apples into cider and extracts honey from the beehives during autumn.

Once the weather makes farm work too difficult, Griffin changes gears. “We have a classroom curriculum that runs essentially from November to mid-January,” he says. “We’ll do debates on such topics as organic versus inorganic foods, GMO’s versus non-GMO’s… Kids write informative essays, argumentative essays, narrative essays.”

These are essential parts of keeping the class alive. Education happens constantly on the farm, and students are always walking away from the fields having learned something new. However, the coursework gives Griffin a hard set of achievable assignments they can be graded on and can be used to prove the course’s educational potential.

In spring, the course starts out inside while the snow is still melting. This doesn’t stop Griffin and his students from getting outside though. Griffin says that the class is “tapping maple trees and boiling them down the old-fashioned way on the stove,” during winter, and “as soon as the soil permits, we are planting.”

Recently, the farm has finished work on its outdoor bread and pizza oven. “We have yet to break it in and see how it cooks,” Griffin says, “but that’ll happen in early spring.”

“We’re currently finishing off our sixth… Farm to School class,” Griffin says, “and during that time, we progressively rolled out more and more projects.” This has included a 12-chicken coop, a 10-tree apple orchard, a berry nursery, and a pair of beehives. The beehives produced 49 pints of honey last fall.

“The great bulk… of the high school garden goes toward the Harvest Dinner,” Griffin says, “so, we plan our crops based upon what we want to have on the menu that fall.” The farm has had three harvest dinners since its first in 2016. Griffin says that ticket sales are capped at 200 attendees. “We could probably sell 400 seats, but we need to keep it manageable.”

According to Griffn, aside from the locally-sourced organic meat products, all the food is produced and cooked by the students.

“Every Friday is a cook day,” Griffin says, “and kids experiment with fresh foods. We hold Iron Chef-type competitions once a month… Cooking is an essential part of the program.”

Griffin says cooking is one of the many ways he teaches sustainability. “We are still eating carrots and potatoes and garlic and onion that we preserved in our refrigerator.”

The farm also runs a school-wide composting program. Ninety buckets of compost are emptied by the class every day. Griffin says that the three-bin system lets the farm turn food scraps, hay and manure into compost in 10 to 12 weeks. All their compost goes back into the garden.

Griffin says the Farm’s composting system is a great example of its sustainability goals. “We have a solar powered chicken door opener… We’re looking to use solar power in additional ways.”

There are also springs under the farm, which Griffin says they are hoping to use in a drip agriculture system. “It’s all bound by the concept of sustainability.”

The farm stays eco-conscious and recognizes its role in the community. The farm gardens organically and doesn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizer. “We give part of our garden produce to the kitchen. We give overflow in the summer to the food shelf,” Griffin says. This is one of the most important aspects of the program. “It is absolutely a community based, school-based cooperative.”

The town of Fairfax has also played a role in the farm’s development, supporting the project in key areas. “We have a lot of town partners looking to help us buy an evaporator, or donate lumber, donate time,” he says. “Local CSA’s have contributed endlessly whenever we need help or expertise.”

The program has also received money through grants and fundraising by students although Griffin points out that the program can’t survive on grants and donations alone.

“We have a number of cash crops,” Griffin says, noting that the farm planted 600 heads of garlic this year with plans to keep 200 heads for reseeding and sell the rest. “We sell honey, we sell herbs, we sell chicken eggs. Soon we’ll be selling asparagus.”

The Harvest Dinner is its most significant and most intense fundraiser. Griffin says that the Harvest Dinner is one of his favorite parts of working with the farm. “At the end of every Harvest Dinner, there’s this feeling of immense relief, we pulled another one off.”

Even without the money from ticket sales, the dinner provides publicity and gets the town to notice the farm. The farm’s Facebook page has almost 400 followers, and Griffin says the community is incredibly engaged. “They watch every time something is posted, and they’re quick to make comments,” he says.

With money coming in from sold produce, grants and donations, the program has been able to afford equipment Griffin never expected to have. One, for instance, is a professional honey extractor. “It stands about four feet high and we can really move the honey frames through that,” Griffin says. The farm also has an apple cider press of commercial quality.

Money will also go in part to one of the farm’s most ambitious projects. “We’re going to have groundbreaking for a sugar house,” Griffin says. The farm has identified nearly 80 maple trees in the school woods that are ready to be tapped and is seeking permission from community members to tap trees on private property.

“I’m in love with gardening of all sorts,” Griffin says. “That’s a highlight – watching a garden grow… the miracle of watching a seed transform into a plant and then transform into the fruit that we harvest and use… Always a miracle that I am never tired of.”