Farming at St. Martin’s (Part 1)

At St. Martin’s Academy, faculty and students will work cooperatively to operate a sustainable, productive farm. We will grow seasonal vegetables, tend a perma-cultured orchard, and husband a variety of livestock from chickens and pigs to rabbits and cattle. We will milk cows and make butter, keep bees for honey, and ferment vegetables for use during the winter. The work will be real and the commitment significant. In this post, I will to take a moment to reflect on why we do this. I’m will pick up the how in Part II.

It would be understandable to consider this part of life at St. Martin’s as unnecessary; to see it as an impractical prejudice in favor of the old-fashioned that would distract from intellectual formation.

This is an objection that I take seriously. However, I would contend that farm work, far from being a distraction, is as indispensable a pedagogical component as anything else at St. Martin’s. Without this work, we simply aren’t able make good on our vision to educate the whole person.

I would contend that farm work, far from being a distraction, is as indispensable a pedagogical component as anything else at St. Martin’s. Without this work, we simply aren’t able make good on our vision to educate the whole person.

The development of the intellect through mathematics, languages, natural sciences and literature is obviously a critical component of this education. But this academic work must be connected to tangible things or it is in great peril of becoming hollow. That connection to reality happens when senses, memory, and imagination have been in contact with real things– like plants, animals, and dirt; or birth, life, and death. This contact cannot come through screens, or frankly, even books. These things must first be touched, tasted, seen, and heard in living color. The farm is the perfect place for this laboratory of experience and provides a real and solid foundation for the work of the mind. This is not an anti-intellectual stance. Rather, it is precisely because of our immense respect for the intellect that we look to supply it with fertile soil in which it can flourish.

Here are some particular ways in which our farming program serves our educational vision:

  1. Farming serves us in our core commitments.

    Nurturing masculinity. Farm-work can be hard. Building fence, bucking hay, and working stubborn livestock demand patience, persistence, and courage. It is a continuous exercise in self-denial. Christ, our exemplar for authentic masculinity, likens himself to the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.
    Heal the imagination. How can you appreciate Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale about Chanticleer when you’ve never seen a rooster strut across the barnyard? Aristotle had Alexander the Great studying botany and zoology precisely because he knew that to do the hard work of philosophy, his young pupil must possess an imagination informed by particulars found in nature. Book studying is empty when not aided by a memory and an imagination grounded in real things.
    Invoke Wonder. The fragility of a newly sprouted cotyledon, destined for tomato-hood; the tender solicitations of mother cow for her hour-old wobbly calf; the finality of death in a stillborn lamb– these are stirring realities that beckon us to reflect more deeply on the mysteries of our own existence, our origin and destiny. Birth and death invoke wonder, and the farm is a wonderful place.
    Develop Attentiveness. Simple attention requires the mind to move beyond itself to some outside reality. Attentiveness develops that movement further by combining sustained intensity of focus with docility. The result is a focused “presence of mind” elsewhere. Birdwatching, or “birding”, is a beautiful way to develop this skill. Like awaiting the Holy Ghost in prayer, the attentive birder waits in his “sit spot” for the coy Oriole to reveal himself, or not. On the farm, you must constantly be aware of what’s around you. Animals demand your attention, as anyone with an ornery ram, hungry sow or peckish hen can attest.

  2. Instills a proper sense of stewardship.

    Good stewardship of God’s creation was one of the first tasks enjoined upon Adam and the task remains ours today. A proper respect for the natural world invites us to stand in awe of God’s creation and humbly and gratefully to work with it rather than imposing our will in trying to make Mother Nature “sit up and beg”. At St. Martin’s we will help the boys develop a healthy sense of stewardship marked by reverence and gratitude for God’s gratuitous gift of creation.

  3. Connects boys to the food we eat.  

    Joel Salatin writes: “This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.” Joel Salatin must certainly be the most influential chicken farmer of all time. He has taken his overalls and chicken plucker on the road and addressed some of the most technically sophisticated minds in the world (e.g. Google’s Executive Team). He is a brilliant ecologist and an modern day apostle of common sense when it comes to our food and how it is produced. As Joel says, our relationship to food ain’t normal because we’ve lost our connection to it, thanks in large part to our increasingly centralized, industrialized food production. At St. Martin’s, we will restore that connection.

  4. Nurtures vibrantly healthy boys.

    Apart from restoring some sanity to our relationship with food, there is a very real and visible benefit to a farm-to-table operation. Hard physical work stimulates the appetite for real, nourishing food. And boys fed real food look and act differently. The body fuels the mind, and a healthy, robust, physical constitution serves our vision for developing minds that are alert, nimble, and capable of sustained attention.

  5. Creates the fertile ground for true festivity.

    Joseph Pieper wrote that “only meaningful work can provide the soil in which festivity flourishes.” How true! Hard work begets hard play. Contrast this with Evelyn Waugh’s description of a Charles and Sebastian in the midst of a bender in Brideshead Revisited: “Ah, the langour of Youth…the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse.” This languor is too often the standard condition of today’s youth who are so steeped passive entertainment. The fruit of languor is ennui, a condition ripe for all manner of trouble. Meaningful work, on the other hand, instills a healthy pride in a job completed and even eutrapelia, what Aquinas describes as the virtuous form of playfulness.

It isn’t any certain kind of farming per se that is essential. If we were in Maine, we might run Lobster boats. What is essential is what farming affords us: an opportunity to do hard work, to stay in constant contact with real things, and to work towards a measure of self-sufficiency in providing nourishing food for ourselves.

At St. Martin’s we take the Benedictine monks as our exemplar of the kind of balance we hope to achieve in the life of our boys. Their motto, ora et labora (prayer and work), beautifully captures the necessary interplay of body and soul in the life of a healthy human person. As my colleague, Patrick Whalen, wrote in his post on our approach to Academics, it is this kind of integrated approach to both thinking and doing, that is at the heart of education at St. Martin’s.

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