When I started elementary school at Ohlone, it had just inherited an acre or so of weed-ridden, fenced-off land at the very back of the campus, which the students called “no-man’s land.” A few months into the year, the staff decided to put the space to use, converting it into a small farm.
Each class elected a representative to the ‘farm council’ to help with planning, and I was elected from the kindergarden class. Kids, parents and teachers cleared out the weeds, and laid in plot markers. And then, class by class, we planted collective plots. I was hooked from that first year, planting carrots, lettuce, herbs. I remember pulling radishes from the ground, rinsing them off and eating them raw. I didn’t even like radishes at the time, but I couldn’t help but relish something I’d planted and grown myself.
Throughout elementary school, my love for the farm deepened. I spent my free time studying seed catalogues and gardening manuals. When I was in third grade, I planned out an elaborate drip irrigation system, which the school later purchased and installed. I served on the farm counsel every year, and, by the time I was in sixth grade, was appointed honorary ‘farm historian’, and ceremonially given a key to the farm.
But what I loved most about the farm were the animals, which the school slowly accumulated. By the time I graduated, the farm housed ducks, goats, potbellied pigs. And, nearest of all to my heart, chickens.
I’m not sure what it was about the chickens that I loved so much, but I found them endlessly fascinating; I could sit with them happily for hours on end. To this day, my mother reminds me that when she washed pants or jackets I’d worn to elementary school, she’d have to empty handfuls of chicken feed from my pockets.
One spring break, with new chicks just out of the incubator, I convinced my parents to let me take the dozen of them home, to roam in our fenced backyard rather than stay at the farm alone over the vacation. Several of the birds had terrible intestinal distress, trailing diarrhea everywhere, but my parents were remarkably game about it; I remember my father hosing the patio down, while talking on the phone with the farm’s vet to make sure we didn’t need to do anything but wait it out.
Each year, the farm would have a parent-child farm work day, when helpful hordes would descend, spades and power drills in hand, to fix up what we could. After just a few years of use, the chicken roost the school had purchased initially began to fall apart. So at one year’s work day, my father suggested that we make a new chicken roost from scratch. I remember shopping for the wood – a trunkful of 2×4′s and dowels – and then learning to use various power tools under his watchful eye as we pieced together an elaborate setup. At the end, we soldered in an inscription: Newman & Sons Chickenworks.
About fifteen years after I graduated, my father got a call from the then principal, who had previously taught me in third and fourth grade. After long use, that roost was in need of repair or replacement, and he had remembered our bringing it in. He wanted to see if we still had contact info for the Chickenworks. Laughingly, my father explained that we were it, then shared the plan we’d used so that a new parent-child duo might build the next generation’s.
I still think about that farm occasionally, and I’m proud of the hand I had in getting it up and running. But whatever impact I had, I’m sure it’s had a far bigger impact on me.