North Country School: A Pioneer in Edible Education
Do you really know where your food comes from? Kids at North Country School in Lake Placid sure do. These fourth through ninth graders play a vital role in growing, tending, harvesting and even preparing the food that sustains them. How many other schoolkids know how to can, dry, pickle and otherwise preserve essential staples of their own diet?
I spent a couple of days immersed in North Country School, and upon my departure, I was gifted a canvas shoulder bag filled with handcrafted mementos. A jug of maple syrup, two ceramic bowls, a skein of fine wool, a pair of woven placemats and small jars of sage-infused salt, dried chili peppers and pickled onions. Add to these treasures the meals I enjoyed from food raised on the school’s farm, and I carried away more than any admission catalog or website could convey. I had dipped my hands and fork, as well as my heart, into the NCS culture and witnessed its transformative power.
Established in1938, North Country School and Camp Treetops, its older sister founded in 1921, espouse John Dewey’s progressive belief that too much structure and competition stifles kids’ natural curiosity and creativity. The two institutions provide practical, hands-on learning experiences, operating in perfect tandem to mutually sustain and strengthen each other.
North Country School harvests and preserves the food through the fall, makes syrup in late winter and starts the gardens in spring while Camp Treetops, which runs for seven weeks in the summer, tends those gardens and harvests firewood for the sugaring operation. Most significantly, the students and campers help care for the farm’s animals. This symbiotic schedule allows the farm and gardens to run seamlessly year-round.
NCS has incorporated the farm into its educational program since the 1930s, long before school gardens became the norm. In fact, Alice Waters invited North Country School to be one of the seven founding members of her Edible Schoolyard initiative in 2006. “Alice picked us because we were already considered pioneers in the field of farm and food education, despite our being located in a sub-Arctic climate, rated Zone 2B,” explains Katie Culpepper, the school’s farm manager.
NCS has the highest altitude farm in New York State. Now that’s some bragging rights. But that also means every month brings a potential frost that poses challenges for some crops. Undaunted by this inhospitable climate, Katie and her farm staff grow a significant portion of the food used in the school’s dining room.
Paulette Paduzzi and Jill Magurk have been running that kitchen for 25 and 24 years respectively. “We serve our own meats—pork, lamb, chicken and turkey—eggs, home-baked breads and pizza crusts, and desserts like chocolate zucchini cake, cheese cake, fruit jumble bars,” Paulette explains. “During the growing season, the farm crew consults with us each morning to discuss our needs and what’s available. We process, freeze and dry our farm-grown ingredients for use throughout the year. And what we don’t grow ourselves, we try to source locally. Making three meals a day, seven days a week using primarily locally grown ingredients definitely takes more prep time, but it’s all part of the ethos we live here.”
“Partnering with the true pioneer in edible education has been incredibly valuable for the Edible Schoolyard Project,” Alice Waters says. “North Country School and Camp Treetops have been giving children the experience of being a part of nature and the food system for more than 90 years and their experience is invaluable, as is their approach to working in a cold climate.”
Farm educator Elie Rabinowitz teaches the Edible Schoolyard class in conjunction with Katie Culpepper and her staff. Elie bases his curriculum on the myriad teaching opportunities provided by the farm that Katie oversees. In the fall, the class harvests and learns how to preserve and store product in root cellars and freezers. In the winter, the focus is on cooking and wild foraging, such as making teas with herbs and barks, and in the spring, students learn about soils, seeding, garden prep and planting.
Elie came to NCS in 2014 with his wife, Becca Miller. “It’s a busy lifestyle but we love it. Here we have a full farm, surrounded by mountains, kids who are interested in learning and a diverse staff. I get to be outside in all seasons, doing what I love: farming, hiking, camping, skiing and riding horses.” Becca assists with Edible Schoolyard, teaches horseback riding and contributes writing for the school. “Elie and I had worked at schools in Arizona and Cape Cod. We wanted an intentional environment focused on outdoor education and local food systems. North Country School offers the ideal program for us.”
The ESY class meets in Clark House, named in honor of Leonora and Walter Clark, the founders of NCS. This net-zero house generates as much energy as it uses. All of the building’s wood came from trees sustainably harvested from campus, and stones for the fireplace were collected on-site by the Camp Treetops kids. In other words, an ideal location for the Edible Schoolyard class to call home.
The day I visited, Elie posed a question. Where do we grow food on this 220-acre campus? The class quickly rattled off the obvious ones: gardens, greenhouse, sugar bush, barn, pasture, woods, apple orchard. His next query: Why would we want to find new spaces to grow more food? A chorus of answers rang out. To create more variety; to develop a new growing environment; to get fresh nutrients in new soil. Because it’s fun!
The class wandered out to visit the nearby forest garden. Tucker Culpepper (yup, Katie’s brother) and Molly Pytleski, farm educator for Camp Treetops, cleared half an acre the previous spring. They selectively harvested diseased red pines and brought the pigs in to root around the stumps and further clear the land. Tucker and Molly explained to the class that a forest garden incorporates a wide variety of trees and shrubs, ground cover and perennial plants, and different species of animals all working in conjunction to improve the soil health. The duo planted 30 cold-hardy fruit trees (cherry, apple, plum, apricot), followed by currants, rhubarb, horseradish, super hardy kiwi and clover. They inoculated shiitake mushroom spores into decomposing logs, and ducks now forage and add nutrients to the soil. Before some of the students graduate, the forest garden should be a lush paradise of fruit trees, berries and sweet flowers.
THE FAMILY THAT GROWS TOGETHER…
Karen and John Culpepper moved to Lake Placid in 1990. John became the first full-time garden manager and now is the director of facilities and sustainability; Karen directs Camp Treetops. Two of their three kids are actively involved as well—Katie tends all things that grow and graze while Tucker oversees the forest management and permaculture programs.
Despite growing up on campus, Katie didn’t see herself as a farmer. “That was Dad’s job!” she laughs. She earned her degree in elementary education from the University of Vermont and eventually returned to NCS as a teacher. However, “I was struck by all the educational opportunities that this land and the working farm provide. I began to weave those aspects into my curriculum and eventually became the farm educator and now farm manager.”
With five acres under cultivation and two large greenhouses, the farm generates plenty of food. From asparagus and zucchini to fruits, log-grown mushrooms, herbs, popcorn and dried beans, all produced in a sub-Arctic zone. Barns and pastures filled with horses, sheep, goats, pigs, laying hens, meat chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and bees complete the full plate diet.
Farm and barn chores are essential to the culture and every student helps muck stalls, feed and water the animals, collect eggs, deliver food scraps and work the compost. Garden tasks include preparing soil, seeding, transplanting and harvesting.
Dylan, a sixth grader, paused while cleaning out a horse stall. “I’ve lived in Peru and Hong Kong and now I get to live out here and have fresh unpolluted air, clear sky and amazing snow. It’s like summer camp, with academic classes added in the mix!”
Katie feels the same. “This place has allowed me to connect to the land, people, plants and animals in a way I hadn’t before. I love being at the intersection between producing food and engaging the whole community in that process. In most cases, you’re either an education farm or a production farm. Our goal is to find that balance. Here, I can talk with fifth graders about the ethics of raising animals for meat. When we process our chickens and turkeys on farm, the whole school community is involved, at whatever level they feel comfortable with. Kids can cuddle the new lambs but also understand that they will be our meat for next year. That can be a difficult conversation to have, but kids learn that meat is a limited resource and should be valued and respected.”
THE DEAN OF GREEN
John Culpepper toured me around the campus, regionally known for leadership in sustainability. First stop was the composting barn. Each morning, students pick up buckets of food scraps from the kitchen and deliver them to the composting barn. Easy-to-digest scraps are diverted to the pigs. The remaining material is mixed with wood pellets then loaded into the rotating drum composter known as “The Worm,” basically a 20-foot-long highway culvert on a steel frame. The drum is kept half-full in order to maintain enough mass to generate thermal energy required to break down the materials.
“We designed this unit with a college professor and tinkered with it with a local contractor until we engineered what we needed,” John explains. “I provide open-source plans as a solution to the global solid waste problem. Dumping food scraps into landfills is the dumbest thing ever because that produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And in 25 days, this system turns what others see as waste into a valuable resource for our gardens.”
Next we popped into the school building where the fourth grade science class had their hands deep in a plastic storage bin filled with red wigglers churning through kitchen compost. “We’re learning about vermiculture,” one student said, proffering a handful of rich soil. “See? This doesn’t smell!” In the next room, sixth graders tracked and graphed the germination rate of various seeds—carrots, lettuce, radishes and scallions. Vegetable plants in window boxes added welcome verdancy against the still-frozen ground outside.
Blending a school with a working farm encourages simple living, sustainable practices and respectful use of resources. Headmaster David Hochschartner offers insight based on his 27-year connection with the school. “NCS values everything I love about education: kids and faculty rolling up their sleeves and engaging in hands-on learning together. We have so many opportunities for real field work that extend the learning beyond the classroom. And even though we are a relatively tiny school and slightly larger camp, I think we’re making a difference. We are equipping kids with values and lessons that allow them to make a contribution to the greater world.”