It is early September, and a new school year has started. On my farm in Freedom, Maine, the days are still warm and bright, but the nights are turning crisp. We expect a frost any time now. Frosts are significant events to farmers; my husband organizes his fall harvest around them. Frosts have become equally significant to the 36 Benton Elementary School students in the primary multiage class that I co-teach with Jane Doan. The children range in age from 5 to 9 and represent the full gamut of developmental stages.1
They farm a part of our land. Their crop is pumpkins.
For the past four years our class has been involved in a pumpkin growing and marketing enterprise, a project that has provided us with real work to do and real problems to solve. We began in 1991 because we had a real problem: We needed money. Budget constraints in our district had resulted in a moratorium on field trips and a freeze on nonessential teaching materials. Jane and I looked for ways to support those extras that make learning more meaningful and more fun. Our aim was to involve our students in an authentic money-making venture.
Raising and selling pumpkins had been a happy learning experience for my own two daughters when they were young. And because it is an ongoing endeavor, we thought it ideal for our ongoing class. (Our students typically stay with Jane and me for three years, and so would be on hand for at least three successive harvests.)
We applied for and received a seed money grant from The Western Maine Partnership of the University of Maine at Farmington. That first year our class used the money, appropriately enough, to buy pumpkin seeds, together with fertilizer, plastic mulch, and row cover. My husband obligingly prepared 300 feet of ground for us, and we planted the pumpkins in May. During the summer, many of the children returned to the farm with their parents for two weeding parties. In the fall, we harvested the crop. We then advertised, took orders, and sold all the pumpkins at school. And we made a profit!
Having a little money to spend was a heady experience. We used a portion of our profits to pay for a class trip to a living history museum—a simulated mid-19th century farm—in connection with our study of life long ago. We were careful to hold some money in reserve to finance another year's pumpkin planting project. We knew we were on to something good.
Since that first successful harvest and sale, we have come to value our pumpkin venture as much for the learning opportunities it offers as for the money it adds to the class savings account. The learning goes on all year as the cycle of the seasons dictates the work we do.
Before planting, we help the children do research to decide on the varieties and quantity of pumpkins to plant and to establish what other materials we will need.
In the nearby town of Albion there is an excellent local seed company, Johnny's Selected Seeds. Johnny's has supported our efforts from the beginning. We have toured the operation and contacted the staff for advice. We were pleased to play an informal role in their seed trials for their All-American Winner, “Baby Bear.” Each spring we study Johnny's seed catalog, peruse our harvest records from the previous fall, discuss qualities of various pumpkins, adjust our planting plans, make calculations, and fill out the order form.
We rush to accomplish our other preparations before the trip to the farm to plant. Because we are an ongoing class, we always invite the children who will enter our multiage program in the fall to join us on planting day. To each new student (usually a 5-year-old) we write a letter of invitation and welcome.
Next, my husband tells us the dimensions of this year's pumpkin patch, and we devise a planting plan and label stakes for markers. The children review the planting directions with the first-year students and consult booklets they have written in the past. We study up on what makes plants grow. We reread Pumpkin, Pumpkin by Jeanne Titherington. We sing Dave Mallet's “Garden Song.”
Finally, in late May, we ride the bus to the farm to plant. On that day we are a large group of eager farmers, accompanied by many parents, younger siblings, and the newcomers to the class. Happily, my husband is usually on hand for crowd control and planting assistance. He explains again why we use plastic mulch, but we already know it warms the soil and keeps the weeds from growing. He again asks the group why we cover the rows with the filmy row cover. Why, to protect the young plants from frost and to keep out the bad bugs. Well then, when will we take the row cover off? When the flowers are on the vines, of course, and the bees need to do their work! He shakes his head in wonderment over how much we know.
With layout plans in hand, we organize groups to take charge of planting different varieties. Each year we get a little more scientific about planting and labeling the pumpkins. The children use three-foot measuring sticks to mark where each hill will go, adults wield the knives to cut X's in the black plastic mulch, other children follow to fold under the flaps to reveal small squares of soil. The children plant three seeds in each square. Then we spread the row cover and scatter to hunt for fist-sized rocks to put on the edges to hold the netting down. The planting is done! We head for the lawn to picnic and relax. Until summer, we leave the pumpkin patch in nature's hands.
Summer Thinning and Weeding
We keep it simple during the summer. The pumpkins grow without much attention from us. We have only two responsibilities: to thin the pumpkins to two plants per hill, and to remove the row covers. We schedule two voluntary work sessions for these tasks.
In mid-June, whole families come to the farm for an evening of thinning and weeding. We check on the progress of our crop and schedule the next weeding event for early July, when we will also remove the row cover. If we time it right, the plants are usually in flower and bursting to be free of their protective netting. On both occasions a willing group of workers makes short work of the jobs, and we retire to the lawn to picnic and socialize.
The pumpkins are on their own now until fall. That's when the important work of harvesting and marketing the crop will keep us busy.
Just as each spring we learn a little more about effective planting, each fall we learn more about efficient harvesting. We have come a long way since the first harvest, when we piled the pumpkins picturesquely on trailers with only a rough estimate of the number we had picked. Now as we pick them, we are careful to sort them by size into large crates. A student stands by each crate, keeping a tally. We have discovered that knowing how many pumpkins we have to sell is essential information.
After harvesting our crop, we store it in my farm's produce barn until delivery day in mid-October. We have several active weeks of marketing ahead of us. Since Benton Elementary School has more than 850 students, we have a large captive market. And we do succeed, selling all our pumpkins.
We have established a pre-order system. First, we decide on the prices (always an extended debate!). A team of children then designs and produces an order form that will be photocopied onto bright orange paper. We must count the number of forms needed for each classroom and deliver them. A third group of children creates the filing system to keep track of incoming orders. And another large group makes big advertising posters to hang around the school.
The Pumpkin Store
We sell our wares at The Pumpkin Store, actually the passageway between our class's adjoining rooms that we have decorated and outfitted. We post our hours on the door, and we're ready for business.
We keep the store open for a week or two, taking orders. Everyone takes turns being storekeepers, and the orders and money roll in. On large charts on the wall we keep track of how many pumpkins of each size we have sold. This record-keeping system, which we devised a few years ago, has eliminated the worry about selling more pumpkins than we have. Finally, we close the store, count and bank the money, and wait for delivery day in mid-October.
On the day of delivery, my husband again assists us by driving the pumpkin-laden truck to school. We unload pumpkins onto the lawn, sorting them into piles by size. Our students help buyers locate the pumpkins they have ordered, under the supervision of the many parents on hand. It's a happy day, the culmination of our work.
Once the pumpkins are safely delivered, we have time for reflection. We compare the yield to previous harvests, sometimes making graphs. We analyze problems and plan improvements for next year. We learn about banking. We also spend some money during the winter. Our purchases include classroom items—blocks, cardboard bricks, games, song tapes, and special art supplies.
Last year we bought a convection oven for our classroom. All winter we cooked pumpkin recipes, taste-tested the results, and voted on whether to include each recipe in a pumpkin recipe book that we will publish at school this fall. A unanimous choice for the book: pumpkin whoopie pies. (Pumpkin biscuits narrowly squeaked by.) We've also spent our money on excursions and outside events, such as hosting a friendship breakfast at a restaurant for school personnel and hiring a band for our year-end family potluck and contradance—a line dance popular in this part of the country.
Winter is also a time when we think of ways to expand the pumpkin project into other areas of learning. Could we compost the school's waste for use as a fertilizer in our pumpkin patch? If we created authentic-looking scarecrows, could we frighten the pesky groundhogs that feast on our crop? What can we do to avoid fungus and disease problems?
Hard Lessons, Eager Learners
Today, though, in early September, pumpkins of all sizes and shapes lie in the field, ripe and ready for the picking. Jane and I are worried. Pumpkins cannot stand a hard frost, and the weather reports are predicting one for the end of the week. We need to harvest our crop and get it into storage before the tender skins are damaged. Though we expect our students to experience real-life trials, we want to avoid heartbreak.
Tomorrow at school we will discuss the frost problem with the children. We will suggest organizing an emergency trip to the farm to harvest the pumpkins right away, rather than wait until mid-September as we usually do. Unfortunately, some of the parents may not be able to join us on such short notice, so we all will have to work harder to get the job done.
We have found that pumpkin work is very palatable to our students. They approach the jobs in school and on the farm energetically and eagerly. The problems we experience are authentic; the goals are real; the learning occurs naturally. And there are learning opportunities across the academic and social spectrum. The children have gained skills in reading, writing, math, social studies, and science. Together, we have done research, made decisions, solved problems, experimented, and evaluated results.
Further, because all of the tasks are done cooperatively, children who have needed extra support have received it from their peers. And since raising and marketing pumpkins involves a variety of tasks, there are jobs for everyone, and everyone experiences success.
Working cooperatively toward a common goal also forges a strong bond among the children, teachers, and parents. We all experience the satisfaction of being engaged in an authentic enterprise. Pumpkin farming offers continuity and variety. It is truly a project for all seasons.
P. Chase and J. Doan, (1994), Full Circle: A New Look at Multiage Education, (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann).
Penelle Chase teaches at the Benton Elementary School in Benton, Maine. She can be reached at R.F.D. 1, Box 920, Freedom, ME 04941.