2b, or not 2b: The Challenge of Edible Education in a Sub-Arctic Hardiness Zone
With our campus nestled high within the Adirondack Mountains—rising above the neighboring winter-haven of Lake Placid, NY—North Country School (NCS) and Camp Treetops’ 200 acre property is one of the highest elevation farms in the state. Raising a wide variety of animals including meat-and-laying hens, turkeys, pigs, goats, and sheep, along with cultivating hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, our progressive junior boarding school and summer camp is one of Alice Waters’s six founding programs in the Edible Schoolyard Project.
We are fiercely proud of the fact that we’ve held edible education as one of our core values since the 1930's. Every day, passionate adults and enthusiastic students take part in the continuous loop of agriculture, whether it be by caring for farm animals, planting and harvesting crops on more than five acres of cultivated fields, or clomping through springtime snow into our sugarbush to collect sap buckets from over 750 tapped maple trees. Students at NCS and Camp Treetops begin and end each day by taking part in barn chores, and learn the importance of caring for the many facets of the farm before heading off to their own breakfast and dinner.
The cycle of farm work at NCS takes place all year despite the wide swing in temperature from June to February. One of the biggest takeaways for our often city-raised students is that there is no pause button on farming—fields must always be tended, and animals must be fed, even during the coldest and darkest of winter months.
And our winters certainly are cold and dark. NCS falls into a frigid pocket of weather colder than any of the surrounding towns, with a hardiness zone of 2b. This means that our minimum winter temps can reach as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and that there are years our fields are hit by a hard frost every calendar month. In comparison, two hours away in Albany farmers can enjoy much warmer zone 5 temperatures and a significantly longer, easier growing season. The particularity of our geography at NCS brings with it specific challenges to year-round farming and food education, and has presented us with the opportunity to engage our students in a great diversity of farm-to-classroom lessons, with curriculum changing along with the seasons.
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Autumn in our Edible Schoolyard classes saw our students preparing our fields and pantries for winter. Farm Educator Elie Rabinowitz worked with his fourth-through-seventh graders canning late-season berries as jam, freezing and dehydrating herbs from our gardens, picking and freezing apples to turn into winter applesauce and pies, and harvesting and storing produce in the root cellars scattered around campus.
In December, as our temperatures steadily crept into the negative digits, Elie’s seventh-grade class prepared a meal made of food available during a North Country winter. Using sunflower oil from a small nearby Canadian farm, eggs from our laying hens, pork-cheek from school-raised pigs, and King Arthur flour milled across Lake Champlain in Vermont, the students learned how to make fresh Pasta Carbonara. For all of the students involved, it was a first time making homemade pasta, and they were unanimously impressed by the simplicity of making something fresh that is nearly always purchased pre-made and dried. Eating pork cheek, or jowl, was also a first for the students, and one that it took a touch of nerve for them to approach. Elie explained the similarities between pork cheek and their beloved bacon, and engaged the students in a discussion on how utilizing less popular cuts of meat and expanding one’s palate could reduce food waste. While we are lucky here at NCS to have access to our own farm-grown meat and eggs, this lesson could be easily replicated using well-sourced ingredients grown and raised by others.
As winter winds along, lessons are planned for utilizing those storage vegetables and fruits the students put away in October. Potatoes, carrots, onions, and squash wait in the root cellars; meat and lard are ready for use in the freezers; and dried mint, oregano, parsley, and thyme fill our shelves. Strawberry and raspberry jam made from our summer crop has already been used to fill donuts and spread on homemade bread during a lesson on simple, flour-based recipes.
There is also a focus in our winter curriculum on supporting the local farming community that produces foods all year round. Our seventh graders will be traveling to a nearby dairy farm to learn about milk, yogurt, and cheese production, and the students have begun making their own dairy products using local milk and cream. One January lesson saw our seventh graders making their own yogurt, butter, whipped cream, and sour cream. Students were excited to season their homemade butter with the herbs they harvested and dried earlier in the year, and flavor their fresh yogurt with our jam and maple syrup.
Elie will be culminating the winter term much as he did with students in the fall term—by having them prepare a local-and-school-grown meal for the NCS community. This time, instead of a Thanksgiving-style meal as they did in November, the students will make a breakfast-for-dinner meal for their teachers. Using winter-available ingredients, the fourth-through-seventh graders plan to make French Toast Casserole using homemade bread and cream cheese, student-baked bagels with more of late-September’s jam, and breakfast burritos with homemade tortillas, homemade sour cream from local cream, and potatoes from our root cellar.
By ending each term with a seasonal, local meal prepared by the students, Elie aims to instill the idea that seasonal eating is not just something that can reduce food miles and one’s food-based carbon footprint, but can be an innovative and delicious way to take pride in what is on your plate, to appreciate that strawberry jam all the more as the garden beds lay dormant under feet of snow, and experience the joy of sharing a homemade meal with others, especially while warming up inside after a long day of cold-weather recreation.