Sr. Margo Morris talks about Sprout Creek Farm, grounding young people with Earth

Sr. Margo Morris and the turkeys at Sprout Creek Farm. (Brett Davis)

Sr. Margo Morris is a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the president of Sprout Creek Farm in Dutchess County, New York. She has been involved in educational agriculture since 1982. She met with Brett Davis at Sprout Creek Farm to talk about her work at the farm for Davis' oral history book project about Catholic women religious.

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When I entered the society, it was 1972. Within 10 years, a group of three of us had already begun farming on the campus of a school where we were teaching in Greenwich, Connecticut.

We realized that schools seemed to be unable to deal with a lot of the trends we were witnessing. It was incumbent on a teenager to become the integrating force in his or her own life. That's just about impossible for a young person in that age group. Too much is flying apart; the Big Bang is happening in their own personal and emotional lives; things are moving outward. That core hasn't been developed enough yet.

Education wasn't helping that much because things were still very compartmentalized at that point. English didn't speak to history, history didn't speak to math, and science didn't speak to anybody. The integrating moment hadn't happened.

The reason we chose to farm was because there was a consistent element that has been consistent throughout all time, and that was the Earth. The planet, literally. It was the ground and the thing that grounds us. It pulls everything we do into some sort of focus. If we're not able to get to it, which is what was happening to these kids, all of our energy gets focused on some sort of mid-level activity.

They want to get into college. Period. That's it. There's nothing after college. Testing began to take precedence over learning. We saw that happening, and we were imagining the trajectory going out from here. What are we going to be like? What's going to happen? Then, we were looking at the information glut, which was growing and growing. More and more information was pounding in from the outside world on kids. They weren't as able as we are to sort through it. We actually learn how to do that now. Then, there was nobody teaching anybody how to do that. It was all just a big splatter of information.

This idea of farming seemed to be a very grounding thing. We thought all information came from our observations of the natural world. It was the ground. It was the basis for everything. The basis for all inquiry. Our capacity to observe was of course almost nonexistent at this point. That's why we kept thinking, 'A farm is perfect.' It always needs reinventing and repurposing, and it always needs help. It requires commitment, responsibility, ingenuity, creativity and a lot of stamina. It seemed like that was everything you needed to take off.

We started the farm on the campus of the school in 1982. We didn't know where it was going to go, but we didn't tell kids what they need to get out of it. We thought that somehow, we're hard-wired to know what we need to know, and we're going to see if it works.

And it did. It worked! Kids took from that environment what they needed. If they need more practical hands-on skills to connect one thing to another, to fix something, to imagine something, the farm was an environment that could handle that. If they needed to ground an artistic bent, there was a world right there, right in front of them that could offer them the basis for all of it. And we watched what they did with it. We saw the individuation of these young people that came to farm with us occurring in very beautifully ways. Instead of just the 'me, me, me' focus, the individuation didn't ignore other people. It didn't find others as a threat. It was much more cooperative, and it was integrating. We were pretty amazed. 

Sprout Creek Farm's main building houses the farm's creamery, market and dining hall. There's "a very short distance between the farm and the table," Sr. Margo Morris says. (Brett Davis)

Goal: Be as real as possible

There can be a lot of insulation in the way these young people's lives were conducted. Suburbia had become an insulating factor. Urban life was not. There was still a lot of alertness required if you were living in the city. City kids were much more able to quickly observe things around them than suburban kids, which we found interesting.

We decided we needed to very intentionally juxtapose another reality. We'd have these kids at the farm for three weeks at a time during the summer. Every day began with chores, and every day ended with chores and cooking meals. In between, three days a week, we went to a soup kitchen in the South Bronx. The kids didn't just serve people, they sat down and listened to their stories and interacted with them. They were required to do that.

At first, they were very scared because homeless people or disadvantaged people were scary to them. They had a stereotype. Well, they got over the stereotype within a day, and as time crept on, they realized that they had opportunity, but that opportunity wasn't a given. They actually met people who were more educated, better educated and wiser than they would probably be in their entire lives. They could actually see that and articulate it. After each trip to the soup kitchen, they would come back to the farm on the campus of the school, and they would reflect. We always had that built in. We didn't tell them what to reflect on. We kept it safe so that they didn't reveal things about themselves that would make them unsafe among their peers. Our role was to help them open up in ways that were interesting and appropriate and to enable them to explore realities that were not a part of their day-to-day living. This was very exciting for them and exciting for us to watch. 

The farm moved up here to Dutchess County, New York, after it was donated to the Society of the Sacred Heart because of what we were doing on the campus of the school. This land was supposed to remain in agriculture and be used for educational and humanitarian purposes and could only be given to a not-for-profit that pre-existed the owner's death. And that not-for-profit or group within that not-for-profit had to already have a track record of doing this agriculture education thing. . . . We came along quite by accident. The woman had died five days before, and the estate lawyers found us by accident. 

Now that it's in its more developed state, we've attempted to make it a real farm so that when kids come here, their interaction is with something that is truly agriculture. To try to be as real as possible was a goal from the beginning, but very difficult to do. It's taken a lot of years to develop into that.

We began to really make this farm a reality by determining its agricultural focus. We have all this land all of a sudden, so we need to do something with it. We already had cows, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, pigs and all sorts of things. It was a menagerie, and now we wanted to develop a focus. The focus will then help us to further develop our programs. One didn't happen irrespective of the other; it was always simultaneous.

As we grew into the operation that we now have, all the while we were developing new curricular activity and content. Now we have a herd of dairy cows that we use for milk. And the same with goats. We always had goats; now, we're going to have dairy goats. If we're going to have all this milk, we're not going to just have a milk truck come and pick it up because we didn't think that really had enough educational value, that the kids just learned how to milk these animals and then the milk goes away. Milk being the nutrient-rich substance that it is, there's a lot we can do that would also be educational.

Sr. Margo Morris pets Sprout Creek Farm's resident donkeys, Flan and Fernando. (Brett Davis)

A social and community dimension

We chose specifically to make a more complex product and hoped we could make it good enough to then sell it because that's what farmers do. We had these animals, we grew the herds, we had the milk, we funneled it into our creamery, where we made the cheese and kids could learn all of this whole process. We put it together in age-appropriate ways, from little kids to high school kids to college kids. It enabled them to make more and more connections, but also enabled them to connect more and more with the way most people in the world live, where their animals are important. Their animals do something. They're not there for them, they're there to make life happen and make it possible to sustain oneself.

Sustainability has become a buzzword, but that's always been the goal, never truly achieved except for short periods of time for anyone in agriculture. We have these herds, we have this milk, we have this creamery, we make this cheese, we sell the cheese. We have at least 10 different varieties of cheese that we sell.

When there's more exposure, there's more reason for people to come here in programs and not in programs. That was another goal: to enable people to come onto this property who are not involved in a program, but who might like to be in an environment that is at work. They can have access to farmers, the teachers — the whole nine yards — to get some information and find out how to make food.

We're shortening the distance all the time. A lot of our curriculum is around that. How do you utilize the soil to make something really good? You get soil to table. We have all those components. In order to sell the cheese, we have a market and healthy wholesale vendor. The students who come to us can go to restaurants and find our cheeses on menus. That puts some of what we do out there in the general population. We have a culinary department of chefs that we utilize to teach children and adults how to take the raw materials and make something that's good for you, delicious and beautiful. That addresses the social dimension that we've always tried hard to address from the very beginning. This would enable children to learn everything from harvesting to cleaning to processing to preparing to cooking to then eating. And we do it for everybody so that the community dimension was there as well. 

Hens roam at Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, New York. (Brett Davis)

A level playing field

A lot of what we do especially, with kids who are 13 on, has to do with broadening their understanding of hunger in the world, changing environmental circumstances and now climate change. Our hope in everything that we do is to explore the boundaries of their thinking. And it works! It actually works!

We have day programs for 6- to 11-year-old girls and boys. Then we have programs for 10- to 12-year-old girls. Those tend to be more, 'Let's teach these girls they can do more than they think they can.' It's a little bit of women's empowerment at a very young level. Then we get into the teenagers, and that's when we begin to expand their world by utilizing some current events and trends to teach proper usage of resources and technology.

The farm is a very grounding influence because you can get lost in your head about all of these realities, and they can become very overwhelming. 'OK, stop! It's time to milk the cows.' We're back down to basics. It enables you to roll stuff around in your head while you're doing stuff like this. Very basic things.

It doesn't matter how much or how little you have. This environment is going to level the playing field. When we put kids from all different economic strata together, it doesn't matter. They're all going to get dirty, they're all on the left foot. Nobody knows much about this environment, so no one can show off. Everyone can be accepting of everyone else, and a new form of leadership arises.

It's different kinds of leadership that emerge, not just one. They do a lot of different things, so the farm exposes gifts and talents that they have. We encourage that, and we help them identify those things. All in the context of a day. There are no trophies at the end of the week for being the best, such and such. In farming, there is no best anything. There is a good day. And that's good enough.

How you define that is anybody's guess. Farming isn't about winning or losing or competing. There are competitions, but it's all very tenuous, so resilience is the thing we want kids to come away with. Whatever happens to you, you can punt. You can say, 'I can deal with this somehow.' It's multifaceted, multileveled, it's a constant effort to expand and then bring people back in to what's grounding. That's a really good thing to learn how to do so that when you stress out in your life later on, you've got to find that thing that brings you back.

We don't understand it, and it's not what other people are doing, which is very trendy and very important. It's very different than that. Its approach is to the whole person as that person interfaces with everything: soil, water, air, dirt, animals, plants, people. It's about redefining who the community really is and what it's comprised of. I guess that's always been part of it, but we didn't have the language or vocabulary we have now. Now you can talk about it, and people actually understand what you're saying. When we started this, people would look at us and say, 'I'm glad you have a real job, too.' Or they just thought it was cute. It was one step away from the cute little cow on the dish towel.

Flan the donkey. (Brett Davis)

It seems there's always some crazy series of events leading us to the brink of something that is disastrous or that threatens to completely derail or destroy this thing. It's happened over and over and over. I know if it wasn't meant to be, it had plenty of opportunities to kill itself, and it didn't do it. It just won't stop. We keep running after the train. Let's keep it going, then, and figure out ways to do it.

It's definitely not been an easy ride. There's been no infusion of money. There are a few grants and a few generous people that came and went. It takes the same kind of thing we're hoping to develop in the people we teach: a lot of ingenuity and a lot of thinking outside of the box. That's kind of a nutshell of how this whole thing began. You might say it was destiny. There was no real reason why it should have blossomed and bloomed this way, but it did. So I have to say, and so do the Religious of the Sacred Heart: This is meant to be. This is a God thing.

[Brett Davis is a Brooklyn, New York-based photographer and writer. He is currently working on an oral history book project about Catholic women religious communities.]

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