Oak Farm & Detering Partnership: Learning Land Protection through Meaningful Work
In a nonprofit partnership, students and staff at Oak Farm Montessori School, near Avilla, Indiana, have partnered with ACRES for the last few years. Our first collaboration, students growing seedlings for ACRES in the school’s greenhouse, quickly blossomed into more, led by Brett Bloom.
by Brett Bloom
I am the Ecoliteracy Coordinator at Oak Farm Montessori School (OFMS). Every Friday afternoon I co-teach, with high school science teacher Wesley Kromer, a three-hour class called Eco Impact. The class is required for the first two years of high school. Our class focuses on understanding the impact each of us has on the environment and the positive benefits of doing service work. Some of our purposeful labor is on our campus where 50 acres — out of 100 — are in various states of preservation, repair and future planning. There are wetlands, prairies and a forest —10 distinct habitats in all. It is important to high school students’ education that they prepare themselves to contribute to their communities. We leave campus to do conservation work with land trusts like ACRES. This exposes our students to the varying missions and approaches of organizations seeking to change our relationships to the land here in northeast Indiana.
We have a deepening partnership with ACRES. In 2016, OFMS built a greenhouse on campus to be used primarily with our middle school farm management program. Janet Canino, my predecessor and avid ACRES member/volunteer, had made an agreement with ACRES: they would provide us with seeds and soil, and we would work with students to raise native plants in the greenhouse. Once the plants were big enough, they would be planted in ACRES preserves. We started by raising mountain mint and switchgrass. As we add plants to the list, this relationship continues.
In 2019, we took 12 students in Eco Impact to a large remnant wet prairie to collect seeds, spending an hour gathering as many Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) seeds as we could. Some were to be used in projects by the organization hosting us; the rest were for our restoration efforts. Students were noticeably impacted by the riotous color and vegetal lushness of the wet prairie, prompting some to reflect that they felt like they were “no longer in Indiana.” I quickly pointed out that this is the Indiana that preceded settler colonization with its concomitant deforestation and wetland draining. I added that we were working hard to restore on our campus some of the land’s original grandeur. This idea resonated powerfully with our students.
This school year, we decided to concentrate the work in nature preserves close to our school, where many members of our community live. About a quarter of our students commute from the Kendallville area, 7 miles north of Oak Farm. Two ACRES preserves are there: Detering Nature Preserve and Lonidaw.
On multiple occasions we met with ACRES land managers at both preserves. We removed invasive plants including autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, privet and burning bush. At Lonidaw, students gathered buckets and bags full of walnut and tulip tree seeds, and planted hundreds of the seeds this past winter. Evan Hill, land management specialist with ACRES, gave us a bag of butternut tree seeds that we are attempting to raise into saplings. Our intent is to get as many trees started as possible. When the saplings are large enough, we will return to plant them at Lonidaw. We hope that our relationship with ACRES grows alongside these trees and the conservation adventure we are taking together.
I want to encourage other schools to explore similar efforts in giving students direct learning experience in wild places. This is one way we can cultivate a passion for protecting — and restoring more of —this beautiful place where we live.
Brett Bloom is the Ecoliteracy Coordinator at Oak Farm Montessori School. He works with students from pre-K through high school. Bloom leads the ongoing work at Detering Nature Preserve, providing students with a start-to-finish experience that ranges from removing non-native invasive plants to restoring the preserve with seedlings they propagate.
He is also a dedicated ACRES volunteer and is trained in leading Deep Listening walks at ACRES sites. In 2016, Bloom and Bonnie Fortune Bloom made a Deep Map of ACRES Land Trust that visualizes the enormous number of relationships unleashed through the simple act of protecting land.