Growing Minds and Greens: The Sage School

By Dana DuGan | October 01, 2013
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The Sage School is a small, independent 6th to 12th grade school in Hailey, Idaho, about 15 miles from Sun Valley and Ketchum. Housed in what was originally a commercial nursery, it's main space houses classrooms. But there is also a large greenhouse. Once it was full of flowering plants, garden decorations, hoses, spade and other nick-nacks for sale. Now lush edible greens dominate the open, sunny space.

"The greens we grow through the winter include spinach, arugula, radishes, lettuce, and kale," said school headmaster Harry Weekes. "We sell these to area restaurants including CK's, Zou 75, Powerhouse, and to NourishMe, the health food store in Ketchum."

Facilitating the greenhouse operations is Dan Freeman whose Shooting Star Farm in Hailey sells a variety of produce to restaurants and through the farmer's markets.

Freeman said he was intrigued when Weekes began discussing the prospects for the then underused greenhouse with him a few years ago. On his own farm, Freeman was growing a few hundred tomatoes each summer – but severe weather could knock out the crop in one storm.

"I finally thought: this is a win-win," Freeman said. "The first year we sold only at the farmers' markets, then we began the tomato 'adoption' program last year (2012)."

Freeman and the students built eight 100 square feet raised beds that are 18" deep with organic soil, compost with earthworms and lady bugs added to keep down the aphids. Billy Mann of Sagebrush Solar designed the radiant heat system that's integrated into both the raised beds and fish system. It keeps it warm in the winter and temperate in summer.

"The kids helped with all of this," Freeman said. "They were vital in designing and creating all of this stuff."

In fact, the nearly nine-foot trellises built above the beds is a sight to behold. Lush tomato vines climb upwards towards the greenhouse roof, their fruit turning from green to bright red seemingly over night. Freeman uses organic bone meal to produce the fruit heavy plants.

"I go in there, grow a big load of tomatoes, and hang out with the kids," Freeman said, smiling. "I am in charge of it but now I have three students on honor system pruning, trellising, and watering in the mornings. They fill out their hours and get paid. That's one of the coolest things yet. They're taking responsibility. It's a huge job and makes a huge difference."

The tomato program starts in March, when the seeds are planted, and runs through late fall when those plants are pulled to make way for the greens.

For $200, $150 of which is tax-deductible, participants receive a bag of tomatoes delivered once a week to either NourishMe, or the Sustainability Center in Hailey, from about the end of June until the end of October, depending on the plants' timing. There are 48 participants in the program in just the second year of operation.

The all-organic, non-GMO seeds come from Johnny's Selected Seeds and are chosen, in particular, for their flavor. This year the varieties include Cherokee Purple, Black Prince, Black Krim, Sun Gold Cherry, New Girl, Geronimo and Stupice among others.

Sophia Drougas, one of the student helpers (who admits to not actually liking tomatoes), says she loves to work in the greenhouse and take care of the fruit. "I have pride that we grew them," she said. Her cohort Keara Gammon agreed. "It's given me a better perspective on how things are grown. I appreciate what it takes to grow good food."

"The idea is that this is a way to support the school and get something in return," school headmaster Harry Weekes said. "It's a great way to teach all sorts of things from biology and chemistry to entrepreneurialism and other things like value and patience. Students have a really good sense of the quality of a product when it's something they are going to eat. They also learn to slow down and appreciate that crops will take time to grow. They also get the experience of working with and caring for living things."


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