High School Farmers in LA

Plans are under way to start the first of five farms at Los Angeles high schools. Filmmaker Mark MacInnis, whose feature length documentary Urban Roots chronicles the thriving urban agricultural scene in Detroit, is spearheading the project. MacInnis says the first school farm will be located at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Garfield is best known as the high school where math teacher Jaime Escalante inspired the largely Latino working class students. The story was dramatized in the motion picture Stand and Deliver. It wasn’t a Hollywood fiction: the high school is 99% Hispanic and counts among its notable alumni members of the Chicano rock band Los Lobos and boxer Oscar De La Hoya, who was a student of the drafting teacher who will oversee the farm.

MacInnis describes the space reserved for the project as half the size of a soccer field and says that if all goes well the first crops will be planted in the spring. The Garfield High farm will have chickens and some sort of outdoor classroom as well as a greenhouse. But first students and their faculty advisor will have to clear the land and bring in compost.

“There’s trash, broken computers and desks on that field,” reports MacInnis. “But we’re going to turn this piece of land into something beautiful and productive. Kids will be eating food from this land. That will be part of the curriculum: taking this land from nothing and turning it into a farm.”

The filmmaker says he needs to raise $50,000 to get the farm started. A benefit for his new Farms In Schools program will be held at 7pm on December 3rd at the Museum of Music and Instruments in Venice, California. Five works of art donated by British sculptor Anthony James will be on sale. The sculptures are made from lengths of birch tree suspended in an aquarium-like structure with two-way mirrors. Usually sold for $80,000 or more, the sculptures will be offered to supporters of the school farm project for $40,000 and purchases will be tax deductible. The benefit will also include a performance by William Close and his Earth Harp, which is a huge site-specific instrument that produces tones that are a cross between cello and the sound made when you run your finger around the edge of a wine glass.

Filmmaker Mark MacInnis. Credit: Urban Roots Film.

MacInnis says that when his Urban Roots documentary has its formal debut in the spring, an announcement will be made about the creation of a school farm in Detroit. He originally planned to donate funds to the working farm at Catherine Ferguson Academy, an already existing high school in Detroit for students that are either pregnant or mothers of newborns. But after the academy became a charter school, the administration dismissed Paul Weertz, a teacher who had spent 20 years creating the farm. As a result, MacInnis decided to scrap his plan to contribute funds to the school.

Aerial shot of the Detroit farm. Credit: Urban Roots Film.

The other high schools in LA slated to get farms are Alexander Hamilton High School, Van Nuys High School, Phineas Banning High School, and Roosevelt High School. Garfield High School used to have a Green Architecture and Design Academy but it was dissolved as a result of budget cuts. The school still has a drafting course, which focuses on architecture and sustainability, according to teacher Luis Lainez, who will supervise the farm at Garfield.

Lainez reports that seven of his students have been working on designs for the farm and are a week or two away from presenting them to architect Sarah Didvar-Saadi of The Green Schoolhouse, a Los Angeles-based school garden design company.

“They’re really excited,” Lainez says of his drafting students. “This will help them to tune in to nature and to take better care of the planet.”

Lainez’s students are veteran makers. They made a dome that is five feet in diameter and about six feet tall out of super adobe, a mix of 90% earth and 10% cement stuffed inside a long fabric tube and arranged in long coils. One idea for the greenhouse the drafting students are bandying about is making walls out of clear plastic bottles. Assisting in the farm construction will be Lainez’s 22 year-old son Alvaro, who is his teaching assistant at the high school and an avid gardener at home.

Architect Sarah Didvar-Saadi and her business partner Gina Powell have put about 17 gardens in Southern California elementary and middle schools in the last three years with the aid of state grants. They selected the five LA schools, which either have an environmental program or something similar for the Farms In Schools program.

“We don’t want to put just a cookie-cutter greenhouse in [at Garfield],” says Didvar-Saadi. “We’d love for it to be something that is innovative and uses recycled materials.”

As for the plan to include a chicken coop on the school farm, the architect says “it’s pushing the boundaries for the Los Angeles Unified School District a little but I don’t think it’s out of the question.”

The farm will be enclosed by some sort of fence, Didvar-Saadi says, so it will be protected when people are not around.

“The hope is that when Garfield gets built and gets some recognition out there that we’ll be able to get the other ones [school farms] going much quicker because it’ll be a great example of what’s possible,” she says.

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Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He's reported for NPR for more than 30 years.

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