For students at the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, there's a clear advantage, according to John Beaudry: "real-world work." Beaudry is a 24-year veteran teacher who works in the power plant technology field at the school. "That's where I see it," he says.
Williamson students have four hours of shop time each day at the hands-on school. Even over the holidays, Beaudry's students were on duty providing heat for the campus--heat generated by biofuel that is produced on-site with used vegetable oil. Now part of his curriculum, the trade school has been producing the biofuel for over a year now.
Beaudry, who's interested in organic farming and gardening, volunteers at Hillside Farm at Elwyn in Media, Pa. The two informal partners are located across the road from one another. Beaudry has incorporated the biofuel into the operations at Hillside, which developed a homemade adaptation for its diesel farm truck that would heat the oil to thin it, a necessity with vegetable oil. Beaudry's students produce the biofuel that powers the truck. Hillside's project was led by a European-trained farmer who had experience with it in the past.
"Our school likes to do community service projects as we can, and so that really helps [Hillside] out," Beaudry says. "We want our guys to become technically complete, but through hands-on work. For Hillside, we also want to be a good neighbor."
It's a unique partnership between two very hands-on enterprises, even if Williamson, which was founded in 1888, no longer has the agriculture program it once did. The school previously raised cattle up until the 1930s and '40s, when the program began to fade. However, with the financial help of Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton, a Campbell Soup Co. heiress, the school began a horticulture program 15 years ago.
Maybe involvement with Hillside could even spark the trade school to consider raising the funds to add an agriculture program again.
Williamson enrolls 250 students, all needy and deserving boys, true to the desire of the school's founder, Isaiah Vansant Williamson, a Quaker and Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist. Every student gets a three-year scholarship that covers his education and room and board and leaves the school having earned an associate degree.
An endowment covers half the operating costs per year, and the other half is the result of extensive fundraising generated largely by the school's alumni and corporate help. Former astronaut Guy S. Gardner recently served as the school's president.
Hillside's parent organization, Greener Partners
, is a newer nonprofit dedicated to building community through sustainable farming and farm-based education in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs. In the larger picture, Greener Partners is integrating active programs and partnerships with Philabundance, Independence Blue Cross, The Food Trust, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Lankenau Medical Center and Drexel University, among others--all quite newsworthy examples of unorthodox cross-sector partnerships to magnify impact, according to Jason Ingle, the organization's executive director.
Established in the spring of 2009, Hillside is part of the 440-acre campus of Elwyn, a longtime human services organization serving disabled and disadvantaged individuals. The land is the largest private parcel left in Delaware County, which borders Philadelphia.
Greener Partners is leasing 32 acres from Elwyn, including 12 acres in diversified vegetable production (over 60 crops), 2 acres in perennial soft fruit crops, and 1 acre for a healing herb garden and children's garden for educational programming. The remaining acreage holds infrastructure, a greenhouse, farmer and apprentice housing, woodlands, and land in cover crops for future growing. Hillside's CSA pickup grew from 155 members in 2011 to 250 in 2012 and is now at 300 families. In 2009, 4 acres produced food for 60 families.
Overall, Greener Partners operates two farm hubs and is growing on what will be 150 combined acres, all used as resources for local produce. There's a 12-acre tree fruit orchard, 10 acres of berry fruits and a heritage breed livestock program. Growing efforts are overlapped with education and inspiration about food and farming, including a homesteader component (for example, rain barrel and compost instruction), so the farm experiences resonate at home as well.
Greener Partners' farmers--six of whom who are salaried and full-time--oversee and train 11 apprentices each year. Education programs engage kids, both on the farms and in schools through Greener Partners' programs like Seed to Snack and The SOL Food Project teen leadership program. The CRAFT program is a rigorous two-year apprenticeship that trains the next generation of farmers on all facets of sustainable agriculture.
Lending a helping hand
Among the elements of the informal partnership between Hillside and Williamson, the trade school has allowed the farm to use its greenhouse space. Hillside has its own greenhouse, but due to space constraints and working out finer details with the township, Williamson has helped Hillside get crops started.
"When Williamson Trade offered its greenhouse, it was a huge gift," says Amy Johnson, Greener Partners' outreach director and one of the region's first sustainable farmers.
Last spring, Beaudry and his students completed operational maintenance work in Hillside's greenhouse, including water lines and small equipment repair. The township was concerned with the way Hillside planned to heat its greenhouse. The township also required Hillside to meet International Building Code standards and have 9 inches of insulation, holding it to residential standards.
That much insulation would completely defeat the structure's use as a greenhouse. "You wouldn't get any sunlight in, so that's a problem," Beaudry says.
Beaudry and his students did calculations to prove to the township how much energy the greenhouse could generate without the insulation and that it was enough to generate a net gain that should be sufficient, but the township stuck to its guns. "We didn't see eye to eye there," Beaudry says.
The township did approve when Justin Donaldson, Hillside's farm manager, purchased a pellet stove to heat the greenhouse.
Williamson's horticulture program paved the way for the farm to use the school's greenhouse until all the bugs at Hillside could be worked out. It's where germination for 300 CSA families started in February 2012.
Williamson's greenhouse is heated with natural gas and is grandfathered in for any township codes. "They were basically trying to do the same thing, but the township said that it had to be more environmentally conscious," Beaudry notes. "Then they went to a woodstove and thought that would be fine, but the township raised issues with that."
More project-based help
Beaudry's students also built the scrap metal base for the farm's cob oven, a centerpiece for community events and the hearth used to bake pizzas made with fresh vegetables.
Johnson says, "That has helped us enhance our farm programs. It helps us bring the community out, especially to our huge harvest festival."
Heavy scrap steel that was in stock at Williamson was used to construct a steel frame to support the oven. The trade school students also built concrete piers to set the structure on. Beaudry calls the cob oven a "social focal point," a centerpiece to many of Hillside's events.
Hillside's educators are also working with Williamson to grow for Farm Explorer, a hands-on mobile farm that allows the nonprofit to take the farm on the road throughout the Philadelphia suburbs to connect people with food from seed to plate. In 2013, Farm Explorer's first year, over 4,500 children in 47 schools, camps and community centers participated in interactive lessons on growing, preparing and eating healthy food.
The 24-foot custom-built trailer is equipped with garden beds and a mobile kitchen and is designed to inspire people to eat more fresh food. Farm Explorer is based on the notion that curriculum combined with gardening and nutrition improves attitudes toward and preferences for fruits and vegetables.
Hillside began using Williamson's greenhouse in March to start seeds for the program, the first of its kind in the country. Ingle says, "The education team is growing over 50 plant varieties in over 100 modular containers at Hillside that are then brought directly to schools and communities."
What the future holds
"We think there are other opportunities there," Beaudry says. "I'm not sure we'll ever have an agriculture program again, but we've been able to get guys interested in greenhouses. It's become a niche for us, and that ties into agriculture. We now have students who want to go back to their rural hometown where they know of greenhouses, and this experience gives them a leg up."
Even the existing horticultural program, which exhibits at the Philadelphia Flower Show, is enough to help brainstorm how Greener Partners and Hillside can advance and enhance its projects and programs, even if just with beautification of the farm.
Beaudry is also looking to expand his own program into more study of solar power, and he believes that will lend itself to even more collaboration with Hillside.
"We hope to grow the relationship," Johnson says. "We're only 5 years old, so we're a young farm, and so to have that community over there is great. We'd like to get more involved and for us to find ways to help them. It's a goal of ours, but right now we have a solid foundation with a lot of room to grow."
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.
Photos courtesy of John Beaudry.