While other students were playing on play­­­­ground eq­­uipment at Marnie Simons Elementary School in Hamburg, third-grade students Dane Lyons, Sophie Durr and Blaine Leyden were busy pitching manure from the chicken coop just opposite from the playground. The third graders voluntarily gave up their recess time to work at the school’s farm, which was started last year.

During other parts of the day, students are caring for livestock, tending vegetables and doing other farm chores.

It’s all part of a school science project that just kept growing, said Mike Wells, principal and superintendent at the school in far southwest Iowa.

Last spring, first- and sixth-grade students incubated eggs and then candled them every two weeks to track their growth, Wells explained.

"We thought at one time we would get rid of the chickens and just give them away," Wells said. "But then the kids came up with the idea of a farm school."

Learning by doing

The Cameron Owen Farm School, named after a student who died last year in an ATV accident, is truly a place where students can learn by doing.

"There are so many things we teach in the classroom: science, math, economics, that until they see it in real life it’s not going to stick with them as well. For them to really experience it firsthand, to have something in their life to relate to, is just so important," said Spencer Baldwin, who teaches kindergarten through sixth grade Spanish at the school.

Of approximately 160 students, only about seven students live on a farm, Wells said. That means there’s a great opportunity for students to learn, Baldwin said.

"We’re from an agricultural community here," Baldwin said. "But notwithstanding, there are a lot of kids who don’t get this opportunity."

While teachers and other adults supervise the work on the farm, Wells says the students are responsible for the farm and the work it takes to raise the pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and the fruit and vegetable garden.

"One of the things we try to do with farm school … is make the kids do the work," Wells said. "They screw up, and we let them, because they can learn way more from it. Adults are there to make sure they’re safe, but we let them explore and come up with ideas and let them do it."

During a recent visit, third-grade students were using a level to redo a fence around the garden. Last year, students voluntarily came during their summer break to measure, cut and paint wood to make a picket fence at the entrance of the farm.

"It took them all last summer to dig the holes and make and paint the pickets," Wells said.

But the students love the farm, he said.

"They sprint up here because they want to be the first ones out to check for eggs," Wells said.

Students even started fighting over who could do the chores, said second-grader Addyson Foster.

"We made a chore chart be­­cause everyone was fighting about who would go out and get eggs and stuff," Foster said.

Some students are assigned during their recess time to check for eggs or do chores, but all students are welcome to visit the farm, said Mary Misner, a second grade student.

"Kids love animals, and we have chickens, ducks, sheep, goats and pigs. Kids love animals, so they always get hyped up for that," Misner said.

Expanding school lessons

As a first-grade teacher, Michele Hendrickson loves it, too.

"We have been fortunate to use our farm school in different curriculum areas and continue to build upon it each year as we continue to see the possibilities," Hendrickson said.

Her class started with the chicken eggs and watched them grow and hatch. Her students took turns feeding the chicks as they continued to develop. This year her students help feed and water the farm animals and also gather the eggs from the coop, she said.

Her students also planted seeds and eventually transplanted the seedlings. The plants will go into the farm’s garden.

"We got to see the different stages the plants go through; they are able to look at the root systems and look at the seeds that are produced," she said.

This spring, the school received a grant to create an herb garden. Students built their own herb boxes, first using tools to cut the wood and assemble the boxes. They chose herbs for their individual boxes and planted them. They will learn how to cut the herbs when they’re ready.

As a teacher, Hendrickson said her students are engaged with the farm school concept.

"They are using real-life situations instead of just reading it out of a book," she said.

Her first-grade students are volunteering to work on the farm, with the animals, and have even provided tours of the farm to others.

"Those are things you wouldn’t typically think a first grader could do or would want to do," she said.

Elementary students have constructed a chicken coop, a duck pond and a pig pen for the farm. They are working to create a duck house for the farm as well as a greenhouse in which they’ll raise tilapia fish and grow vegetables. A mountain-like structure for the goats to climb is also in the beginning stages. They also received a grant for a wind turbine on the farm, and they’re working with other partners to install an on-farm milking parlor where they will be able to milk cows and pasteurize and bottle their own milk, Wells said.

The Cameron Owen Farm School has helped the Hamburg School District, which was previously on academic and financial probation, turn around its enrollment, Wells said.

"One of the big problems here was open enrollment out," Wells said. "Farragut kids came here, but when the state re-drew the districts, they put the dividing line in the middle of the country. We lost about 100 kids. And the only hope we had was to have a program nobody else had," Wells said.

The uniqueness of the farm school has attracted students from outside of the district, he said.

Community support

It’s attracted volunteers, too, like Fremont County Farm Bureau member Terry Lewis of Sidney.

"The farm school is a fun place to go because kids are excited and teachers are into it," Lewis said.

Lewis, a former biology teacher, has volunteered to help at the school with lessons in biology and water. He’s assisted students on a water project and was at the farm the day the students dug their hole for the duck pond.

"The kids are so enthusiastic; they’re just fun to work with. So when I go down (to visit or teach), I enjoy it, too," he said.

Though hands-on learning has been an important part of the farm school learning, Wells said it’s been largely supported by the community. And the farm school is working to give back to the community which supports it.

When the garden produces a large crop of vegetables — like the eight buckets of tomatoes it produced per day last summer — the students will give it to the food bank in town.

The three dozen eggs the chickens lay per day go to those in the community who need them. Hamburg’s only grocery store closed within the last few years, so the farm school is hoping to fill that role in the community.

"This community is a proud community. We want a school here," Wells said. "If it doesn’t have a school here, this will dry up. But it’s also just good education for these kids; it teaches compassion. How many things do we have that kids actually have to roll up their sleeves and work? This is work."