Delaware Public Media

Students harvest educational opportunities at historic Penn Farm

Jun 8, 2018

Historic Penn Farm, teacher Karen Ferrucci says, “is a different kind of animal.”

And it’s also a place where you’ll find dozens of different kinds of vegetables.

“The best way to put it,” farm manager Toby Hagerott says, “is we grow what was in your grandmother’s garden, and your great-grandmother’s garden, and then some.”

Indeed, the 115-acre farm, overseen since 1764 by the Trustees of the New Castle Common, the governing body that manages the common land of the city of New Castle, is now enjoying a renaissance, and the students and staff at William Penn High School and the Colonial School District have contributed significantly to its rebirth.

Last year, the eight acres farmed by students in William Penn’s agricultural program yielded about 19,000 pounds of vegetables, and about 60 percent of that harvest – some 11,280 pounds worth -- wound up being served in the cafeterias at William Penn and other Colonial schools, saving the district about $15,000, says Paula Angelucci, Colonial’s supervisor of nutrition services.

“We’ve had a lot of growing pains, but in the end it’s been great for our students,” Angelucci says.

Those growing pains began in 2011, when the Trustees of the New Castle Common contracted with Delaware Greenways, an environmentally oriented nonprofit, to become the farm’s 22nd tenant, with the goal of making the property a sustainable, bio-diverse productive farm while restoring its stature as a community landmark. The following year, students from William Penn, whose campus adjoins the farm, began working in the fields.

This school year, about 1,000 Colonial students have had some exposure to the farm, Hagerott says. About 30 students take a yearlong Penn Farm class, which involves working for an hour or so on the farm two or three days a week except during the dead of winter. About 300 William Penn students enrolled in plant, animal or environmental science classes spend some time at the farm during the year. On top of that, all the district’s sixth- and eighth-grade students visit the farm once a year to learn about its operations and to get a taste of what high school agricultural classes might be like.

“It began so small,” with about a half-dozen students working in the farm, recalls plant science teacher Kate Pickard, the only faculty member remaining from the original Penn Farm team. “I remember being laughed at when I asked for these things,” she says, mentioning the new tractor, pickup truck and other equipment acquired in the last two or three years that have helped make the farm a more efficient operation.

Farm manager Toby Hagerott with a pick-up truck added to the William Penn's farm program in recent years. They've also added a tractor.
Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

The Kubota X5200 tractor, paid for in part by a grant from the state Department of Agriculture, has automatic transmission and seat belts, so students can learn to use it for plowing and mowing the fields, and even earn a certification as a tractor operator, Pickard says.

And Hagerott uses the truck, a Ford F250, wrapped with Penn Farm imagery and a logo created by a William Penn design student, on the farm, on his runs between farm and school, and when he delivers surplus produce to senior centers and community centers in the area.

But the true beauty of Penn Farm, and William Penn’s entire agricultural program, is the opportunity to see first-hand the entire food cycle or, as senior Melissa Lemley puts it, “how it goes from the farm to become your dinner.”

“No one in the region is doing what we’re doing with our agricultural science program at the high school level,” says William Penn Principal Brian Erskine.

Willliam Penn H.S. teacher Karen Ferrucci works with students in the school's agricultural sciences program connected to Penn Farm
Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

“We don’t have a textbook [for Penn Farm],” says Ferrucci, the animal sciences teacher. “But we’re going to teach you farm safety, how to plant seed, how to transplant, how to identify areas where wildlife might be a problem, and the history of the farm.”

The farming cycle begins in early February, Pickard says, in the greenhouses behind the school, where plant science students begin planting seeds for cool weather crops like broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, kale and collard greens. As the soil begins to warm, those seedlings are planted on the farm. Next come the warm weather crops – tomatoes, peppers, squash, watermelon and more. Come fall, it’s time for a second planting of broccoli, cabbage, lettuce and the like.

While the school might shut down for the summer, the farm does not. After all, it’s peak growing season. About a dozen students work four days a week at the farm in June, July and August, earning $10 an hour through a program funded by the state Department of Labor and New Castle County. Other students, employed through William Penn’s culinary arts program and Colonial’s nutrition services, are involved with peeling, processing and canning the summer’s abundance.

“Last year, the first tomatoes were picked in early July, and the district didn’t run out of tomatoes until the middle of February,” Hagerott says.

During the growing season, Hagerott lets Angelucci and her cafeteria supervisors know which vegetables are ready to pick. Each Wednesday, the cafeteria managers place their orders. Then, on Friday, Angelucci determines what has to be ordered from outside vendors, many of them Delaware farmers, for delivery on Monday morning. 

And there’s more to William Penn’s ag program than growing veggies on the farm. Adjoining the greenhouses, but not part of the farm, is the school’s own barnyard, featuring about a dozen varieties of chickens, two ducks, four goats and a pair of geese named, not surprisingly, Bill and Penny.

“Almost all the animals we get are surrenders or rescues,” Ferrucci says. Her students clean cages, clip nails, band the animals for identification, move the goats between pasture areas and gather the chickens’ eggs, which eventually make their way into breakfasts or lunches served in the school cafeterias.

Caring for the animals provides another opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration – this time with students in William Penn’s allied health program. When the female goats had to be tested for pregnancy, allied health students took the blood samples. “Our kids are teaching [the allied health] kids how to properly restrain the animal and they’re teaching our kids how to find a vein, and all about needle safety,” Ferrucci says.

Another collaborative effort, a microbiology project on identifying bacteria found in chickens, won a bronze medal in a national Future Farmers of America competition.

“With hands-on experience, you get to learn so much,” says senior Jessica Knowles. “We did internal parasite evaluation, fecal samples, dissections, and drew blood.” At the end of the year, she was one of four students to earn a nationally recognized certification in veterinary medical applications.

Just as the farm doesn’t shut down during the summer, there’s work to be done on weekends too – making sure the animals are fed, that their cage are clean, and so on. Students volunteer to handle the weekend chores and earn credit toward community services requirements for their effort, Ferrucci says.

As Angelucci notes, one of the big payoffs with the Penn Farm program is in the cafeterias at William Penn and the district’s other schools.

It’s not just that there’s a cost saving in serving farm to school produce. An added benefit is the pride students take in knowing where their food is coming from, and their willingness to try new items.

“Nutrition services is into marketing, promoting Penn Farm tomatoes and squash when they’re on the cafeteria line,” Ferrucci says.

And, she adds, “when we give them crazy stuff, they try it…. There’s a huge surge in kids eating kale because we grew it.”

“We use zucchini for homemade soups, and peppers for chili sauce,” Angelucci says, “and I’m not sure how many other school districts in Delaware grow their own okra.”

While the Penn Farm program is growing, no one is predicting how large it might become. Rainy springs and dry summers have a way of disrupting harvest projections.

Continued growth, however, is the expectation. Angelucci hopes that Penn farm will someday sell some of its harvest to other Delaware school districts.

“We’re not there yet,” she says, “but I do hope to see a Penn Farm label on our produce.”