Growing up green
Troy Howard Middle School uses organic farming as teaching tool

(Created: Friday, March 7, 2008 11:54 AM EST)

BELFAST — Troy Howard Middle School students Bridget Littlefield, Chase Hart and Chance Barnes are debating the best spot to dig for worms.

“Would they be in the middle?” one student asks.

“No, they like the corners and edges,” Bridget says.

For a minute or two, she watches the boys try to wrangle up a few worms from the greenhouse compost pile to show the visiting reporter. Finally, she bends down herself, roots around in the decomposing coffee grounds, onion peels and assorted worm food, and comes back with a handful of wigglers for the camera.

It’s a typical day in the life of the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project.

Started in the 2001-2002 school year, the garden project at the middle school has grown to involve about 90 students, mostly 12- and 13-year-old seventh graders.

Teachers Steven Tanguay and Jon Thurston spearhead the project. They and their fellow teachers use the garden project, which includes a greenhouse and smaller hoop houses, small fruit orchards and watershed trails to teach students not only agriculture and gardening, but economics, math, science, art, writing skills, computer lessons and citizenship.

“Playing in the soil can be very educational,” Tanguay says.

Troy Howard Middle School students, from left, Ezrah Downs, Korey Doolan and Scott Hilt work in the school greenhouse Feb. 14. (PHOTO REPRINTS AT WWW.MAINEPHOTOSNOW.COM) DANIEL DUNKLE
The primary greenhouse, which houses a large variety of crops in addition to chickens, rabbits, fish and at least one turtle, was built in the summer of 2002. The project has since added hoop houses that, even though they are unheated, manage to trap enough of the sun’s light and warmth to sustain cold-loving crops during long Maine winters.

One hoop house is devoted to growing food for the Stone Soup Kitchen in Belfast, which serves those in need. That would be the citizenship component of the lesson.

Food from the garden project is also used in the district-wide school lunch program and some food is sold to the Belfast Co-op, the school’s farm stand and a few local restaurants, with all of the revenues reinvested into the project.

“In 2002, approximately 4,000 pounds of food were harvested. Of that, 1,785 pounds, valued at $985, were incorporated into the school food services menus,” the garden project Web site reports. “…In 2003-2007, our students grew another 28,600 pounds of food for distribution. This fall we’ve had a wonderful harvest of over one hundred vegetable varieties well exceeding three tons.”

All food was grown using organic, green, chemical-free techniques.

To demonstrate how that works, Thurston offers a tour of the greenhouse. First, he points out what appear to be tiny black flies buzzing around among the leaves. This is a type of wasp that has been introduced into the greenhouse as a predator to control unwanted pest bugs, including aphids and whiteflies. He looks for examples of living pests, but can find none. The wasps (which cannot sting you) have done too good a job eradicating the vermin. He points to the dried, almost fossilized looking carcasses of pests still attached to a leaf. The wasps planted their eggs in the pests and the young ate them from the inside out, leaving dried husks behind.

Organic farming requires more than pest control, however. It also requires worm poop.

Troy Howard Middle School teachers Steven Tanguay, left, and Jon Thurston use the garden project to teach a variety of disciplines and skills to students. (PHOTO REPRINTS AT WWW.MAINEPHOTOSNOW.COM) DANIEL DUNKLE
Actually, the students and teachers use the more scientific description, “worm castings.”

The red wigglers in the project’s worm farm eat office paper, rabbit droppings and kitchen scraps and produce an excellent fertilizer for the garden. The students are becoming experts in several areas including worm farming. Thurston notes that he’s even known at least one student who ate worms.

This part of the operation helps find a beneficial use for the used paper at the school.

The project has become a regional and national model for school agriculture programs and has been presented around the country from the Philadelphia Flower Show and the National USDA Conference to Cornell University and the University of San Diego.

Tanguay notes that even high schools and community foundations from around the state have come to learn and share with the middle school’s 12-year-olds about the potential of learning through the school garden, its watershed and surrounding forest.

Each school year starts with a weeklong “boot camp” where students receive intensive training and testing to prepare for their year on the “Green Team”. Tanguay notes that he’s never had a student balk at working in some part of the garden and has witnessed a vast improvement in student motivation, diet, peer relationships and pride.

Once they have completed boot camp, garden students interview for the job they want and become apprentices in which they learn about and try 100 different jobs in the garden. Once selected for a particular job responsibility, each student garden employee must become an expert in his or her field.

Kaylee Pickering, left, and Maria Swebilius work with Quicken software on their computers to formulate business plans for the garden project. (PHOTO REPRINTS AT WWW.MAINEPHOTOSNOW.COM) DANIEL DUNKLE
They have learned business skills, using the garden to create a pizza business. They grew all of the ingredients needed for a pizza except the cheese. Students even produced their own flour for the dough and invited local chefs to cook for them. They then created a business model to figure out how to make it a cost-effective business venture.

The students have learned to use Quicken software, online investment tools, databases and spreadsheets to manage their virtual stock portfolios and garden paychecks on their laptop computers, working with Chief Investment Officer Chris Nelson of Bangor Savings Bank both in class and through their own Investment Blog and podcasts. Students’ grades are based on how much of a risk this real-life banker decides their business plan poses when given a virtual loan and how real to life their business proposal is. Working with local realtors and business wholesalers, students completed the architectural drawings of their floor plan for their fictional pizza franchises along with detailed marketing and budgeting plans.

The program incorporates high-tech tools. Tanguay teaches with the help of a variety of software programs that integrate each lesson with current research, images, audio, primary resources and live podcasts all through the classroom website. Students complete assignments on Apple laptop computers where all of their tasks and resources are already detailed on the school’s website.

In addition, the students and teachers maintain an extensive Web site and a garden blog. ( and blog:

So how much is this major educational undertaking costing taxpayers?

Tanguay explains that it is a cost-effective program. The project largely pays for itself through the sale of crops to school lunch programs, the Co-op, farm stand sales, community dinners, and local restaurants. In addition, the garden project receives grants and donations from many local businesses and community foundations.

Tanguay says adults from the community put in 700-800 volunteer hours every year. A summer program is also offered to all 5-8th graders and is always in need of good volunteers who would like to get a little bit of exercise while eating from the day’s harvest.

Natalie Calligan spends time with Hershey, the bunny at the Troy Howard greenhouse Feb. 14. (PHOTO REPRINTS AT WWW.MAINEPHOTOSNOW.COM) DANIEL DUNKLE
For more information about the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project visit and blog: You can find additional local green stories, links to this project and links to many other eco-friendly organizations at

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