Learning in the field

Nord Country School’s harvest event teaches kids about food, farming.

Nord Country School student, Mitchell Steele, 9, pitchforks bundles of wheat stalks onto a horse-drawn trailer during the school’s annual Harvest Festival.

Nord Country School student, Mitchell Steele, 9, pitchforks bundles of wheat stalks onto a horse-drawn trailer during the school’s annual Harvest Festival.

Photo By Andrea LaVoy Wagner

Ask the students at Nord Country School where bread comes from, and they may tell you, or even just show you.

Tucked behind the charter school’s classroom buildings and playground are acres of wheat and a garden brimming with roses, vegetables, pumpkins and gourds. Green, orange and brown fall colors provide the backdrop to the educational program.

Students are learning, experientially, about where food comes from. The Nord community has much to do with that, as neighborhood volunteers plant, fertilize, harvest and mill wheat-flour with the students on the school grounds, using horse-drawn equipment from the early 20th century.

Located amid orchards and farmland in a community with a population of 380—about a five-minute drive north of Chico—this school is surprisingly rich in history.

Originally started by pioneers in 1867, Nord School remains the heart of the town. So when Chico Unified School District, facing a budget crisis, decided to shut it down in 2005, Nord residents stepped up.

In an unheard of three-month turnaround, Nord Country School became a K-6 charter school, said the school’s principal, Kathy Dahlgren. In the charter, a big emphasis was on preserving the school’s small size and fostering community. “We’re a big family out here,” she said.

Doug Maxfield, of Chico, demonstrates his blacksmithing skills in front of the school’s flower and vegetable garden.

Photo By Andrea LaVoy Wagner

Luke and Donna Messenger have lived next door to the school for about 23 years, and both of their children have attended. When the school got its charter, the Messengers volunteered to plant a field of wheat behind the existing garden on the school grounds.

“They’re learning, by being exposed to this, that bread doesn’t just come from the grocery store,” Donna said.

In the process, children are also learning the value of community. Part of that includes an annual Harvest Festival. Parents, grandparents, toddlers and students gathered together at the school Oct. 2 for this year’s celebration.

The event was not just a chance for children to gorge themselves on candied apples and snow cones or to jump on a large, inflated bounce house. It provided a snapshot of Nord’s farming legacy and actively involved community.

Ernie Dalton, a tall and thin Nord resident wearing a cowboy hat, stood behind a tabletop mill that was slowly and quietly grinding flour. He helped children spoon wheat flour, from wheat grown at the school, into brown paper lunch sacks that they could take home. As a bonus, he offered apples grown in his own front yard.

“I grew too many apples this year,” he said with a smile.

Nearby, another, younger man, also in a cowboy hat, pounded out horseshoes over glowing hot coals while children lined up next to him to watch. A step farther, a man was helping kids make pieces of rope on an antique, hand-cranked device.

Volunteers sold painted gourd birdhouses (made from the school’s gourds) and other handmade crafts. Among the wares, baskets of bread made from the school’s wheat flour, and baked by Tin Roof Bakery, were for sale beside bags of flour. Bales of hay dotted the landscape, doubling as decoration and seating.

At the opposite end of the playground, several members of the Chico-area Vintage Iron Club and the Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association displayed and discussed their collections of farm equipment from the early 1900s. Ken Roehr, an 86-year-old Navy veteran from Paradise, told onlookers about how farmers used to use gas-powered engines, like the ones on display, to power everything from laundry machines to harvesting equipment.

Roehr described his own experience farming as a child in northern Iowa. He and his father used horses—not anything like the engines on display. “That’s why I play with these,” he said of the gas-powered machines. “We were so envious of people who had them.”

Siblings Risa and Rex Reynier, ages 6 and 2, of Fall River Mills, and Mason Petersen, 2, (left) experience using a pioneer-style sink, part of a chuckwagon display at the Harvest Festival. All of the kids have family that live in Nord.

Photo By Andrea LaVoy Wagner

The heart of the festival,however, was in the field. While volunteers from the Golden State Draft Horse and Mule Club led wagon rides in two groups, Luke Messenger, the school’s neighbor, and 9-year-old Nord student Mitchell Steele worked with other volunteers bundling wheat stalks and loading them onto a horse-drawn trailer with pitchforks. It was a culmination of what students had been learning about throughout the year—from planting, fertilizing, watering and growing of the crops to harvesting and using them.

During the previous week, Luke had been taking classes out into the field. The best part was seeing the children as they rubbed the wheat in their palms, he said. They got the berries out of the heads of wheat and ate them. It is not official curriculum and they are not going to be tested, but the lessons are lasting, he said.

“They are going to come away from this school knowing what a lot of kids don’t get to learn,” Luke said.

The daily activities continue with the students, teachers and parents gathering each morning at the flagpole to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem. Now, when the children sing about “amber waves of grain,” they can glance toward the field and know exactly what that means.