Whenever we are on the heels of a turn in season, I know in my soul that it is this season I love the most. There is no season I’d prefer than the one just in front of me. But fall is pure magic, our whole family feels it deep in our beings—the cool crisp air funneling into the house right after the sun goes down, the intense energy of summer starting to mellow and settle into a rhythm that is calm and measured compared to the season prior. Fall is the sweetest transition on the farm: the hay barns are full to the brim, the berry vines are bursting with juicy berries, and the pigs, like us, seem relieved by the break in the heat.
During the fall, we stand in the middle of all of the abundance produced by long hot days of hard work and look ahead to cold quiet days with the woodstove blazing, and our hearts are happy.
Fall is the sweetest transition on the farm: the hay barns are full to the brim, the berry vines are bursting with juicy berries, and the pigs, like us, seem relieved by the break in the heat.
WHO WE ARE
California Heritage Farms is a small family farm nestled in Scott Valley, a small mountain valley in far northern California, about an hour south of the Oregon border. Our farm is a constant evolution, a platform that teaches us over and over again so much about life and business. Our immediate family includes myself, my husband, Rich, and our four children, Oscar (seven), Sam (five), Dutch (three), and Ada (three). We co-own the farm with Rich’s oldest brother, Jim, and his wife, Michelle. Rich has two other brothers who have previously been involved in various components of the farm, and together our four families have fourteen kids, who are all best friends.
When you marry into the Harris family, you leave all boundaries at the door, like it or not. Luckily, I couldn’t imagine a better life. We are the kind of family who doesn’t knock before entering and who shares cars, food, kids, good times and bad. Owning a business together has mirrored this culture, hence the constant evolution and learning. Over the course of the thirteen years that the business has been in operation, ownership has changed, product mix has changed, and perspective has changed.
Today, we operate about 1,000 acres of GMO-free hay fields that are the main engine to our business. Through ongoing trainings in soil health, cover cropping, and intensive grazing, we’ve been able to increase yields while adding nutrients back into the soil. In 2012, we started raising and marketing direct-to-consumer pasture-raised pigs that are also a part of our field rotation and soil improvement practices. Raising and selling niche-market pork has exposed us to so many interesting and challenging components of our current food system, which has grown our passion to advocate for environmental stewardship and product transparency.
Our pigs are heritage breeds that we raise free from antibiotics, growth stimulants, and GMO feed. During the summer months, we open one of our farms to the community with an organic u-pick berry farm and flower patch, where we also host a small market shed selling local products from Siskiyou County. Picking and purchasing are all on the honor system, with a small scale to weigh your berries and a money jar to drop your payment.
This small rural valley of just a couple thousand people has been our reason for sustaining and growing our family business. The farm is every child’s playground with exposure to riding tractors, feeding pigs, working cows, and running through fields. It’s also such a rare opportunity for our children to learn about life cycles, birth and death, the origin of food, and the value of hard work. While many children might not understand that meat doesn’t come from a package at the grocery store, our kids are involved in every part of raising animals from birth to harvest.
When you marry into the Harris family, you leave all boundaries at the door, like it or not.
WHAT FARM SCHOOL IS
Perhaps it is these realities that motivated Rich and me to dive head first into one of our most exciting projects yet, Farm School. This fall our family sent our oldest two children to first grade and kindergarten but, unlike the many families who made their drop offs down the road at the local elementary, we stood outside of our home and welcomed other children onto the farm for the first day of Farm School.
Farm School is an independent co-op in partnership with the local public school district. Instead of homeschooling children, families drop their kids off here, on the farm, and our two full-time teachers lead them through days full of exploration, outdoor play, and independent study that align to meet appropriate learning targets across all ages. This year is our “pilot” year, our first year launching a full-time program serving eighteen children transition kindergarten through second grade, with the intention of growing a grade each school year.
Farm School is a place where the whole child is nurtured, not just her academic mind. Where the seasons aren’t left behind for fluorescent lights and wood chip playgrounds but instead are woven into the pace of the school days. At Farm School, the children’s classroom is a three acre farm shared with six goats, seventeen chickens, a couple of dogs, rows of berries, flowers, pumpkins, raised garden beds, and plenty of dirt to dig in.
The farm is every child’s playground with exposure to riding tractors, feeding pigs, working cows, and running through fields. It’s also such a rare opportunity for our children to learn about life cycles, birth and death, the origin of food, and the value of hard work.
Rich recalls his own school days as a time where he would stare out the window all day wishing he could be outside. How could he not? Growing up on expansive acres with the freedom to roam fuels a passion for learning that is bigger than what happens in a classroom. Our children have an innate connection to the outdoor environment that we want to foster, not restrict.
So in the fall of 2018 the concept of Farm School was born. We identified our priorities and knew we wanted our kids to have the opportunity to learn at their own pace, to follow their own passions, to spend much of their days outdoors, and to be with peers who interact as a community. We wanted an enriched education that cultivated their leadership skills, critical thinking, and creativity. As we started sharing these ideas with other families, we quickly learned we weren’t the only ones in our small community wondering if there was a different way to provide an education for our children.
We started small, meeting only once per week as a parent-led co-op with ten other families. We continued to foster our intention for Farm School to take the place of full-time school, and quickly the right people started to align for us to make this happen. In the early winter of 2019 we connected with Anna, who holds a Master’s in Education and twenty years experience teaching Montessori and leading outdoor-based programs with children. She came on one day per week to lead our co-op, and we knew right away that she was as committed as we were to building Farm School into a full time program.
Around that same time, the local public school district proposed a partnership between Farm School and their independent study program. All of our students sign up for the Farm School co-op and enroll in the Scott Valley Options program, so the district takes on the legal responsibility for their academic records. The school district receives state funding for each child, and those resources allow us access to another full time teacher.
FARM SCHOOL, FALL 2019
Last spring we opened enrollment for our full time fall program, and within ten days had to shut down sign ups—we had met capacity! We have eighteen students this school year, thirty-five signed up for next, and a wait list started for the following year.
Our already-packed busy summer—think 1000 acres of hay to grow and harvest—was more full than usual. We used every break in farmwork to host volunteer workdays to prepare for Farm School. We worked around the clock to convert our basic two-car garage, with its cement floor, unfinished windows, and years’ worth of cobwebs and dead flies, into one of the most beautiful, calm, and centered spaces one could imagine. The centerpiece of the whole structure, aside from the barn-red exterior and old schoolhouse bell from an 1800’s schoolhouse down the road, is the earthen floor. One giant backhoe to dig up dirt behind the schoolhouse, hours of sifting to get just the finest clay particles, a straw chopper, four cement mixers, and more sweat equity from Farm School families than I could have imagined came together to make the most beautiful floor I’ve ever seen.
This community never stops amazing me. These families are innovators and pioneers, bravely stepping forward to lead us all in something bigger than ourselves.
They come to Farm School to imagine school a different way. To build something that can bring learning to life for the children, who will run wild in rows of berries, feed a baby piglet and feel connected to its survival, collect eggs and bring them home for their families, tuck away under a tree with a good book, plant a seed and watch it grow over time with awe. What child doesn’t delight in learning through fostering their own connection nose-to-nose with a newborn goat, up close and personal with a great horned owl, or admiring the clouds’ shift over the tops of the mountains that surround? This fall, Farm School children part from their parents, peel off their coats and boots, and enter the classroom.
With the chill in the air, many students tuck their feet into classroom slippers and find their way to the circle rug for morning ritual. They’re all ages, some of our youngest students just learning their letters, some of our older children already performing a grade level above their learning targets.
Lucy, one of our older students, heads over to an old milk crate that holds individual folders. She reaches in for hers, pulls a canvas mat out from a basket, and lays it on the floor, where she sits to look at her folder. A teacher walks over to her, and they chat for a minute before the teacher wanders off to another child. Lucy pulls some manipulatives and a pencil off a nearby shelf and gets to work, sitting comfortably on her mat. Each week, she completes the tasks in her folder, tasks she and the teacher have together designed to meet Lucy’s learning goals and match her interests.
This fall our family sent our oldest two children to first grade and kindergarten but, unlike the many families who made their drop offs down the road at the local elementary, we stood outside of our home and welcomed other children onto the farm for the first day of Farm School.
Once she finishes her independent work, she and the others head outside for outdoor exploration and farm chores: they find a giant toad hiding next to the water spigot behind the schoolhouse; they collect eggs newly laid in the coop, despite the dropping temperatures; they check the progress of some of the cold weather crops they planted in the raised beds.
Every day this fall, while Farm School is in full swing, so is the farm. Bales of alfalfa from the last cutting of the season are neatly stacked in the barn, another load of hogs heads off to harvest, and the first frost settles in, closing the berry patch for the season.
Our farm is always evolving, nothing could be more true. Farm School embodies the ethos and stewardship that we embrace in our business and challenges the conventional education system, much in the same way that our farm does the conventional food system. Both are simply lifestyle choices that provide our family with the best opportunity to thrive.
This is the first in a four-part series, in which Niki Brown tells readers what’s happening on the family farm throughout the seasons. Niki, her husband Rich Harris, and their four young children operate California Heritage Farms in Scott Valley, California, where they grow hay, raise heritage pigs, berries, pumpkins, and flowers, and host Farm School.
Niki, her husband Rich Harris, and their four young children operate California Heritage Farms in Scott Valley, California, where they grow hay, raise heritage pigs, berries, pumpkins, and flowers, and host Farm School.