Durham Public Schools’ students receive a farm-fresh education at the outdoor agricultural learning center
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Hundreds of honeybees bustled to- and-fro across three painted hives, while lone sentries went buzzing off to hunt nectar amid rows of squash blossoms and patches of wildflowers. Across the garden, families danced while Pierce Freelon riffed to melodic beats from the porch-turned-stage attached to The Hub Farm’s red barn. The fundraising concert – which also included a performance by XOXOK – fell in late June, a handful of days past the end of an academic year, during which The Hub hosted more than 2,530 Durham Public Schools students in its immersive outdoor learning programs. A few weeks later, the 30-acre educational farm and forest between Eno Valley Elementary School and Durham County Library’s North Regional branch teemed with rising first- through third-graders, its second cohort of summer campers. Seven DPS teachers paired with high school-aged interns led literacy-focused activities like vocab practice at the creek and readalongs among rows of okra and beans.
“Summer camp is really special and fun because we don’t necessarily have as many [grade level] standards that we have to hit,” explains Ashley Meredith, who’s led The Hub as its program manager since 2017.
Fifth- and eighth-grade field trips that take place during the school year are more regimented, with activity stations focused on end-of-grade science testing prep spread around the property. Service- learning trips are a collaborative effort among teachers and The Hub’s three full-time staff, who are employed by DPS. On these visits, kids might test water from the pond or help harvest crops and weed in the garden. And classes from any grade level can opt to visit for open- air lessons.
“There’s professional development workshops available to DPS teachers and other ways to get involved in the community of outdoor learning,” Ashley adds. Ignite! Online Academy groups visit weekly for outdoor instruction. A handful of UNC APPLES interns and one AmeriCorps service member from Conservation Trust for North Carolina frequent the farm, too.
This programming is supported by grants, like one from The Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation, via Friends of the Hub Farm nonprofit. It’s enough to maintain livestock, the quarter-acre vegetable and fruit garden, plus forest and aquatic learning stations. The Hub’s produce is distributed across the county to DPS families and others in need through partnerships with Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Durham County Department of Public Health’s Durham’s Innovative Nutrition Education program and the N.C. Cooperative Extension.
The garden’s bursting with warm-weather crops like spiny cucumbers and yellow summer squash while Pierce and his bandmates jam. After the juiciest summer tomatoes and tomatillos have passed, Hub farmer and educator Hannah Ball-Damberg will liaise with career and technical education classes at Northern High School – just 10 minutes away by foot – to pick and plan fall and winter crops. Anyone enrolled in the advanced levels of culinary arts teacher Peter Brodsky’s classes at Northern has trekked over to The Hub. For the past four years, their courses culminated in a farm- to-table dinner prepared and cooked at the high school. Peter and his students even once served a four-course meal featuring dishes like duck confit to 35 guests at a Board of Education event.
“We’ve done a variety of things, from individual labs where we pick and process or pickle vegetables, all the way to multi-course meals, all with [ingredients] that the students raised or grew themselves,” Peter says. His pupils typically plant culinary staples like salad greens (usually kale and spinach), garlic and herbs.
“There’s so much that [The Hub] has to offer to students around the district in all sorts of ways,” Peter says. “I can’t say enough just how important it is that we get kids out in the dirt, getting fresh air and getting to see that the natural order of things still exists.”
Even if you’re not a DPS family or staff member, chances are you’ve tasted The Hub’s bounty in a Monuts bagel sandwich or LocoPops’ blueberry basil sorbet. The farm gets a kickback from the frozen pop sales and from bags of Joe Van Gogh’s Let it Grow Blend coffee beans.
The sun wearily sets during Pierce’s last song, and kids tire of cornhole and sprinting through the mist tent. Live music and food trucks will return for a larger bash on Oct. 15, when The Hub celebrates 10 years of hands-on outdoor learning. Ashley says that future programming possibilities have plenty of room to grow alongside the needs of the district, and that the farm will continue to hold space for “little moments of discovery and peace that kids find out here.”
Hub Farm by the Numbers*
2,532 students on field trips
1,600+ visitors during events and workshops
262 K-12 students led by teachers on self-guided trips
60 summer campers per week
9 summer interns
2,012 pounds of veggies donated
137 dozen eggs donated
*for the 2021/22 fiscal year