THERE’S AN old adage that goes: If you like food, thank a farmer.
“I had a preschool group out here the other day,” shares farmer Merrin Slocombe. “I was like, ‘Who likes food? Raise your hand!’”
Predictably, every hand shot up.
“You go back to this,” Slocombe says. “Food is ubiquitous, it’s relevant, it’s permanent.”
Slocombe is the director of Bethesda Academy Farm and Gardens. The farm program is a crucial component of the centuries-old boys school over on Ferguson Avenue.
“Being out in it, every day is different,” says Slocombe. “Yesterday, we saw black birds attacking a vulture and a bald eagle flying overhead. When the guys get outside, they see something different—butterfly eggs or birds in battle. Learning about compost, all your senses get stimulated. We learn about decomposition, the carbon cycle. We learn every single day.”
Since 1740, the farm has taught its boys the importance of growing food.
“That’s what’s neat about Bethesda—there’s always been a farm here,” Slocombe says. “Back in 1740 when we were founded, everybody back then just had a garden and grew vegetables. That’s what you did. You weren’t going to Kroger.”
The farm has changed in those nearly three hundred years, at one point including a dairy component.
“We’re a little bit of a living legacy, but we’re also evolving with future trends and using farming as an example for boys to study entrepreneurial skills,” Slocombe says. “Also for them to learn some functional stuff—we teach them how to use a pressure washer, how to change a belt on a lawn mower, how to drive a tractor, winding up a hose, how to use a wrench.”
At Bethesda, the intersection of practical and entrepreneurial skills is composting.
Bethesda just began a compost program with Green Truck Pub and the Sentient Bean.
“We’re hoping to open especially in coffee shops because coffee grounds are the perfect fertilizer,” Slocombe explains. “It’s just one of those examples of how great it is to have a collaboration—it’s very 21st century but so traditional. We have the space and they have the need.”
The composting collaboration is beneficial for everyone involved.
“It’s a win-win-win,” she says. “We get the fertilizer from it, and we also have a teaching experience as well as it not going into the landfill. We really try to work on that here, thinking about the triple bottom line. This is fun for us because it creates a relationship with another restaurant, another business, saves something out of the waste stream, and it gives us a product where, if we can build this project, we could end up with what’s an equitable business for somebody.”
Currently, Bethesda’s field assistant Michael Wedum is handling waste pickup as part of his new endeavor, Code of Return Compost.
“There used to be a company here called Grow, Eat, Repeat, and when they lost their compost collector, they reached out to me,” Slocombe shares. “They were so excited to keep the composting going, which is great.”
As Slocombe admits, composting can be hard work, but it’s worth it for everyone in the end.
“Composting is sorting and taking the effort to go through trash and stuff like that,” she explains, “but it’s a huge value. It is literally garbage to gold.”
Bethesda relies heavily on community partnerships like their composting program and their custom growing for local restaurants.
“We’re doing some custom growing where we explore different plants and see what works,” Slocombe says. “The chefs are really the ones who, for a farm our size, pull our market. Working with the chefs is what takes us into the public eye. The consumer demand is what allows us to have what we do be possible and profitable.”
Slocombe partners with restaurants like Husk and the Wyld Dock Bar to grow the crops that the executive chefs want to serve.
“There’s so much creative force that comes from these really conscionable chefs like Tony [Seichrist from the Wyld],” Slocombe enthuses.
“I love working with Tony because he’s really walking the walk. He’s so authentic, he’s so motivated. It’s more than just putting something on a plate. It really is artistry. Again, it’s so essential—we are what we eat.”
Slocombe oversees the garden, but Bethesda also raises cows and goats.
“That’s one of the interesting things about raising farm animals,” says Slocombe. “The goats are basically lawn mowers, but the cows are raised ultimately for meat. We give them the best of life, we give them a great experience, and they give us a great experience, which might be a burger!”
Slocombe says that their cows are raised responsibly and beneficially to the environment.
“People are very oriented towards a plant-based diet, which makes sense,” Slocombe says, “but what people are discovering is it’s actually an ecological benefit. If you raise cows on pasture, there’s a carbon sequestration that happens, which is improving the soil health with the manure and the patterns of their hooves in the soil. It replicates what large-range animals like bison used to do. With their hooves in the soil, there’s actually a little micro-climate that’s created and the manure infiltrates that area.”
The difference between cows raised in a pasture and in an industrial farm is very noticeable in the meat they produce, which sends home the point of being environmentally conscious.
“That’s what’s so sweet about our farm,” says Slocombe. “We’re 15 minutes from downtown Savannah, and because of the structure of this land, we have 600 acres. It’s a big property. Another teacher and I run Outdoor Club—it’s about exploring the intersection of coastal resources and recreation. How it is that fishing and hunting and shrimping and farming and all these things we get off the land is part of our economy but also our ecology.”