At the Midland School farm, which sits on 2860 acres of land in Santa Barbara County, students may do just as much learning outside the classroom as they do inside of it. With a strong institutional commitment to experiential education, the school’s on-campus farm and ranch offer students rich opportunities to immerse themselves in projects that often highlight the value of environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture. Overseeing the farm operation is Ben Munger, ranch manager at the school since 2000 (and former Midland student himself).
Around the time Ben came on board as an employee, the school received funding from one of the Farm Bill’s conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to protect the land’s creeks and springs from cattle grazing impacts. Under Munger’s leadership, and with significant help from students, the farm’s 2,400-acre grazing area was subdivided into several pastures, livestock was fenced out of its three upland springs, and pipes were installed to move the spring water to cattle troughs.
Restoration of riparian areas has also been considerable: where before stood no stable banks alongside campus waterways, Munger and his students have built a creek lined with sycamores, alders, and willows. The area now holds more water and releases it slowly in long flows, retaining more groundwater on school property. “That project is almost 15 years out,” says Munger, “and we can really see the benefit now.” In a region where groundwater availability is already a concern and likely to worsen with climate change, this investment will pay increasingly valuable dividends in years to come.
Ben has pioneered a variety of projects with climate benefits – such as planting hedgerows and improving wildlife habitats – but he emphasizes that “one of the overarching system changes on the ranch and on the farm has been trying to get more carbon in the soil.”
Management practices like rotational grazing and cover cropping contribute to this goal.
The school is also a part of the statewide “Soil Carbon Challenge” initiative, which monitors soils being actively managed to increase carbon content and water holding capacity. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has also partnered with the Midland Farm, analyzing soil samples for a student designed carbon sequestration study.
All in all, it seems clear that Munger has brought the school to the front lines of innovative and climate-conscious farm management. Perhaps even more importantly, he has created a space in which young people – so often removed from the practical aspects of what it means to use resources and land responsibly – can participate in real-world projects that truly engage with the challenges and opportunities for land stewardship