When the owners of Pie Ranch in San Mateo County sought out schools for their sustainable farming program for students they thought why not start from the beginning. That led them to Mission High School, the city’s oldest high school, where special education teachers Susan Kern and Matt Heller took eagerly to the idea.

“We each had become engaged in community-supported agriculture, which brings farmers and eaters into a mutually beneficial program,” said Karen Heisler, one of the owners of Pie Ranch and Mission Pie, referring to her other partners at the farm. “It just feels like a better model to me particularly with people working with nature as a background.  There needs to be an understanding of sustainable limits.”

Nearly four years later, they have a farm; a relationship with Mission High and other schools; a café, Mission Pie; and a waiting list to get into the class of 10 students.

On a recent Wednesday morning in the classroom, Corky Kern kept students engaged with her softspoken and upbeat nature.  But when a construction worker interrupted her lesson with noisy drilling outside her window, she yelled at him to stop, showing her often quiet assertion.

In the afternoon, students were captivated by Matt Heller, the quintessential funny science teacher, who conducted an experiment with a plastic tub, rubbing alcohol and a match, showing them that heat always rises to the top.  He grew proud while flipping through computer files of student portfolios, and smiled when he came across a statement that described Pie Ranch as “a place that you can come and listen to the bird’s song.”

Students meet with Ms. Kern and Mr. Heller every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for classes in English and science, and visit the ranch once a month to sow plants, feed animals and cook.  After three years of the program, the ranch owners decided the students needed continuity between visits so they opened Mission Pie café in 2007.  Heisler found the space on 25th and Mission Street, sold her home and bought the building.  Students helped clean and prepare for the opening, and six of them took after-school jobs there.

Some of Mission Pie’s proceeds go towards the farm, as the owners are trying to develop a dialogue between urban business and rural farming.  Mission Pie currently has a partnership with Destination Baking Co., which bakes all their goods while they are waiting for their kitchen to be completed.

Mark Bradford, a senior, joined the class last year. His face lit up as he described what it felt like to plant strawberries, apples, and other fruit. He even decided that he would like to milk a goat the next time he has the opportunity. He said he likes that Pie Ranch is nothing like where he lives in Daly City, and he’s grateful for what he’s learned through the program.

“I learned that it’s good to eat food from a farm than from a store. I don’t know why but the fruit from the farm tastes sweeter,” he said.

Bradford plans to apply to UC Berkeley and to the University of Southern California, and he hopes to live on campus. His highest GPA was a 3.5 and his goal is to have a 4.0 this year.

Principal Eric Guthertz buys his eggs from the ranch through a program called Community Supported Eggriculture. Although unrelated to the school program, the money helps the farm thrive, which in turn allows it to continue its program with the students.

“We’ve seen kids blossoming, becoming advocates for the environment, advocates for healthy foods. But more than that they become student leaders,” said Guthertz.

Kern, who has been teaching for 25 years, said that her Pie Ranch class is the best time she’s ever had teaching.

“I can quit now,” she said, letting out a huge laugh.

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