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Three square meals for $2.50? Plow the playground

Here in the rolling hills of northeastern Vermont there is a school that feeds its live-in students very well for very little money -- because of a large garden and a small-scale livestock operation.

Moreover, this private high school has raised its own food consistently for the past 18 years, flying in the face of conventional wisdom.

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Incredibly, by today's standards, it costs the Mountain School, near Vershire , a mere $2.50 a day to feed each of its boarders. That $2.50 covers the purchase price of food -- principally cereals -- not raised at the school and the cost of the part-time farming.

Several other scholastic institutions have tried raising their own food and failed, prompting the widely held belief that it cannot be done. It is certainly difficult in Vermont's rugged climate and equally rugged geography that makes it hard for even a family to raise significant quantities.

But this Vershire school has been doing the impossible, so to speak, for almost two decades. In the process it has developed the expertise that ensures success, and which it believes other institutions -- schools, colleges, prisons, or any community group with available land and labor -- can readily adapt to their particular circumstances.

To this end, the Mountain School is offering a summer seminar: ''Food production for schools and institutions'' (June 13-19 and Aug. 22-28). Why has the Mountain School succeeded where others have not?

According to Eliot Coleman, a former Spanish professor and practical farmer who will conduct the upcoming courses, the key to success lies in dependable, low-cost, and appropriate equipment, interested amateurs under professional supervision, and the wise choice of varieties in an environmentally sound cultivation system.

Equipment: Coleman calculates that an investment of $5,000 will provide a walk-behind tractor and enough quality hand tools for a five-acre spread. Most appropriate equipment currently comes from Europe where small farm operations are still widespread. Occasional chisel plowing (once in three years to break up subsoil crust) requires heavier equipment and would be rented.

Labor: The labor needs of food production are heaviest when school is in session -- in the spring for soil preparation and planting and again in the fall when harvesting and storage take place. Labor needs are lightest during the vacation period when field cultivation is all that is required.

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Varieties: The commercial farmer, says Coleman, seeks quickly maturing varieties. The first tomato, or ear of corn fetches the highest price. ''But at school we want just the opposite. We look for the late maturers, the cabbage that won't head up until fall; the tomatoes we can plant in the spring but won't have to pick until September when the kids are back and so on.'' Other institutions with residents year-around could grow crops with varying maturity dates, he says.

Land: The success of a food-raising operation assumes that land currently is available, either belonging to the school or institution or lent to it for this purpose. According to Coleman five acres will provide enough produce for about 200 people, some of which could be frozen or canned. The Mountain School feeds less than 100.

Other pluses for the school or institution: the marketing problems that hinder the commercial farmer are nonexistent. The school is its own market. Moreover, purely cosmetic blemishes that might void a commercial sale present no problem to the institution. The forked carrot might be the best tasting of the bunch but it would never appear on a supermarket shelf; in the soup course at the school's evening meal it would go unnoticed.

The school follows organic or natural farming methods, not because of any preconviction to this approach, but because animal manures are readily available in the region and far less expensive than chemicals. With few exceptions, Coleman believes the use of organic fertilizers would be the most cost-effective method for institutions to adopt.

Coleman's acceptance of organic methods on his own 10-acre truck farm in Maine came because US Department of Agriculture pamphlets on natural fertilizers ''told me just how valuable they were. And in my region they were almost free for the hauling.'' What is not widely known, he adds, is that the department ''puts out a wealth of very sound information on organic farming methods.''

Anyone interested in the course should write to: Mountain School, Summer Seminar, Vershire Center, Vt. 05079.

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