Farm-Based Education Conference Report
Farm-Based Education Conference Report

Farm-Based Education Conference Report

by Paul Hudak of Terra Nova High School, Portland, OR

What do we hope to accomplish by attending a conference? I assume that answer is different for each individual depending on the circumstances leading one to a conference. Navigating the long and winding driveway into Shelburne Farms my expectations were simple: to learn, to share, and to leave inspired. Although these expectations seemed realistic I had no idea what path would lead me to this end.

On November 3-5, 2011, the Farm Based Education Association (FBEA) hosted their 5th Farm Based Education Conference at the idyllic Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont. This was a gathering of farmers, teachers, non-formal educators, food and farm advocates, community organizers and land conservationists, amongst others, all brought together by their collective passion: farm education. The setting could not have been better. Shelburne Farms is a nonprofit education center for sustainability, a 1,400 acre working farm, and a National Historic Landmark. It is situated on the banks of Lake Champlain about 15 minutes south of Burlington. After passing through the brick walled entrance you drive 2 miles through rolling farmland and past mobile chicken tractors, countless grazing cattle and a handful of buildings over a century old finally reaching the Coach Barn, the central hub for the conference. Having personally attended countless conferences at different hotels where one spends their days in windowless rooms, it was immediately obvious this was going to be a weekend to remember.

The first day of this meticulously organized conference was dedicated to off-site field trips. As was a trend with the entire conference, it was quite difficult to choose which session to attend at any given time due to the quality and variety of selections. Given my particular interest in the Farm To School movement and bridging the gap between formal education and hands on agricultural work, I decided to attend the field trip titled: Burlington Farm to School: Where Lunch is the Curriculum. The day began at The Intervale just outside Burlington. Honestly an entire conference could have been held focusing on this place. The Intervale is, in short, a 700 acre floodplain where multiple farmers grow over 1 million pounds of food annually. There are multiple farms spread out over these 700 acres sharing space with various other programs focused on sustainability including large scale composting and electricity produced from burning recycled wood products. The first stop on our tour was to the Intervale Community Farm (ICF). The ICF is a 44 acre organic farm that has been growing for 21 seasons. They serve 500 families through their CSA and have a tight connection providing food to the Burlington School District (BSD). Farm manager Andy Jones spoke to our group about the philosophies and goals of the ICF. It was easy to see how important community is to those in and around the Intervale. Over 1500 patrons visit the farm each week to pick up shares, stroll through the fields or just commune with neighbors at this beautiful property. Andy spoke about the various crops that they grow for the Burlington School District as part of the Farm To School program. While there are certain crops that are agreed upon in advance the school district is also flexible in taking what the farm may have in excess. One amazing example of the symbiotic relationship that has been formed between ICF and the BSD lies in the logistics. There have been occasions where the ICF has maxed out their cooler space at the farm and the BSD has allowed them to store certain vegetables in their walk in coolers at schools in exchange for produce. All school districts and their neighboring farms should be so lucky to have this sort of working relationship.

After the Intervale we made a brief stop at a local elementary school where we sampled some of the sweet potato and black bean salad that was being served to students that day. The sweet potatoes were the vegetable of the week in BSD and were being provided by various local farmers. Then it was off to Hunt Middle School which is also home to the Healthy City Youth Farm. At Hunt we had the opportunity to meet with the BSD Director of Food Service, Doug Davis. Doug was very kind to take the time to answer our questions about the incredible model that BSD has in the nationwide Farm To School movement. Doug made it very obvious what a huge priority it is for BSD to support local farms while focusing on student health district wide. He spoke about the details of balancing his budget and figuring out ways to make it cost effective to work with local farmers and purchase their produce. In a district in which 65-70% of students are participating in the school lunch program those students are, in my opinion, very fortunate to have such a special option on a regular basis. The 7th graders at Hunt were kind enough to share their lunch room with us this day and we were treated to a lunch of locally raised chicken (!!) and a root vegetable roast with sweet potatoes, beets and other roots provided by local farms. A common comment from many of the conference attendees was that we all would have loved to have this lunch option in middle school. This chicken was a far cry from the chicken nuggets we used to eat.

After touring the impressive ½ acre garden at Hunt School we boarded our bus and were destined for the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes. This is the nation’s first sustainability themed elementary magnet school and is a partnership with Shelburne Farms. Immediately after arriving we took a shortcut through the cafeteria where local sweet potatoes had also been on the menu. We were informed that kale chips were on the menu every day. This was a foreshadowing for the theme of the school. We spent the next hour meeting with Principal Brian Williams who spoke to us about how they take the same curriculum as the rest of the state and look at it through the lens of sustainability. We had the benefit of meeting with two second grade teachers who spoke to the incredible amount of work it takes to structure such a program. The entire staff has worked hard to develop curriculum that will surely make this school a model that others nationwide will follow. In second grade there is a focus on a few major areas including life cycles (plants, animals, etc.), matter and farm systems. As part of the farm systems unit students have the opportunity to go to Shelburne Farms to learn first-hand about Maple sugaring. Through experiential education they learn how to tap trees, harvest the sap, boil it to syrup and then bring it back to school all the while learning the science behind this in their classroom. One striking resource available to students came from the library. The staff have compiled books and other hands on resources into canvas bags that have different themes. These themes included: maple sugaring, composting, chickens and wheat life cycles. The latter being a bag of resources that tied into a classroom lesson about how one grows wheat and ultimately converts it into bread while learning about fermentation and plant life cycles. These are available for any student or family to sign out for up to 2 weeks. Again as we boarded the bus back to Shelburne Farms there were many side conversations about how inspirational this was and how envious we were about the opportunities these students have.

The food served throughout the conference was most wonderful and the first night’s dinner was no exception. In addition to roasted Brussels sprouts, beet and green salads and Shelburne Farm cheddar cheese, American Flatbread donated enough flatbread pizzas to feed all 250+ conference attendees. Not only did American Flatbread donate the pizzas but founder and food activist George Schenk baked all the pizzas on site. After dinner George addressed the group speaking to the importance of the work we all were doing. As if the day was not full enough already we were treated to a contra dance in the Coach Barn featuring local caller Rachel Nevitt and a handful of local musicians. For those with any energy left after these festivities there was an open mic where one and all could boast their skills.

Farm-Based Education Conference Report

After a night of rest, Friday began with more local delicacies and beverages including local coffee roaster and conference sponsor Green Mountain Coffee. Friday’s sessions included “Reconnecting to Nature Through Observations and Relationships on the Farm,” “Finance and Fundraising Jeopardy” and “Therapy, Recreation and Education: Your Farm Can Welcome People with Special Needs.” I decided to attend “The Special Role of an Educational Farm: Student Investment as a Catalyst for Learning” hosted by Josh Slotnick from the University of Montana Environmental Studies Program. Again I was aware of Josh’s program and it seemed there would be some similarities between our programs although working with a different age demographic. Josh’s program at UM is the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) Farm. At PEAS Josh works primarily with undergraduate students on 10 acres to run a sustainable farm that is tied into the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program Classes. The majority of what Josh shared was focused on the importance of the students working as a tight knit group and the unforeseen benefits that have grown out of the program. The PEAS program has helped connect the community through its CSA program and community education programs focused around summer camps. Josh spoke to the group about what he found to be most important to the success of his 15 year old program. He believes that having the group participate in work with real outcomes and real consequences ultimately gets the students to buy in. After they take ownership over the program, the subsequent camaraderie that is formed is paramount to the success of the program and is also being the ultimate outcome from the entire program. Josh spoke about the importance of setting aside time for reflection, sharing meals together and enjoying public celebrations at the school farm. At the conclusion of this session, as was often the case in other sessions, some folks lingered to connect and share information with each other that would benefit all present. Throughout the weekend moments like these were often filled with the most exuberant conversation.

Following Josh’s presentation I moseyed back to the Coach Barn to attend the keynote address that was given by LaDonna Redmond. LaDonna is a community food security activist working on Chicago’s west side. She is the President and CEO of The Institute for Community Resource Development (ICRD), a non-profit, community based organization that assists residents of urban communities in obtaining access to safe, healthy food through the development of alternative food systems. Ladonna has a varied and storied career seeking social and political justice. In 2009, she was one of 25 citizen and business leaders named a Responsibility Pioneer by Time Magazine. LaDonna spoke for 45 minutes to a captive audience about a personal situation that led her to seek justice in the world of food. Her eye opening moment came when her one year old son developed several serious food allergies. As a result of this diagnosis LaDonna began a journey researching the health implications tied to GMO’s, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Part of her research led her to Angelic Organics (of the Real Dirt on Farmer John fame) in Caledonia, Illinois. Here she learned about how food was grown and saw how food was distributed from a rural farm to the West side of Chicago. LaDonna has spent recent years working on re-designing regional food systems. Part of her life’s work now is working with community members to establish fair and just food systems. The entire room left inspired by the compelling words LaDonna shared. A common thread amongst conference attendees was experiential learning and teaching. Most of the folks at Shelburne Farms had come from areas where they were in the classrooms or in the fields doing active work to make direct change. LaDonna’s experience was a practical application of what attendees are teaching in their classrooms.

After another incredible meal I spent the afternoon attending two workshops, “Creating Farm and School Partnerships in the Digital Age” and “Balancing Education and Production.” Some of the 15 other sessions I was unable to attend were “Building Skills Safely: Youth Farm Safety for Diversified Farms,” “Creating Effective Farm Field Trips” and “Hand Them the Knife: Empowering Future Eaters and Cooks.” I had decided on “Creating Farm and School Partnerships in the Digital Age” as an attempt to try and overcome my inner Luddite. So often I rely on my students for technological assistance that I figured I might return to Oregon with some skills that would impress them. Presenters Jamie Stoneham and Mike Roman from Gorman Heritage Farm in Cincinnati, Ohio would arm me with these tools. Gorman Heritage Farm is a 120 acre working and educational farm whose mission is to provide people the opportunity to explore and learn the history, methods and values of a working family farm in a natural setting. Their main avenues for education are hosting field trips and farm camps. John and Jamie spoke about a recent collaboration with the Princeton School District (PSD). They worked with the 4th grade classes from eight different schools in the PSD to establish a field trip model that would work for all. The school district’s goals were to model curriculum around the farm for student mastery, develop more effective field trip models, and allow students to form inter-elementary relationships before entering middle school. The farm’s goals were to build lasting relationships between the farm and students, create lasting relationships between the farm and the PSD and develop more effective farm based education programs. Through their cooperative efforts the district/farm connection began with conversations in the classroom between students and teachers. This then would lead to classroom lessons to prepare students for the wonders of what was to come at the farm. Then staff from Gorman would visit the classrooms to meet students and give a presentation with even more information about the farm. Finally, with students fully primed, the classes would take trips out to the farm that generally lasted about four hours. These visits would include hands on activities that were focused on what was learned in the classroom. Then the technological side of the partnership began. Groups of students were armed with ipads that they could use to take notes, movies and pictures of whatever they were interested in during the trip. After returning to the school all of this information was transferred from ipad to computer. With the help of their teachers the students would put together edited versions of their notes and musings as well as edited versions of their video. Then all of their condensed findings and learnings were posted on a website that could be accessed by the seven other 4th grade classes in the district. This was a way for students to virtually connect with each other and share information about their trip to the farm. They would even have scheduled times where classes could have video conference calls over Skype and show examples of different projects to each other. While I don’t think there will ever be a substitution for face to face communication I could appreciate the efforts of this partnership especially in an age where youth connect to each other so abundantly through technology. In fact, later in my trip, I visited a farm-school program in Maine and this similar sort of virtual sharing was discussed.

To finish off Friday afternoons session’s, I attended “Balancing Education and Production.” One of the most inspiring realizations of the conference was in seeing firsthand how no two farm/education programs are the same. They may share threads of similarity but the variation from program to program is almost as astounding as the variation one might see when visiting a scattering of farms. This particular panel discussion was focused on John Lee of Allendale Farm, Virginia Scheer of Manhattan Country School Farm and Josh Carter and Sam Smith, both of Shelburne Farms. All of those on the panel came from strikingly different programs ranging from a farm set up intentionally as an educational farm to one that was a large scale operational farm that incorporated education as an afterthought. I can speak from experience when saying that balancing production and education is not always an easy task. There may be times when there are a flurry of amazing questions and discussions occurring while at the same time there are countless bins of peppers that need to be harvested before a frost. As was alluded to by many of the panel there is an extreme amount of planning and intention that must go into planting for an educational farm program. Sam spoke at length about keeping animals at Shelburne and finding a balance between raising certain animals for the public to enjoy and others for production, be it meat or dairy. He also spoke about how interesting the birth of an animal can be for some youth while it can be rather a scary sight for another child. Shelburne Farms Market Gardener Josh Carter spoke about finding the balance between growing specific volumes of crops in certain areas for their markets and for meals at the Inn while growing other crops in areas designated for school groups and camps. It seemed that communication between all aspects of the educational farm were key to finding the balance between education and production. At the Manhattan Country School (MCS), a dual campus based in Manhattan and on a 180 acre farm in upstate New York, there is a strong emphasis on making a farm education available to inner city youth. One component of their program is tending dairy cattle. MCS Farm Director Virginia Scheer spoke to their focus on the educational component by saying “our product isn’t milk- it is the children.”

The highlight of Friday evening’s meal was a pig that had been roasting all day. Not just any pig, but one raised right there at Shelburne Farms. The pig was served with an array of local vegetables. After dinner we were treated to the skills of local musician Brett Hughes. Brett has hosted his weekly Honky Tonk sessions for close to six years at Burlington’s Radio Bean and he brought along some friends this evening to share the groove.

Saturday started with more of the same amazing food. This time we were treated to pastries and bread baked on site at the Shelburne Farms bakery (is there anything they don’t do here?!). Following a chance to connect with new friends everyone headed off to their first session on this final day. Opting out of “The Evolving Landscape of Farm to School,” “Bringing Garden Based Education to Dense Urban Communities” and “Building A Collaborative Education Program for Diverse Communities” I attended “Strategic Planning: The “Why” and “How” of your success.” As my program grows so does my desire to be intentional about its growth and I believed Scott Sears of Sears Associates could help. Scott helped mediate the original strategic planning for the Farm Based Education Association (FBEA). Over the course of two hours Scott outlined the main points of importance when it comes to strategic planning. After touching on these points of importance, Scott involved the whole group in essentially devising our own strategic plan through an interactive activity based around all of our mutual interests. This proved to be a very effective way in conveying not only the importance of strategic planning but also explaining an effective means to an end. Without divulging too many of Scott’s methods, he spoke to the importance of establishing a foundation rooted in shared history and identifying a group’s or organization’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. From here we were shown the importance of exploring and creating core statements focused on mission, vision and values. Finally we were encouraged to identify group priorities and chart a path. This was to be done through identifying and exploring goals, objectives, a strategy, steps for action and finally devising a work plan. This session was helpful and accessible for all. There were many attendees who were looking to devise their organization’s first strategic plan and others who were re-visioning for the 2nd or even 3rd time. I believe it is safe to say that all of those in attendance walked away with at least a rough guide to strategic planning and, at most, some very concise information that could be used to implement next steps for creating a strategic plan.

After our final meal of the weekend I had the pleasure of co-presenting with Liz Kenton, UVM Extension 4-H’s Youth Agriculture Project Coordinator. Our session was titled “Growing with High School Youth: Building Community through Hands-On Agricultural Education.” Our presentation was focused on explaining each of our programs and how we engage the youth we work with in our respective programs. We also prioritized discussing academic tie-ins and program administration for sustainability. It was great to get to know the folks in attendance at our presentation and not only share with them but learn from their experiences. We were able to facilitate conversation so that everyone, ourselves included, walked away with some tools to take back to our respective programs. After a festive closing ceremony we all departed, inspired no doubt, to head back to our schools, farms, museums and other educational programs. The folks at Shelburne Farms and the FBEA had done a commendable job in organizing a conference that was varied in scope and also engaging for all in attendance. I believe it is safe to say that many others, like myself, left reinvigorated to return to work and apply some of what we had learned to hopefully further inspire the youth and communities we work with.