Cultivating Community Connections: From seed to table

Final Report for CNE08-044

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $12,000.00
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Sonja Riddle-Ford
Stonewall Farm
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Project Information

Summary:

High school classes of horticulture, culinary and marketing invested in the movement of local food production by developing, producing and marketing their own locally grown food product. The students literally got their hands dirty investigating the sustainability of organic farming. They experimented with real world problems of seasonal production, inaccessibility of all products locally and time management. Cultivating Community Connections (C3) challenged to students to take a close look at local and environmentally sustainable food production and processing.

Project Objectives:
Objectives and Performance Targets
  • Students will gain insight into the holistic experience of creating a product, beginning by planting the seeds, harvesting the produce, processing the ingredients, and marketing the product.

    Students will become familiar with environmentally sustainable farming techniques and challenges.

    Students will understand the effort it takes to make an economically sustainable agribusiness.

    Students will develop a more in-depth understanding of what land stewardship is.

    Community consumer base will enjoy a local, delicious, student-produced product.

    Students gain valuable perspectives on the business of farming; it’s not just working the land, farming involves business management skills and effective marketing.

    Students become active community members, affecting their local society in a positive way.

    Project reaches out to larger community to create awareness regarding quality education and the importance of local sustainable farming.

    Project will prepare students to be responsible business people and socially conscious citizens.

    Stonewall Farm will increase their audience base to include high school-aged students.

Introduction:

The goal of C3 was to form a partnership between Cheshire Career Center and Stonewall Farm in order to significantly connect students to local land and develop an environmentally sustainable agribusiness. The staff at Stonewall Farm and Cheshire Career Center understood that when students develop their own local agribusiness within the school, they learn the importance of a strong connection between farming, land stewardship, community, and the economy. This project challenged students to take on all aspects of processing a farm-based product, from growing and harvesting, to producing, marketing and selling their product.

Cultivating Community Connections (C3) worked to develop hands-on education to introduce how environmental stewardship and farming can work together to be economically viable. In a climate of economic strain, environmental degradation, and farming subsidies, youth participation and understanding of a sustainable, environmentally responsible agribusiness is essential.

The students chose to produce two soups, potato leek and chicken salsa. Horticulture students planted and harvested the crops. Culinary students also harvested, as well as, processed ingredients and canned the finished soup. Marketing students created a soup brand, performed market research, determined a price and chose a target consumer base. The culinary students prepared local food for a graduation dinner of a local graduate school. In the cyclic nature of agriculture, the horticulture students planted a second round of crops and are harvesting them in the fall to be used by the culinary students in dishes for the school café.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Kathy Harrington
  • Amanda Hopkins
  • Sue Kolivas
  • Jim Logan
  • John Luopa
  • Scott Rogers

Research

Materials and methods:

Ten Cheshire Career Center classes worked together to produce the two soup varieties grown from seed. Three Introduction to Horticulture classes, taught by Sue Kolivas, planted leeks and onions in the school greenhouse at the end of March. The horticulture students walked to Stonewall Farm’s nearby field in April to plant sweet peppers, hot peppers, and tomatoes. The horticulture students transplanted the leeks and onions from the greenhouse to the same field as the peppers and tomatoes in May. Potatoes for a fall harvest were also planted at this time. The students were not convinced that their work would produce a bountiful fall harvest.

Marketing students began researching questions such as: How much would consumers pay for local soup? Where would they be most likely to buy soup? The students also began rough drafts of a soup label. One marketing student commented early in the label revision process that he wanted the label to look as if professionals rather than high school students designed it; he was inspired to create a product they could be proud to put on a shelf next to a commercial soup.

The tomatoes were harvested first; they were delivered to the three culinary classes directed by Scott Rogers. Scott Rogers said, “It will be great for culinary students to pull their ingredients from the ground, rather than off the shelf”. The culinary students learned to freeze and store 400 pounds of tomatoes. Three classes of horticulture and culinary students joined Stonewall Farm’s garden manager, Amanda Hopkins, and project coordinator, Sonja Riddle, in the field to harvest 1,000 pounds of potatoes, as well as peppers and onions. Out in the field, one could hear conversations revolving around sustainable farming practices and the worth of farming locally. Being a pesticide free field, the weeds were abundant and made the students truly experience the extra work a farmer goes through to produce an environmentally friendly product. Partially due to late planting, the leeks grew poorly, and the students realized that not everything a farmer plants makes it through the growing season unscarred by drought, fungus, insects, weeds, rain, and rodents. “These are the risks a farmer takes,” Amanda reminded them.

Back in the culinary classroom, students learned cutting skills by practicing on onions they grew. Additionally, using locally acquired naturally raised chickens from Misty Knoll Farms, culinary students studied,then implemented the steps of processing a whole chicken to be used for meat and stock. Celery, cilantro, hot and sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes were grown at Stonewall Farm and processed for storage by the culinary students. Leeks were obtained locally from Walker Farm and processed by culinary students. Stonewall Farm purchased a can sealer and flywheel for the project and the students were able to follow HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) canning methodology to can soup in the classroom.

Meanwhile, three marketing students worked to develop a soup brand. With advice from Stonewall Farm marketing coordinator, Letitia Pellerin, the students designed a soup label following FDA and UDSA labeling guidelines. The label background was intended to demonstrate the connection of farm to table, where the community has an intimate and necessary connection to the origin of their food. The students independently found a local printing company to print the soup labels.

Originally, the Earth Dinner was designed to fund raise, raise awareness, and build community. C3 instead decided to collaborate with Antioch University New England, where the culinary students produce a locally grown commencement dinner. This evolution of the Earth Dinner met all but the fund raising aspect and greatly increasing the element of community.

Research results and discussion:

Throughout the experience, the students learned the economic lesson of shipping costs; growing local goods costs less to the consumer and the environment. Many students noted that using local food meant the vegetables could stay on the plant longer and be picked when ripe. Students discussed how they thought nutritional value of the food may be affected by the stage at which it is picked.

In the kitchen, the students had an enriching experience unlike traditional culinary curriculum. Scott Rogers, the culinary teacher spoke to me about some of these experiences. He said, “Without a doubt, it (the project) brought a connection from the field to the kitchen; it brought a heightened awareness to the students about the origin of the food that we plate. I think in the past my students have seen food as sterile and predictable parts of their lives. Harvesting the vegetables, the imperfections and the dirt, were very eye opening experiences. The food chain is not sterile and predictable, but rather very fragile. The original concept of seed to sale is important and long overdue, due to the dramatic way our culture has changed food production over the last 30 years. In fact, 25 years ago, one-third of my students lived on a farm. Now it is less than 1%. Students have lost touch with the most important part of the food chain: the farm. This step of bringing fresh food to the table will further immerse my students in the fundamentals of sustainable food production.”

Once the crop had been harvested, the soup processed and the label printed, the students were ready to present their agribusiness product to the community. The annual Stonewall Farm Fare was a great venue to introduce their product. They chose to have the first batch of canned chicken salsa for display while having fresh hot soup available to taste. The result was impressive. Fare goers’ interest in the new local product was evident as they commented on the richness of the program as well as the great flavor of the soup. One horticulture student presenting soup at the Farm Fare commented, “I liked to see how local farms harvest crops. I wonder how much healthier the local crops are over food from factory farms. Participating in this project was a lot of fun.” Consumers were excited to have a locally grown and processed soup available to them and were impressed when they learned the project was done by local high school students. The project coordinator said, “developing an environmentally sustainable agribusiness within the schools educates students and public alike about the importance of a strong connection between farming, land stewardship, community and the economy. It was amazing to work with these classes as they came together to build a common goal.”

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:
Publications and Outreach

Publications:
Keene Sentinel, November 2008, “Students Build Connections Between School, Farm”
Scanning the Schools, October 2008, “Umm-ummm Good! CCC & Stonewall Farm”
Stonewall Farm Newsletter “Harvester”, Winter 2008, “Cultivating Community Connections – From Seed to Table”

Outreach:
1. This project was presented at the 2008 Stonewall Farm Fare. We had a booth as well as served soup.
2. In the school café, table tents were placed to detail the project to consumers.
3. The project coordinator and garden manager presented this project at the 2009 Northeast Organic Farmers Association, New Hampshire conference.
4. We are planning on presenting again at the 2009 Farming Based Education Conference.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The successes of Cultivating Community Connections (C3): from seed to table were abundant. C3 empowered students to take initiative regarding the quality of food offered to consumers. Students witnessed how the health of a food crop was directly related to the environment in which it was grown. They saw how local economics are affected by food economics. The students took responsibility for the quality of the product. The culinary students even cooked one batch of soup with local crops to donate to a community soup kitchen fundraiser event titled ‘The Empty Bowls Project’.

One of Stonewall’s objectives was to increase the community who benefited from the farm’s services. This goal was met and a gap of service was filled as Stonewall connected with the critical youth population of area high school students. Stonewall Farm was able to initiate conversations with these students regarding environmental and economic sustainability through local stewardship farming. Because of the C3 project, many conversations have begun between organizations and individuals regarding education and local food. “Seeing this project come to fruition is more rewarding than I could have imagined,” said Stonewall Farm Executive Director Kathy Harrington, “It was wonderful to see the culinary students pulling the ingredients for the soup that the horticulture students had planted and grew. It was a beautiful example of keeping our youth connected to the land and the role of agriculture in their lives.”

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Stonewall Farm presented the C3 project at the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) 2009 conference. The objective was to relate our conception and methods to other educators and farmers in order to inspire and enable them to initiate similar endeavors. We presented a panel discussion that stimulated acute questions regarding our funding, apparatus, and results. We also had a booth with project information available to those unable to attend the talk. Stonewall Farm is planning on presenting a similar format to the Farming Based Education Association 2009 conference. This conference will be targeting over 300 educators, farmers, land conservationists and farm and food advocates looking for new initiatives and strategies in the farm education field. Through these conferences, we hope to demonstrate a sustainable way to connect students to the land, where their food comes from and how it is processed.

Closer to home, our program has started a lasting relationship between Stonewall Farm and the Cheshire Career Center. Moving into the second year, we are scheduling time for the next round of horticulture students to harvest potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, leeks and celeriac. The culinary teacher is looking to use these vegetables in his classroom in different dishes sold in the school café.

Future Recommendations

As with every pilot project, C3 faced its own challenges. One of the foremost challenges was smoothly integrating the project into an already busy school curriculum. In an attempt to reduce this challenge, it would be advised to replace traditional classroom curriculum with project curriculum and allow for additional meeting and prep time in order to develop common and realistic expectations between staff prior to working with students. Within the classroom, soup production has the potential to become a great time consumer perhaps at the cost of learning other new material. This may be remedied by out sourcing the canning step of the project to a local company. Looking in the second year, we are taking a different approach to soup production. Stonewall Farm’s garden manager is going to send the culinary teacher a list of produce in season for the class to use throughout their lessons and dishes. This allows for a diverse curriculum based on the produce planted and harvested by the horticulture students. At this point we are looking for and have not solidly identified outlets for wholesale beyond the school café. This would add greatly to the net of community members able to enjoy this unique product.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.