Small family farms need to increase their economic security through innovative and diverse marketing. In addition, there is a need for on-site farm education for urban children and their communities. Annie Main, coordinator of this SARE-funded project, says a number of schools had inquired seeking visits for their students, few have experienced food production and the farm environment. Main anticipates that the demand from schools will continue to grow as teachers seek bridges to student understanding of their food sources.
“We feel that this is an opportunity for both farmers and school communities to mutually benefit through an organized, comprehensive and financially feasible education farm-visit program,” says Main. “We have hosted over 40 farm visits in the past 10 years and are anxious to share the information farmers and we have gleaned from the experience.
1. Develop guidelines for an educational, attractive and affordable farm-visit program, providing activities that fit into the day-to-day farm production schedule
2. Develop an educational farm visit program that can be integrated into school curricula using farm rhythms that can provide children and teachers with a comprehensive knowledge of food systems, nutrition and sustainable agriculture
3. Establish children’s educational programs with public schools to increase and diversify the source of farm income
4. Host two school visits per month for six months of the year and be compensated managing the program
5. Increase the community supported agriculture program with the families of the school children that visit the farm
6. Provide a written experiential program for farmers that need information about running a farm-to-school program
This project helped the farm develop and implement a successful school visit program employing a farm visit theme not associated with daily production yet maintaining a sense of importance in the children’s participation. The farm chose compost as its theme, allowing year round observation of cycles and hands-on involvement separate from day-to-day operations.
The compost them allowed the farm to demonstrate 1) cycles of growth, decay and fertilization on the farm; 2) the on-farm creation of inputs; 3) the importance of each aspect of the farm to its whole; 4) the connections between soil fertility, plant health and human health; and the concept of teamwork among sun, soil, water, insects and humans to create the health.
The farm started with two visits a month to test the ideas, paring visits to summer and fall for optimum weather and time. Ultimately, it was decided that eight visits a year – one every two weeks in the spring and two in summer and fall – would accommodate 10 to 30 children in each visit without impacting important farm work. The farm had hoped to involve parents as a way to promote its Community Supported Agriculture Program, but postponed that element until the following year because of logistical hurdles.
The project used one main coordinator assisted by a second to handle two to four 45-minute sessions, depending on class size. The rest of the farm staff participated, but each took only 30-45 minutes of their day.
For sustainability, the farm determined that $200 per class would recoup the time spent, which totaled two to four hours of preparation and six hours on the day of the visit.
“The specific results with the children who visited the farm was that they loved to harvest and eat food direct from the farm, some thought the work was hard, and others enjoyed moving sprinkler pipe, digging the soil and being with the farm animals,” said the project’s final report.
Earning income to sponsor farm visits allowed the farm to diversify and add another income stream. At the same time, the social education of students and parents, many of whom had never visited a farm, was an important benefit from the project. The visits put faces and a place to their food, helped them understand how food is grown and provided knowledge about flavor and freshness as it relates to local and long distance. One parent wrote that her daughter had changed from a picky unhealthy eater to a convert of fresh organic food.
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
As of the end of the project, the project team had yet to disseminate information to other growers, but they had been invited to speak at a Seattle conference titled, Farm to Cafeteria: Health Farms, Healthy Students. They had also received phone queries about the program from organizations hoping to undertake similar programs in their own public schools.
The few farmers who offer similar farm visits say they’d like to see more farms taking up the responsibility of farm education.
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
Such educational programs can be challenging on a working farm, and the project team offered factors that create a successful program.
1. A committed, enthusiastic long-term member of the farm team supported by other key members.
2. Creation of focused, bounded spaces and settings.
3. Opportunities for physical connections to the farm and its food, such as feeding animals, pulling carrots, digging, turning on irrigation.
4. Being realistic with the assessment of human resources on the farm.
They also note that the theme concept made the program manageable and efficient as did appointing one enthusiastic person to manage it. An assistant made it less stressful and more balanced.
They offered these additional recommendations:
1. Planning a year round curriculum and activity schedule precluded revisiting decisions for each visit.
2. Deciding on a fee validates the economic sustainability of the program.
3. Deciding on the level of impact from a farm visit schedule from week to week and season to season was sustainable for the farm.
4. Having a supportive organization like CAFF working the classroom made their work easier and freed up more time to focus on the farm visit activities.
5. Developing a 30-minute limited task design for children kept their attention and accommodated differing class sizes.
After their experience, they planned to include farm food for snacks and lunch, which would mean the students harvest, prepare and eat food as an activity. The goal is to wake up their senses to good food.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
Several visits were made with local teachers to advertise the program to schools. The 2003 plan included placing information on the Web site of the California Association for Family Farmers.