Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) has a rich culture rooted in agriculture and natural resources; yet, there is only one state recognized school-based Agriculture, Food and Natural Resource Education (AFNRE) program in the U.P., an area which comprises one-third of the landmass of Michigan. As public awareness of agriculture and food systems grows, so does interest in establishing educational programs to prepare students for career opportunities in these fields. This challenge – and opportunity – is realized throughout much of the NCR-SARE region; therefore, smaller-scale, innovative solutions have the potential to serve as models for non-formal AFNRE in other rural, underserved areas. This proposal details an innovative solution, to connect U.P. farmers with secondary-school teachers to develop student-farmers well versed in sustainable agriculture practices as a method to catalyze the growth of formal AFNRE programs throughout the region.
Extending the work of North Farm Teacher Institutes (NFTI), which provide teachers with curriculum, technical and fiscal support on agricultural and food science concepts, the proposed project would support land-based, sustainable agriculture learning for educators and student-farmers impacted through NFTI by connecting them to partnering farms implementing sustainable agriculture practices. Working with a team of mentors, student-farmers will develop a supervised, Sustainable Agricultural Experience (SAE) project to be deployed on-farm, which includes planning, implementation and outreach experiences. Owners and operators from the on-farm, land- based learning centers have chosen to be involved in this program because they recognize the need to train the next generation of farmers, and for the potential benefit to make on-farm improvements to maximize sustainability and profitability. These non-formal educational experiences will promote student-farmer growth and prepare them for careers in agriculture, while making on-farm investments to enhance sustainability – whether it be in increased cover crop usage, diversification of enterprises, or improved ecosystem services.
A robust evaluation program utilizing pre-tests, post-tests, interviews, and social media engagement will track student-farmer, farm cooperator, and teacher progress and overall program impact. Furthermore, social media will be used for greater transfer of learning outcomes to the NCR-SARE region, extending the benefit of this non- formal education model. The North Farm, which hosts NFTI, is located in Chatham, Michigan and is part of the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center (UPREC). The farm serves as a research and teaching facility focusing on the interaction of healthy soil, food, people and communities in the food insecure, and northern latitude region of the U.P.
Audiences: Farm cooperators, student-farmers, high school and Michigan State University Extension educators
Learning: Student-farmers will increase their awareness, knowledge, and skills about sustainable agriculture practices; aspirations to consider a sustainable agriculture career; and increased self-efficacy for problem-solving. Farm cooperators will have increased awareness through student-farmer Sustainable Agriculture Experience (SAE) projects.
Action: Student-farmers will promote sustainable agriculture and sustainably raised food. Farm cooperators will improve farm sustainability with the assistance of student-farmers. Educators will incorporate lessons on sustainable agriculture practices and careers into their curriculum. School districts will inquire about adding state- recognized, school-based agriculture, food and natural resource education programs.
Our food system is increasingly vulnerable. Although modern technology has substantially elevated food security and material wealth among most, this has occurred at the expense of natural resources upon which humans ultimately depend. We now have a significantly degraded resource base in which the availability of quality soils, water resources, and other essential inputs is threatened. Agriculture must, therefore, be sustainable and able to address environmental, social, cultural and economic complexity, while being alert to unintended consequences.
The most successful producers utilize a sustainable approach that optimizes agricultural resources using a basis of ecological and social principles, with the intention of satisfying human food needs while also enhancing ecosystem services. Such practices acknowledge the complexity in the system and build capacity to respond to shocks, be they environmental, economic or social. Overall, sustainable practices create ecologically sound, socially responsible, and economically viable agricultural activities. There is a growing body of science supporting efficacy of holistic, sustainable agricultural practices with a corresponding increase in farmers who have successfully implemented these practices (Teague et al., 2016). A primary barrier to scaling up sustainable agriculture is a lack of experiential education opportunities, preventing the adoption of land management practices documented to have a positive effect on natural resource permanence. Education of both current producers and new agrarians is needed. This is especially the case in the Upper Peninsula (U.P).
The U.P. has only one state-recognized agriculture, food, and natural resource education (AFNRE) program. The result is a lost generation of U.P. students without access to educational opportunities in agriculture and natural resources – limiting knowledge, awareness, skills and aspirations for careers in these fields. Against this backdrop is the continual rise of farmers’ and ranchers’ age in Michigan. The 2012 Census reported the mean age of producers in Michigan is 55.5 years of age with 79% of all producers being 45 or older. Just 1.6% of producers in Michigan are under 25 years of age. Furthermore, the northern latitude of the U.P. presents challenges for agriculture and related food systems – significant regions of the peninsula are “food deserts” as defined by the USDA. The combination of being rural, remote, and food insecure has led several communities to establish school farms and hoop houses; however, teachers lack adequate knowledge and skills, especially in sustainable agriculture practices, to fully utilize these facilities.
There is compelling evidence of the demand for AFNRE curriculum in U.P. schools. Most recently, a survey of assets within the farm-to-school community and associated stakeholders showed that while there are only two certified AFNRE teachers in the U.P., there are eight school hoophouses, 10 school gardens, and two school forestry projects in multiple counties across the U.P., few of which are connected to certified AFNRE teachers. In addition, fewer than half of the teachers responsible for the agricultural infrastructure in U.P. schools indicated their projects were supported by strong community partnerships. These ongoing, school-led projects would have a greater career readiness efficacy if they were linked to strong partnerships with local farmers and Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) educators. Additionally, preliminary survey results of a current USDA NIFA funded project support the need for increased AFNRE investment in schools (Raven, McFarland, & Palmer, 2017).
In addition, the U.P. Food Exchange, MSUE, and FoodCorps conducted a survey of U.P. teachers who attended a school garden conference in 2013. Three-quarters of the teachers indicated interest in developing some type of school farm, but 42% indicated limited experience with these systems. Teachers stated training was a top need and that training should be “on designing, teaching with, and hands-on experience” for agriculture projects. The logistical factor that most affected their ability to participate in trainings was cost (O’Donnell & Walk, 2014). Furthermore, these teachers lack knowledge, awareness, and skills about sustainable agriculture practices.
The interest in making agriculture part of the school career readiness landscape is evidenced by the degree of interest among teachers and administrators. However, these school agriculture projects are constrained by a lack of expert advice and facilities. In an attempt to train teachers not accredited to teach AFNRE, teacher training conferences began in the area in 2013. Since then, these trainings have become a touchstone for new interest in school agriculture projects. The MSU North Farm receives calls from teachers each week and has ongoing relationships with eight schools. The benefit of broadening student exposure to include sustainable local farm businesses creates a case for pursuing agriculture as a career, while improving local farms with new and sustainable practices.
These nascent endeavors are a step in the right direction. However, there is a need for more synergetic efforts leveraging existing resources to coalesce educator and producer knowledge into an innovative, experiential learning environment in which student-farmers, educators, and producers learn how food and agricultural systems can be environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. This project proposes for the MSU North Farm to facilitate the development of land-based learning centers (LBLC) located at cooperating farms that connect producers, teachers and MSUE educators resulting in a Sustainable Agriculture Experience (SAE) team at each center. The goal is to have one LBLC for each of the seven intermediate school districts (ISD) in the U.P. SAE teams will advise student-farmers in the development of an SAE project that implements a sustainable practice at the cooperating farm. The MSU North Farm personnel will provide coordination and oversight for each of the LBLCs.
The suitability of the approach is inspired by the employer/employee and mentor/mentee relationships that form naturally between community-oriented, experienced farmers and interested young people. Observations have shown that young people who begin farming in the U.P. do so after working with a farm business as a volunteer or employee for several seasons before renting land from that employer. Famers in the U.P. are cognizant of the need to educate the next generation of producers and have been a vocal proponent of increased educational programming in food and agricultural systems. Two primary goals of the Growing U.P. Agricultural Association (GUPAA), an NGO representing farmers in the U.P., are to attract youth to agricultural careers and educate beginning farmers. GUPAA members have been working closely with the development of the North Farm as a teaching and learning center to facilitate agriculture and food education both in formal and non-formal learning environments. Increased knowledge in our youth population has the potential to enhance the quality of life in these rural communities by preparing a much more informed consumer base and potential workforce.
Farmers in the U.P. have shown great interest in providing new learning opportunities for students around food and agriculture, for example, Ben Bartlett’s involvement with the development of facilities at Superior Central High School. Bartlett worked with community members and teachers to build a hoophouse on school grounds. He continues to serve as a resource for Superior Central and was one of the first producers to come forward and volunteer his farm to serve as an LBLC for this project. This example, and others, provided the impetus to design the LBLC model and associated SAE team as a way to provide more structured active learning opportunities contextualized by sustainable agriculture practices.
The LBLC model builds from the concept of place-based learning. Place-based learning has its roots in environmental education, conservation, and community development. Educational programs utilizing place-based learning approaches leverage learners’ connections to their communities to achieve a wide range of conservation, community stewardship, ecological as well as cultural literacy objectives (Center for Place-based Learning and Community Engagement, 2008). We propose to apply the principles of place-based learning through the development of the LBLCs in the U.P. with a focus on sustainable agriculture practices.
There is precedence for using placed-based learning in an agricultural context. For example, the Center for Land-Based Learning, an NGO based in California, uses local farms as educational laboratories for urban, suburban, and rural high school students. This proposal plans to build on their results by utilizing private land to augment school facilities (www.landbasedlearning.org). Additionally, service-learning will be a fundamental strategy used by the LBLCs to link sustainable agriculture principles to educational program objectives. A mindful and purposeful intent is to create a collaborative environment in the U.P. connecting student-farmers, farm cooperators, educators and other community members through the creation of LBLCs for the expressed purpose of increasing the knowledge, awareness, skills and aspirations of student-farmers and current producers about sustainable agriculture.
The proposed model of LBLCs with the associated SAE team is an innovative approach to create a unique experiential learning environment for teaching student-farmers sustainable agriculture practices. By incorporating farm cooperators into the SAE team, teachers have access to practitioners knowledgeable about food and agriculture systems. The inclusion of MSUE educators gives farmers an opportunity to learn and implement the most up-to-date sustainable agriculture practices into their operations, ultimately supporting a SARE desired outcome of improving the natural resource base through sustainable farming practices, eventually leading to improved farm profitability. Having teachers on the SAE team complete the triumvirate, providing pedagogical expertise to ensure projects are educationally sound and outcomes are connected to classroom objectives. Furthermore, the MSU North Farm will provide coordination to the seven LBLCs, ensuring cohesion and uniformity to the effort.
Even though the LBLCs proposed in this project are located in the U.P. of Michigan, the development and validation of this innovative experiential learning model emphasizing active and engaged learning has implications for the NCR-SARE region. Given the latitude of the U.P., this is especially true for states in the northern climates similar to the U.P. that possess the same resources as this project – experiment stations to provide regional coordination and the teachers, farmers and Extension educators with which to form the SAE team and establish the LBLCs. Execution of this project will identify best practices in developing and implementing LBLCs focused on sustainable agriculture practices. Conversely, this project will identify what did not work and make recommendations for avoiding potential challenges.
As stated earlier, clear evidence supports teacher interest in this type of program. A key assumption is that administrators will also support their participation and that school boards will be responsive to increased student interest and be supportive of potential new AFNRE programming. Another key assumption is farm LBLC cooperators will desire to remain in the program beyond funding. Additionally, potential limitations of the proposed methods include an inability to actualize an unrealistic on-farm SAE. Proposed SAE projects will be vetted by the entire team, which in addition to the farm cooperators and student-farmers, includes the students’ teacher, MSUE educators, and other agricultural professionals.
The identified challenges are a common theme throughout the rural, upper Great Lakes region. Developing a strategic approach to the revitalization of AFNRE programming is necessary to assure food security and a willing generation of farmers educated in sustainable agricultural practices. Knowledge transfer through each SAE provides a local context and benefits both existing and future farmers.
A MySARE database search yielded few projects addressing similar needs in the past ten years within the NCR region. Some projects were somewhat similar (LNC09-315, LNC14-359, LNC11-335, LNC08-301), but they addressed very specific topics, and did not take the student interaction with the farms to the degree we strive to with this project. None of these projects had both placed-based learning in conjunction with a collaborative team comprised of teachers, Extension educators, and producers. In addition, many of these occurred in areas already served by formal AFNRE programs.
Center for Place-Based Education and Community Engagement (2017). What is place-based education? Available online at http://promiseofplace.org/what_is_pbe.
O’Donnell, K. & Walk, M. (2014). Upper Peninsula farm to school survey. FoodCorps school gardening conference survey.
Raven, M.R., McFarland, A., and Palmer, A. (2016). United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute for Food and Agriculture, Secondary Education, Two-Year Postsecondary Education and Agriculture.
Teague, W. R., Apfelbaum, S., Lal, R., Kreuter, U. P., Rowntree, J., Davies, C. A. & Wang, F. (2016). The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 71(2), 156-164.
Land based learning engages students in experiences which increase knowledge of sustainable agriculture, interest in sustainable agriculture careers, and local food system.
The education coordinator at the MSU North Farm (Abbey Palmer) will be in charge of coordination of the SAE teams for each land-based learning center (LBLC). To date, at least one farm cooperator has been identified and agreed to participate for each of the seven ISDs in the U.P. This includes the Waishkey Bay Farm, an operation managed by the Bay Mills Indian Community and College who will provide an LBLC to the tribal charter schools in the area. Three MSUE Educators have also agreed to participate. Moving forward, the most important step will be to identify and recruit teachers to participate in the program.
SAE Team Formation
Farm cooperators. Farms serving as hosts are outlined below. Farm cooperators have committed their facilities to serve as a land-based learning center (i.e., location where SAE projects will take place) for their respective ISD. Additionally, farm cooperators have expressed an interest in improving sustainability by collaborating with the student-farmers to identify a sustainable agricultural practice to be implemented in their operation. Farm cooperators will also serve as a mentor to the student-farmers during their SAE project. Farms will also host outreach/demonstration events to support knowledge transfer throughout the community. Additionally, farm cooperators will serve as advisors to teachers ill-equipped to use agricultural facilities present at their school. Host farms were selected to reflect the diversity of the region and on their history of promoting and enacting on-farm sustainability practices. It is anticipated additional teachers will want to participate and may be added to the program.
- Cooper Country ISD – Gierke Blueberry Farm – blueberry u-pick operation
- Delta-Schoolcraft ISD – Hanson Seed Potato Farm – seed potato operation
- Dickinson-Iron ISD – Slagle Family Farm – vegetable, field crop, and livestock operation
- Eastern Upper Peninsula ISD – Galloway’s Red Clay Ranch – vegetable, field crop, and livestock operation AND Waishkey Bay Farm – Bay Mills Community College tribal farm to support the tribal charter schools in the district – vegetable and livestock operation, focus on indigenous foods
- Gogebic-Ontonagon ISD – Wintergreen Farm – CSA vegetable operation that includes value-added processing
- Marquette-Alger ISD – Log Cabin Livestock – beef and lamb forage-based operation AND Bean Pole Farm – CSA vegetable operation
- Menominee ISD – Steve Brock Family Dairy Farm – dairy cow operation heavily engaged in cover crop research
Teachers. Participating educators will be recruited based on attendance at the ongoing MSU North Farm Teacher Institutes (NFTI), which currently serve four teachers from each of the seven U.P. ISDs. NFTI institutes provide educators with the requisite knowledge, skills, and resources to integrate AFNR curriculum into their classroom. One teacher will be recruited from each ISD to have their students (maximum of 30) extend their learning through engaging with the farm cooperator at the LBLC. Selection of the seven teachers will be based on their interest, potential to succeed, and resources afforded to them at their respective school districts with preference given to biology teachers. Although it is important to embrace the most at-need educators and districts, a commitment must be made by the school to support efforts and show a trend toward integration of AFNR curriculum. Once the educators have been identified, they will be linked to a farm cooperator in their region.
MSUE Educators. MSUE agricultural educators based in the U.P. will comprise the third component of the SAE team. These educators (Wardynski – Western U.P; Jean – Central U.P.; and Isleib – Eastern U.P.) will provide expertise to the rest of the team in selection, design, and assistance with implementation of the SAE project.
MSUE educators will be able to provide the team the most recent and up-to-date sustainable agriculture practices. Given the regional scope of these MSUE educators, they may be on more than one SAE team.
Additional SAE team resources. Agriculture, food and natural resource professionals linked to agriculture, such as Natural Resource Conservation Service, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, or other state or federal agencies will be solicited to review SAE project proposals, meet with farm cooperators and student-farmers to discuss project progress, and offer advice or technical assistance as needed.
Finalization of SAE teams for each LBLC will be facilitated by the North Farm (NF) educational coordinator. Once SAE teams have been formed, they will work together with the student-farmers to identify needs, challenges, and opportunities on the farm and plan a supervised Sustainable Agricultural Experience (SAE) project. The NF education coordinator will provide oversight for the entire project, including organizing and facilitating the partnerships and project teams. Initial development of the SAE projects will occur during early spring with joint visits of the farm cooperator, MSUE educator and North Farm education coordinator to respective classrooms. The purpose of this first meeting will be to describe the current farm situation to the student-farmers and discuss potential sustainable agricultural practices that could be implemented. The MSUE educator and NF education coordinator will guide the discussion based on their knowledge of the respective LBLC. After this initial discussion, student-farmers will be responsible for proposing a project and determining goals and objectives. The SAE team will then vet, provide edits and approve proposed projects that combine an optimal learning experience with the greatest potential to enhance farm sustainability.
An example SAE project is pasture improvement through a managed intensive grazing system that would require cross fencing. Student-farmers, in conjunction with the partnering mentor team, would design the paddocks, help install the fencing and conduct basic ecological monitoring to determine the impact of managed intensive grazing on the pastures.
In the first year of the project, each ISD will be allocated a budget of $7,000 to cover SAE projects on farm and educational expenses during the two years of the project. The NF education coordinator will manage project funding and ensure appropriate use of funds. Student-farmers will work in appropriate teams (based on the project) to develop a budget, implement the research or on-farm improvement, provide outreach, and evaluate successes and failures. The student-farmers will receive guidance from the SAE team, which will be key participants throughout the life of the SAE project. The student-farmer participation in the project will be a blend of schoolwork and service learning with the proportion being dependent on the specific school and teacher. PIs Raven and McKim will provide assistance with identification, development, and integration of appropriate curriculum into the classroom. The will also furnish guidance to teachers with cross-walking appropriate educational outcomes of the SAE projects with both career technical education standards as well as appropriate academic standards (e.g., science, math, etc.). The NF education coordinator will arrange meetings for the SAE team two to three times throughout the course of each respective SAE project. The NF education coordinator will also ensure student-farmers will be able to work with their farmer-collaborator in an on-farm setting.
Spring 2018 semester – The SAE team will meet with student-farmers to conduct project planning, goal setting, budgeting (request funds), and conduct project.
Summer 2018 – Student-farmers that show interest in continuing the work will be placed with the LBLC to gain additional experience throughout the summer. Depending on the LBLC, this could be a paid or non-paid internship. Mentorship during the summer would come primarily from the farm cooperator with assistance from the MSUE Educator.
Fall 2018 semester – Student-farmers that worked at the LBLC farms over the summer will have a chance to report what they learned and develop a portfolio of their project experiences.
Spring 2019 – Fall 2019 – Adjustments to the program will be made based on evaluations from the first year. The second cohort of classes will begin the program similar to the previous spring. The plan will be to continue working with the same group of teachers and LBLC for project continuity. However, the project team would be flexible for possible expansion if there were a demand for additional participation among teachers and/or farm cooperators. This expansion would be dependent on the availability of funds from agencies other than NCR- SARE. Selected student-farmers from the first cohort will present the results of their class SAE project at the U.P. Ag for Tomorrow conference (March) and at any other appropriate venues.
Post Funding – The LBLC concept will have been established and community organizations will be cognizant of the program and outcomes. Going forward the SAE teams, with assistance from the NF education coordination, will assist teachers and farm cooperators in writing funding proposals to cover expenses for continued SAE projects. Likely funding sources include organizations like NRCS, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
From the teachers: the main element has been excitement about the land-based learning process. Teachers articulated the authenticity and problem-based nature of the learning experiences being tremendous assets.
- Additional outcomes articulated by teachers:
- Knowledge of extension increased.
- Value with teaching students where their food comes from
- Additional outcomes articulated by teachers:
Outcomes articulated about students (from teachers)
- Awareness of agriculture increased; specifically, awareness of the steps involved in growing food.
- Hands-on learning opportunities increased.
- Interest in agriculture has increased.
In the first checkpoint, learners and facilitators identify a local AFNR phenomenon (e.g., farm, ranch, business, park, wetland) on which to focus as well as community members with access to knowledge, resources, or skills relevant to the phenomenon (Powers, 2004). Extension educators involved in the identification phase should encourage identification of community locations with clear opportunities to increase the sustainability of the phenomenon and locations where community members are eager to engage as co-facilitators of the learning process.
After identification, learners and facilitators engage in understanding. In this checkpoint, experiential engagement increases learner understanding of the complexity of AFNR systems and the decision-making processes undertaken by AFNR professionals. In addition to learning about the phenomenon, learners and facilitators explore potential interventions to increase the social, ecological, or economic sustainability of the phenomenon. Extension educators play a critical role in highlighting potential avenues for increasing sustainability.
Next, learners and facilitators engage in intervention. In this checkpoint, learners are immersed in selecting, planning, and enacting an intervention within the selected AFNR phenomenon to increase the sustainability of the identified phenomenon. Importantly, this shifts the learning experience from obtaining information to being active agents in knowledge construction and action research. Extension educators support learners as they engage in this process, redirecting the effort when the work no longer adds value to the community.
The final checkpoint of land-based learning is evaluation. In this checkpoint, learners and facilitators evaluate the impacts of the intervention on the selected phenomenon, emphasizing the community-wide impacts on social, ecological, and economic sustainability. In this way, learners experience the interconnections between AFNR systems and myriad systems that exist throughout the community. Extension educators are essential in illuminating these interconnected systems and evaluating the impact of the intervention on interconnected systems.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Being Reviewed: Land-Based Learning Centers: A Multi-Generational Educational Approach to Promoting On-Farm Sustainable Agriculture (American Association for Agricultural Education Research Conference, Innovative Idea Poster).
Being Reviewed: Land-based learning: A learning paradigm for building community and sustainable farms. (Journal of Extension)
- Collaboration between farmers and teachers
- Competence facilitating land-based learning
- More confidence in engaging hands-on learning experiences
- Offer opportunities that engage youth
- Awareness of Extension
- Knowledge of the food system
Engage with area youth
Expose youth to careers in agriculture
Examine whole-farm sustainability
Collaborate with extension professionals
Educate youth about sustainable agriculture
Check out https://www.msunorthfarm.org/land-based-learning-centers.html for stories of land-based learning centers.