Land-Based Learning Centers: A multi-generational educational approach to promoting on-farm sustainable agriculture

Final report for LNC17-394

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $151,408.00
Projected End Date: 07/01/2020
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Matt Raven
Michigan State University
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Project Information


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 project supported 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 developed a supervised, Sustainable Agricultural Experience (SAE) project to be deployed on-farm, which included planning, implementation and outreach experiences. Owners and operators from the on-farm, land- based learning centers chose 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.

An evaluation program utilizing pre-tests, post-tests, interviews, and social media engagement tracked student-farmer, farm cooperator, and teacher progress and overall program impact. Furthermore, social media was 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.

Project Objectives:

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. 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

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.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • John and Lynn Gierke (Educator)
  • Dave Robere (Educator)
  • Jennifer and Jason Slagle (Educator)
  • Cloud Sparks (Educator)
  • Darrin Kimbler (Educator)
  • Ben and Denise Bartlett (Educator)
  • Steve Brock (Educator)
  • Mary Markham (Educator)
  • Erik Mason (Educator)
  • Brian Waitrovitch (Educator)
  • Heather Purple (Educator)
  • Bob Genisot (Educator)
  • Tim Bliss (Educator)
  • Pat Wehner (Educator)
  • Monica Jean (Educator)
  • Jim Isleib (Educator)
  • Kat Jacques (Educator)
  • Thomas Berndt (Educator)
  • Erin Satchell (Educator)



Land based learning engages students in experiences which increase knowledge of sustainable agriculture, interest in sustainable agriculture careers, and local food systems. 

Materials and methods:

Materials and methods:

The education coordinator at the MSU North Farm (Abbey Palmer) coordinated each of the SAE teams for each land-based learning center (LBLC). During the course of the project, one farm cooperated from each of the seven ISDs in the U.P. was identified and wished to cooperate. Six of the seven projects came to completion including student visits to the farm, engagement with students over the summer, and an event that shared information and recognized the school/farm partnership. Waishkey Bay Farm, an operation managed by the Bay Mills Indian Community and College, provided an LBLC to the tribal schools in the area. Three MSUE Educators participated in six projects.  

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 served as mentors to the student-farmers during their SAE project. Farms hosted outreach/demonstration events to support knowledge transfer throughout the community. Additionally, farm cooperators served as advisers to teachers. Host farms were selected to reflect the diversity of the region and on their history of promoting and enacting on-farm sustainability practices.

  • Cooper Country ISD – Gierke Blueberry Farm – blueberry u-pick operation
  • Delta-Schoolcraft ISD – Robare Farm – dry bean operation involved in cover crop and animal depredation prevention research with MSUE
  • Dickinson-Iron ISD – Slagle Family Farm – vegetable, field crop, and livestock operation
  • Eastern Upper Peninsula ISD – 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 – Tiaga Farm and Vineyard – diversified vegetables, pork, beginning vineyard
  • Marquette-Alger ISD – Log Cabin Livestock – beef and lamb forage-based operation
  • Menominee ISD – Steve Brock Family Dairy Farm – dairy cow operation heavily engaged in cover crop research

Teachers. Participating educators were recruited based on attendance at the ongoing MSU North Farm Teacher Institutes (NFTI), which are open to teachers from all ISDS and provide travel funding through another grant. NFTI institutes provide educators with the requisite knowledge, skills, and resources to integrate AFNR curriculum into their classroom. One teacher was 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 was 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 were identified, they were linked to a farm cooperator in their region.

MSUE Educators. MSUE agricultural educators based in the U.P. comprised the third component of the SAE team. These educators (Jean – Central U.P.; Isleib – Central U.P.; Jacques FRTEP – Eastern U.P.) provided expertise to the rest of the team in selection, design, and assistance with implementation of the SAE project.

MSUE educators provided the team with up-to-date sustainable agriculture practices. Given the regional scope of these MSUE educators, some served more than one SAE team.

Extension presence in the area of the school, which allowed for in-person travel for classroom activities with the farmer, student visits to the farm, and assistance in organizing outreach events was critical.

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 were solicited to review SAE project proposals, meet with farm cooperators and student-farmers to discuss project progress, and offered advice or technical assistance as needed.

Additional advising and collaboration with NRCS resulted in valuable exposure to a job skill adjacent to agriculture: surveying. Students worked closely with agency experts to understand the composting process, and with the farm through these agency experts to ask the right questions about farm composting needs. Right-size composting facility design for this site depended on the intersection of local, state, and federal laws regarding food safety, which students were able to see as a successful relationship first-hand through interactions with all parties.


Finalization of SAE teams for each LBLC was facilitated by the North Farm (NF) educational coordinator. Once SAE teams formed, they worked 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 provided oversight for the entire project, including organizing and facilitating the partnerships and project teams. Initial development of the SAE projects occurred 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 was 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 guided the discussion based on their knowledge of the respective LBLC. After this initial discussion, student-farmers researched different solutions and presented them back to the farmer, proposing a project and determining goals and objectives. The SAE team worked with students to vet the proposal, provide edits and approve projects that combined an optimal learning experience with the greatest potential to enhance farm sustainability.

Classroom activities to prepare students for the project and to engage them after they met the farmer were identified by observation. Different teachers and teams chose different approaches, which were collected presented to teachers for year two, often with a totally new round of students, and are collected in the PDF booklet Sustainable Agriculture Education Classroom Assignments.

An example of a SAE project carried out by Superior Central School was a collaboration with sheep farmers Ben and Denise Bartlett, who asked the students to help them determine best practices for treatment of hay fields that are too remote from the farm to be grazed. This project introduced students to new research and tests used to measure biological activity in the soil, but began with the question, “Which practice makes the most financial sense for farmers in our area?” The students designed an experiment that would address the efficacy of four different treatments to a hay field: urea, manure, cutting the hay and leaving in place, and cover cropping. After three seasons of collecting data, participants presented their results at the Alger County Farmer Potluck:

After analyzing this year’s results, the data indicates that all of the treatments are benefiting the soil to some degree, but the application of composted manure continues to improve not only the nutrient level of the soil, but also is enhancing the beneficial life within the soil to a higher level than the others. As we have learned more and more about soil health, we have become aware of the importance of the physical characteristics of the soil. Soil permeability, structure and composition are all critical components of soil health. Fortunately, the SARE grant made it possible for last year’s Agriculture and Forestry students to design and create six kits to measure these characteristics. At students' final visit of the hay field in the fall, these kits were to use and found that the soil was a sandy loam with excellent permeability and structure. These kits are now available to area farmers who would like to utilize them as part of an agricultural tool library. 

In the first year of the project, each ISD was allocated a budget of $7,000 to cover SAE projects on farm and educational expenses. The student-farmers received guidance from the SAE team, which were 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 provided assistance with identification, development, and integration of appropriate curriculum into the classroom. They also furnished 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 arranged meetings for the SAE team frequently – about three times more often than originally planned – throughout the course of each respective SAE project. The NF education coordinator worked with farmers to develop a recruiting strategy for on-farm educational experiences so that student-farmers could 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 has established and community organizations are 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.

Research results and discussion:

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

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.
Research conclusions:

Student-farmer knowledge, attitudes, skill and awareness were evaluated quantitatively using a pre-test and post-test consisting of a short sustainable agriculture knowledge test, a construct measuring sustainable agriculture career aspirations, the Alternative-Conventional Agriculture Paradigm (ACAP) instrument (Beus & Dunlap, 1991) and the General Self-Efficacy test (Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 1995). Data collected via pre-tests, post-tests and reflective social media posts were analyzed for progression toward established outcomes. Just two Intermediate School Districts provided both pre and post-test data for all four instruments allowing for analysis. Consequently, results should be viewed with reservation.

Students’ ACAP scores decreased from a mean of 3.41 on the pre-test to a mean of 3.28 on the post-test. This indicates their paradigm shifted toward a more conventional approach to agriculture. Almost all these students had little knowledge of agriculture prior to their involvement in the project. Perhaps their lack of knowledge impacted their ACAP scores as the ACAP was originally developed for practicing farmers and ranchers. One of the farmers from this project indicated in the post-interview that it can be difficult for farmers and resource professionals, the specialists in the field, to recognize the range of agricultural activities in the U.P.: “On one hand we don't have much diversity, but on the other hand—if you open your net of what agriculture is—we probably have a bigger diversity here than we really appreciate.”

Students’ GSE scores increased from a mean of 2.81 on the pre-test to a mean of 3.04 on the post-test. This increase indicated that students’ self-efficacy increased during the project. The construct of perceived self-efficacy reflects an optimistic self-belief (Schwarzer, 1992). This is the belief that one can perform novel tasks or cope with adversity.  Perceived self-efficacy facilitates goal setting, effort investment and persistence in face of barriers and recovery from setbacks. Participating in the project exposed students to atypical tasks while at the same time having a support team of their teacher, the farmer and an Extension educator to help them with the task. Consequently, overall the students appeared to improve their self-belief in solving problems that were unfamiliar to them. Students who engaged in on-farm educational experiences over the summer were able to pass on their knowledge to the incoming class through farm visits that included presentation and mentorship. One farmer described it during the post-interview: “So there you have a young person saying this is what I learned and what you could learn.”

Students sustainable agriculture knowledge decreased from a mean of 28% correct on the pre-test to a mean of 25% correct on the post-test. There was a period (including summer vacation) between the completion of the project and post-test that perhaps impacted the scores. Post-interviews with teachers and farmers indicated that one of the difficulties of pairing experiential agriculture activities on-site at farms with classroom instruction is that the agricultural year and the school year overlap for only a few weeks. The climate in the U.P. makes this especially challenging. As one farmer stated in post-interview, even after the end of the school year, “we have frost, you know, beginning of June.”


Additionally, multi-year engagement over the period of the grant with the same teacher deepened relationships between teachers and farmers – identified by farmers in post-interviews as a crucial component of the success of a project – but each new school year meant new students. When the class composition changed, the SAE team needed to bring new students on board with the project to “carry through and be consistent with the goals. [The SAE team] either had to re-explain or re-adjust” three to four times over the course of each project. One way to address this issue was to target teachers who teach a variety of science classes, including Environmental Science, because students can take that class more than once, and thus students could self-select for engagement with land-based learning projects over the life of the grant and increasing the number of students who participated in the project over multiple school years or semesters. As one farmer said during post-interview, the project was “a great opportunity to demonstrate to kids the extreme complexity of a biological system -- that's the value of a two- or three-year project.”

There was also a decrease in students career aspirations from a mean 2.77 on the pre-test to a mean of 2.60. This project involved hand-on activities for the students on the cooperating farmer’s land. Students experienced first-hand the physical nature of producing food and fiber so it is not surprising that perhaps the romantic view that some students might have about farming faded as a result of their participation. Students engaging in on-farm educational experiences over the summer reported, according to farmers, an increase confidence to carry out a project on their own and increased familiarity with scientific methodology for data collection. For instance, a student who did two summer on-farm educational experiences with the same farm collecting data from spotted wing drosophila traps interacted with Michigan Tech University to use microscopes for insect identification, which increased his interest in going to college. One farm hosted three students: “Two of the three that we've had said that this was never going to be a career for them.  But they gained a whole new appreciation on how food is produced. And that was in my view is as beneficial as making a career choice.” According to the farmers who were involved in the project, the opportunity to teach in an on-farm setting and the project assistance that students provided was valuable both to their farm and to the next generation of consumers of farm products.  

The SAE team concept resulted in increased familiarity between teachers, farmers, and resource professionals. The community connections created by linking farmers and teachers through this project resulted in other teachers finding ways to incorporate agriculture into their classroom. In a post-interview, one farmer responded to the question, “What would recommend to teachers or producers as we think about how can we grow this type of learning in other spaces?” by saying that the relationship needs to be “continuous”:

That relationship has to build over several years.  Especially with the teachers who don't have a lot of on farm experience themselves.  Because there's a lot of misconceptions on both sides. […] Knowing your farmers and your teachers, you'll be able to have better successes with the students when they do interact with the producers.

SAE teams were able to address difficulties with project design through problem solving together, which created and deepened relationships. Coordinating the timing of on-farm activities and communication during the busy period of overlap between the school year and the growing season, identifying significant outreach opportunities for students to share their work with the farming community, bringing new groups of students on board to an existing project, and the fact that each project attempted to address a unique sustainability issue that had yet-to-be solved on the farm brought SAE teams greater confidence in future projects as individual team members observed the resilience of the team through difficulties. SAE teams devised innovative solutions, such as initiating student-led research presentations at a farmer potluck, developing resource kits that allowed multiple groups of students to work simultaneously in the field and that could then be utilized during the summer months by area farmers, and involving past students in mentorship. This project formed the basis for a recent grant proposal to USDA's Food and Agriculture Service Learning Program,  submitted in June, 2020 to utilize the SAE Team structure and land-based learning approach, but bring several teacher/farmer/extension teams to work on the same issue: procuring farm to school products for use in school lunch programs. 

Overall there were mixed results based on the pre-tests and post-tests for students. The overall increase in self-efficacy was encouraging while the decreases in students’ agricultural paradigms and knowledge about sustainable agriculture were discouraging. However, once again given the low response rate these results should be viewed with reservation.

Participation Summary
7 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

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.

Project Activities

Sustainable Agriculture Experience Team Meetings
Land-Based Learning Centers Intro
SAE Project Timeline
Agriculture Education Ideas for Teachers
Students Visit Farms for Agriculture Education Activities
Spotlight on agricultural education: Practicing non-formal agricultural education in rural schools
Community as context and content: A land-based learning primer for agriculture, food, and natural resources education
Land-Based Learning Centers: On-Farm Learning About Sustainable Agriculture
Land-based learning: An innovative approach to agriculture, food, and natural resources education
Farmer Visits to Classroom
Harvest Celebration
Healthy Hayfield Project
Harvest Celebration
#StudentsUPontheFarm Hashtag Campaign
Farm Field Day
Farm Open House
Superior Central Student Presentation
Alger County Farmer Potluck
Post-Interview with Farmers
Farmer Interview Protocol
Midterm Check-in with Teachers and Farmers about Project Needs
Post-Interview with Teachers
Teacher Interview Protocol
Farmer Pre-Interview
Teacher Pre-Interview
American Association of Agricultural Educators Distinguished Lecture
Marquette Alger Regional Service Agency Action in Education Summer Institute
Tribal Schools & Tribal Farms: Solving Agriculture Problems Using STEM
Upper Peninsula Food Exchange - Food Summits
Ideas for Farm-Based Education
Land-based learning: A learning paradigm for building community and sustainable farms
Regenerative Agriculture: Implications for Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Education
Land-based learning centers: A multi-generational educational approach to promoting on-farm sustainable agriculture

Educational & Outreach Activities

36 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Journal articles
22 On-farm demonstrations
14 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
22 Webinars / talks / presentations
5 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Social media campaign

Participation Summary:

7 Farmers participated
15 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Please visit for project summaries, field days, photos, and press associated with each specific land-based learning center project.

The following is a list of academic presentations and publications. 


Land-based learning: An innovative approach to agriculture, food, and natural resources education, Dr. Aaron McKim, Lincoln, 4/10/17

American Association of Agricultural Educators Distinguished Lecture 2019: Regenerative Agriculture and Implications for Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources Education by Dr. Matt Raven, Des Moines, 5/21/19

Marquette Alger RESA Action in Education Summer Institute, Abbey Palmer, Marquette, 6/18/19 

Tribal Schools & Tribal Farms: Solving Agriculture Problems Using STEM, 2019 Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) Professional Development Conference, Heather Purple, Abbey Palmer, Cloud Sparks, Sault Ste Marie, 10/11/19

Farm-Based Education Network Conference, Abbey Palmer and Allison Stawara, Baltimore, 11/11/19

Upper Peninsula Food Exchange Food Summits, Abbey Palmer and Kat Jacques, Baraga, Marquette, Brimley, 11/6/19, 11/22/19, and 12/3/19

Ideas for Farm-Based Education, Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference, Abbey Palmer and Allison Stawara, Traverse City, 1/23/20

Land-based learning centers: A multi-generational educational approach to promoting on-farm sustainable agriculture, American Association for Agricultural Education Research Conference, Virtual Conference, Dr. Aaron McKim, virtual conference, 5/19/2020


McKim, A. J., Raven, M. R., Palmer, A., & McFarland, A. (2019). Community as context and
     content: A land-based learning primer for agriculture, food, and natural resources
     education. Journal of Agricultural Education, 60 (1), 172-185.

This article has been cited twice since 2019, with 937 views at  

McKim, A. J., Raven, M. R., Palmer, A., McFarland, A., & Isleib, J. (2019). Land-based learning: A
     learning paradigm for building community and sustainable farms. Journal of Extension,

Raven, M.R. (2019). "Regenerative Agriculture: Implications for Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Education." Distinguished Lecture presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Agricultural Education, Des Moines, IA.

North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Conference 2019 Poster and Abstract

Note the poster format, Mike Morrison's #betterposter approach to re-orient the poster format toward the viewer with a clear statement of findings and a QR code linked to more information about the project; conference goers can snap a photo of poster and access online resources for further review later.

Raven, M.R., McKim, A.J., & Palmer, A. (2020). Land-based learning centers: A multi-generational educational approach to promoting on-farm sustainable agriculture. Proceedings of the Posters at the American Association for Agricultural Education Research Conference, Virtual Conference, 105-108.  

Land-based learning: facilitating relationships between farmers, teachers, and Extension, is an article in progress with an invitation to submit to the Journal of Sustainability in December 2020. This article identifies agriculture education linkages between educators in different fields, both formal and informal, that exist within communities to bring hands-on, land-based learning into the classroom context and ways that these linkages can be recognized to create new relationships that support land-based learning projects in other regions. 

Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
5 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • 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

Project Outcomes

7 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Key practices changed:
  • Engage with area youth

  • Expose youth to careers in agriculture

  • Examine whole-farm sustainability

  • Collaborate with extension professionals

  • Educate youth about sustainable agriculture

2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
35 New working collaborations
Success stories:

Check out for stories from our land-based learning centers. 

Information Products

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.