Taproot Sustainable Farming Experience for Children

Final Report for YENC08-006

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2008: $1,560.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Manager:
Zac Wedemeyer
Taproot Nature Experience
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Project Information


Founded in 2007, Taproot Nature Experience’s activities and programs are designed to strengthen the innate bond between people and nature, increase people’s awareness of their role in the natural system, and foster a generation of people who enjoy, respect, and actively care for our earth. We do this through of a variety of programming including a series of week-long summer camps. Taproot Nature Experience is in a unique position to educate children and families in Eastern Iowa about sustainable agriculture because, in addition to running nature-based education programs, we have extensive relationships with many local farms and we run a sustainable farm. This positioned us to dovetail our nature-based education with sustainability education and sustainable agriculture in a very powerful way.

In our first summer of camp, 2008, we offered an excellent camp experience teaching sustainability and sustainable agriculture practices to children, experiencing several local sustainable farms. However, we were not able to pay farmers for their time. So though our first year of camp was a success in that it exposed kids to the idea of sustainable agriculture, and it got some local farmers some good exposure to families interested in purchasing local, sustainable food, we felt that we needed to be able to pay farmers for their time to have a successful education model.

If we need to generate a lot of new farmers to feed people sustainably, we have to be able to get a lot of kids excited about sustainable agriculture, and we’re going to need to do this with exciting teaching. Principally, this teaching needs to come from the farmers themselves, and if farmers are teaching, they need to be compensated for their time. Furthermore, it is important that farmers start thinking about themselves as teachers, and thinking about teaching – tours, lectures, workshops—as a viable source of income.

Our main goal is that children learn that food is produced as part of a system, and that they are an integral part of that system. Children understand the differences between healthy sustainable farms and artificially supported monoculture. We reinforced these very visable differences by showing them how to support and engage in sustainable agriculture. After their week with us children are able to serve as ambassadors of sustainable farming to their family and peers and, at an age appropriate level, can think critically about and discuss:

The advantages of buying and consuming sustainably produced food incluing: food miles, food safety, food taste and nutrition, and the social and economic benefits of supporting local producers.

The environmental advantages of sustainable farming: soil health and land conservation, watershed and water quality, organics, ecosystem health and biodiversity, and minimal oil inputs.

The keystones of conventional farming practice and why it is not sustainable: pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, CAFO, GMO, monocultures, cheap oil and subsidies.

The power of consumer choice and spending: consumer directed market, CSAs, farmers’ markets, organics, locally produced food.

Tools to participate in sustainable agriculture practices: food choice, bulk foods, local foods, composting, vermiculture, gardening, permaculture, water conservation, rain catchment systems.

We chose three reinforcing methods to teach children about sustainability, and, specifically, sustainable agriculture:

• We visited different kinds of farms practicing sustainable methods
• Gave children hands-on experience with these methods
• Developed and facilitated a week-long discussion about choices, specifically food choices, and how those choices affect the system – the cycle—of food production and consumption.

Over the summer of 2009, we had eight weeks of summer camps: 2 weeks of week long, 8:30 – 12:30 camp for 5 and 6 year olds (Seedling Camp), and 6 weeks of week long 8:30 – 5:30 camp for 7 – 14 year olds (Sapling Camp) that culminated in an on-farm overnight.

Though our primary audience was the campers themselves, we hoped that, by extension, their families, would be affected by this experience – we had 88 campers this year, and 47 families (some siblings, some repeat campers). To that end we encouraged our campers to have conversations with their families about what they were learning and doing each day, and in our emails with families detailing our activities we offered conversation starters to parents that we hoped would continue the sustainable agriculture conversation in the home.

Each day of camp coupled a farm experience with a nature-based experience. The following is an excerpt from a letter sent to Sapling Camp families before each camp began, detailing the plan for the week:

Monday morning we'll start our week at the Sand Road Berry Farm, picking blueberries. After that, we’ll go canoeing at Sand Lake south of Iowa City. We'll paddle to a neat area of sand dunes where we'll eat lunch, swim, fish for bluegills, build campfires, and dig and build in the sand. Monday afternoon we'll go to the Kirkwood School for Children and see their whimsical and delicious garden, and learn about worms and vermiculture from permiculturist Kyle Sieck. Afterwards, we'll visit the urban farm of Derek Roller, former proprietor of the Red Avocado restaurant. Derek and friends grow an enormous amount of herbs and vegetables on a double lot in Iowa City utilizing intensive planting and very organized hoop houses.

Tuesday morning we'll continue learning about local, sustainable agriculture with a visit to Friendly Farm, where we'll talk with farmers Bob Braverman and Sarah Neary. Tuesday is a special afternoon that we're very excited about. After lunch, fishing, and swimming at Lon Drake's pond, we'll come to the beautiful farm and flower gardens of Anna Geyer, who runs Anna's Cutting Garden. While the wood fire heats up the outdoor stone oven, the children will cut flowers, make bouquets for their families, and harvest vegetables and herbs for pizza toppings. We will also be making ice cream. We invite the families to join us at Anna's farm at 5:00 p.m. We'll eat pizza and ice cream in the bucolic rural environs. I will send directions to the farm in a separate email. Please let us know in advance how many from your family will attend. If this schedule does not work for you, please let me know as soon as possible so we can make other arrangements for your child.

Wednesday is our long field trip. We will be going to the Wildcat Den State Park and Pine Creek Grist Mill. We'll return to Happy Hollow at 5:30 p.m.

Thursday morning we will visit with farmer Janette Ryan Busch of Fae Ridge Farm. We'll meet the ducks, geese, sheep, goats, and llamas on her organic fiber and vegetable farm. Then we'll learn about how we get clean water to flow from our faucets on a tour of the Iowa City Drinking Water Purification Facility. After lunch, we'll head to Kent Park for swimming and sand engineering.

Friday morning we'll visit the farm of Galen Bontrager. Galen is among a new generation of young farmers, doing their best to raise meat animals in a way that keeps the animals happy by allowing them to follow their instincts -- cows eat grass, chickens peck and scratch, pigs root, and all have adequate sunshine, fresh air, and clean living spaces. At Galen's on-farm store, we'll buy some chicken, lamb, and eggs for that night's dinner.

On Friday evenings we have another exciting new thing this summer. It will be our campout at the Taproot Farm, and we have booked local musicians to play and sing around the campfire. We invite families to join us for this evening too. This week, we'll welcome Nicole Upchurch of the Awful Purdies and her husband Ben. Again, I will send directions to the Taproot Farm in a separate email. For the campout, the children will sleep in large tents, with the option of the Taproot House in the event of severe weather. Children will need a sleeping bag, pillow, and a camping pad or yoga mat. Toiletry gear, flashlight or headlamp, and special blanket or animal are all good. Kids should pack a lunch for Friday; we will provide dinner Friday night and breakfast Saturday morning. Pick-up on Saturday is at Happy Hollow at 11 a.m. Kids may very well want to go home and sleep for the rest of the weekend.

We tried to visit farms that featured very different things. When we wrote the grant we had very specific farms in mind, as we thought these farms and farmers each offered unique teaching points. As we continued developing our camp schedule we decided to also include a couple of additional farming experiences, so though we had said in the grant that we would include 3-4 farm visits each week, we actually visited 6-7 farms each week and some weeks we toured the water treatment facility, the local natural foods coop, and the landfill.

We strive to include many local businesses, producers, and organizations in our programming, as we believe that this not only strengthens the learning experience, it strengthens the community. These partnerships are the key to effecting change in our community and gaining access to people and ideas that we would not have singularly.

Over the course of the grant we worked with the following people and organizations on the project:

Galen Bontrager – a polyculture farmer, and one time apprentice of Joel Salatin, who practices intensive rotational grazing.

Bob Braverman – owner/operator of Friendly Farm, a direct market, sustainable organic farm.

Derek Roller and Christy Andersen – urban farmers, practicing intensive, sustainable farming on less than an acre of an in-town lot for CSA, farmers’ market and direct sales.

Anna and Dave Geyer – owners of Anna’s Cutting Garden, an organic cutting garden and owners of a brick oven used for pizza, bread and pita baking

Janette Ryan-Busch – owner and operator of Fae Ridge Farm, an organic farm that produces herbs, vegetables, eggs, and fiber

Mark Quee – farm manager at the Scattergood Friends School farm, an organic farm that produces vegetables, beef, lamb, poultry meat, and eggs, supplying the bulk of the food for a 50-student boarding high-school

Wendy Weidlein – head of the Kirkwood School for Children’s garden and kitchen.

Food Not Lawns, Iowa City Permaculture, and Backyard Abundance – three local groups encouraging people to practice sustainable permaculture food production practices on their in-town lots and yards.

Lon Drake, professor Emritus of Geoscience at the University of Iowa – rain garden and wetland specialist.

Carol Sweeting – Iowa City Public Works Educational Outreach Coordinator, municipal drinking water treatment facility specialist and tour guide

Jennifer Jordan – recycling coordinator, providing landfill and composting facility tours

Scott Koepke – grocery manager at the New Pioneer Food Cooperative

Kyle Sieck – certified permaculture designer and vermiculturist

We also sent out a letter prior to the beginning of camp outlining the expectations and aspirations of the camps and asking parents for help supporting this educational experience in some specific ways. We asked parents to:

• Pack lunches in durable containers with as little processed food as possible and as much local food as possible.

• Encouraged parents to participate in and bring friends and relatives to the two family events of the week – the pizza party at Anna Geyer’s cutting garden and the campfire sing-a-long at the Taproot Farm featuring local food and local musicians.

• Challenged parents to see how much of their family’s diet for the week could be comprised of local and organic foods.

One of the goals of this program was to help educate children so that they could be ambassadors of sustainable agriculture to their families and their peers.
We had 88 children participate in camps this summer, representing 47 different families. We tracked how many people were in each of these 47 families, as they were the nuclear group surrounding each camper. We include these people, in addition to the campers themselves, because whole families were affected by this week of sustainable agriculture education. Consequently, instead of just teaching 88 children about sustainable agriculture, we were able to reach 341 people directly with this program.

We conducted a survey of our families to see what kind of effect the camp week had on their views on sustainable agriculture. We asked them the following questions:

Did this week’s emphasis on local sustainable farming impact your family’s approach to purchasing food? All families, without exception reported that this had an impact on what they purchased, though many of the families stressed that they already shopped sustainably.

Did this week’s education influence your food choice? Again, all of the families reported that this influenced their food choice. Furthermore, many of them reported that food and systems thinking had been the focal point of their evenings at home with the children, and that the kids’ days stimulated many good conversations about family food choice, meal preparation, and food budget.

Will you be more likely to purchase food from a specific farm after this week?
Many of the families reported that they would do this, and some families visited some of the farms to purchase goods during the week their child was in camp. Many families also reported that they enjoyed seeing the animals’ quality of life on a particular farm, and that seeing them well cared for contributed to their commitment to buy from a particular farm.

We also asked the farmers to report on any connections or increased sales that they felt resulted from Taproot tours to their farms.

All of the farmers said that they formed new relationships with families because of the Taproot tours, and they also reported increased sales due to these relationships.

We were incredibly pleased with the response to this program. Not only were the children interested in each of the farms that we visited, but we could see, over the course of the week, that their knowledge and awareness of agriculture and systems thinking blossomed. We also asked the children each week, as part of our discussion, if any of them would like to become farmers, and each week--without exception--we had a few children who said yes.

As each week progressed and the children visited more farms, we could see differences in their conversations, their questions, and even their lunches. Parents would send us emails or tell us at the pizza party or the sing-along what a profound effect the week was having on their kids. Parents seemed truly amazed at how much their kids were learning, and how many connections they were able to put together in such a short time. And they seemed even more amazed that the kids were enjoying themselves so much in the midst of all of this learning.

For many children in our camps this week was their first exposure to farming. Even though these are “Iowa” kids, many of them had never been on a farm. In this week they not only got to visit these farms and see tours, but they got to get into the action; they caught chickens, dug potatoes and beets, made vermiculture bins, cut and arranged flowers, moved sheep into new pasture, pet a guard llama, pounded fence posts, collected eggs, stacked firewood, pulled weeds and cut brush, made ice cream, picked blueberries and apples, touched fiber animals, spun wool into yarn, slopped pigs, and dipped the beaks of baby turkeys.

One of the interesting things about this project is that to tour each of these farms we would often drive past many conventional farms along the way. We saw acres and acres of row crops, and often we would discuss the differences between the conventional farming and sustainable practices. Though we never said anything directly negative about conventional farming (our approach with the children is to discuss the differences and let them draw their own conclusions), the children really began to struggle with the acres of Iowa land dedicated to monoculture corn and soybeans.

Their frustration grew when we discussed the tiling of the Iowa landscape and how much the land has been changed by conventional farming. Many of the children in our summer camps were affected by severe flooding last year—some even lost their homes—and the tiling, loss of prairie, soil erosion, and water required for conventional agriculture were hot topics of discussion. A few parents mentioned that their kids had taught them about the relationship between tiling and flooding; the parents hadn’t known that before.

We chose the farms we visited based on our relationship with the farmers, the proximity of the farms to Iowa City, and the diversity of the farms. We wanted to give kids a broad exposure to different livestock, produce, value added products, organics, naturals, and sizes of farms. We also wanted to make sure that we exposed them to heritage breed animals and heirloom vegetables, and the benefits of farming these things.

The children found the chickens and turkeys fascinating. They could have spent all day following, catching and petting them. We have free-range chickens and turkeys at our farm,

We also asked farmers if they had any way of tracking how people found out about them, hoping to see some sort of “pebble in the pond” response to our tours. All of the farmers reported at least one instance of a Taproot family referring, or even bringing another family, to the farms on our camp tours.

Each week of the summer camp, we sent emails and photographs to families, detailing the activities and topics covered that day in camp. We presented conversation starters and learning extensions, as well as additional information that families could look up if they chose. We heard from many families that these letters facilitated wonderful discussions of the sustainable agriculture learning and adventures the children experienced.

We presented the results of our project to the 2009 Farmers Forum in Columbia, Missouri.

We have scheduled an outreach event on Saturday, January 23, at the Iowa City Public Library, the purposes of which are:
• to present the results of our SAE4C project to the community
• offer ways that teachers and other educators can replicate the project
• present teachers with ideas on how to include agriculture, food production, and sustainability into their classrooms and other educational settings

This event will be open to all but specifically geared toward teachers and other educators. As a classroom teacher for seven years, I know that the fall is a difficult time for teachers to absorb new information and take action on implementing new classroom projects and learning endeavors; this is why we scheduled it for the late winter. It is as near to a “slow time” as there ever is in a classroom, and prime time to begin thinking about growing, gardening, nature projects to bring natural systems learning in general – and sustainable agriculture learning specifically – into the classroom.

We thoroughly enjoyed participating in this program, and we would not recommend any changes at this time. We would love to see funding in this area grow, as educating the next generation of sustainable farmers is a sizeable challenge. We look forward to working with NCR SARE in the future to meet this challenge.

We contracted with, and paid our farmers, as outlined in our budget proposal. We were so impressed with our campers’ response to this kind of education that we increased the number of farms and farmers that we worked with over the season. We increased our organization’s budget by an additional $1400 to include these extra farms and their experiences. We feel like this program was so successful that we are working on a community grant to enhance this kind of education program next summer, and we have included the expenses for these farm visits in our budget for the upcoming year. Additionally, we have also contracted with some of the individual farmers to provided produce and meat for our camp meals throughout the 2010 season.

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.