Northeast Indiana sustainable agriculture field day to increase youth interest in sustainable agriculture concepts and careers

Final Report for YENC14-081

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2014: $1,967.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Manager:
Jonathon Zirkle
Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College
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Project Information


In October of 2014, a partnership of staff from Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen college (‘Merry Lea’), a Purdue Extension educator, and nearby family farms teamed up to deliver an educational tour, exposing young folks to educational opportunities and careers in sustainable agriculture in northeastern Indiana. The tour was a success, with youth, college students, and parents coming from north central and northeast Indiana counties to participate in daylong activities. Three farms served as destinations, as well as Goshen College community gardens and composting facilities, and a visit to a local farmers market to explore the range of products and to visit with producers directly. Surveys were completed by attendees prior to the trip.

A follow-up survey was sent to attendees in spring of 2015 to assess impacts. In response to the success of the one-day event in October 2014 and feedback from the survey, a small event focusing on the Goshen, IN region was organized in October 2015, attracting a small gathering of high school students and their parents, adult farmers from nearby, and Goshen College alumni visiting for the college’s annual Homecoming Weekend. Many lessons were learned as to how to present opportunities to young people in northeast Indiana about sustainable agriculture education and careers. Participating partners may continue offering similar events in future years as a result of the success and outcomes of the 2014 event.

Background about the region and Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center:
Northeast Indiana has a diversity of agriculture and is distinguished by the presence of thriving small farms and strong agricultural economies.  A few distinctive features contribute to the diversity of agriculture in the region.  Elkhart, LaGrange, Noble, Kosciosco, and other counties have noteworthy populations of Amish and Mennonites, often known for operating small diversified farms.  These features are increasingly noticed and marketed for tourism and agritourism. Shipshewana for example is becoming a popular ‘food’ destination catering to outside tourists. 

Despite the ability and even a reputation for local food production in the region, recent studies show that over 90% of Indiana food dollars are spent on products raised outside of Indiana. It will surely take dedicated entrepreneurs, educators, health and nutrition experts, successful local markets, supportive food policies, and skilled food producers to change this statistic in favor of food dollars spent locally. 

One conclusion from this statistic: there are opportunities to promote local agriculture products and opportunities to farm and market farm projects in northeast Indiana. Unlike some regions of Indiana, northeast Indiana’s proximity to urban markets in Chicago, Fort Wayne, South Bend/Elkhart/Mishawaka/Goshen, and Indianapolis as well as many lake communities with local food interest makes direct marketing farm produce plausible. The growing number of stores and restaurants featuring locally-grown produce in the region in recent years is a testament to consumer demand for local food. Farmers markets and CSA (community supported agriculture) operations continue to thrive, as well, as noted by farms visited on this tour and witnessed at the Goshen Farmers Market.

The Youth Educator Grant awarded to Merry Lea Environmental Learning (Merry Lea ELC) Center of Goshen College helps advance the organization’s mission. In the mission statement, Merry Lea “provides environmental education for people of all ages.” Through the event made possible with this grant, we provided environmental education as it pertains to sustainable agriculture. This was delivered to a wide range of ages of young people as well as parents while also creating a new avenue for such education outside of the traditional education system on topics of sustainable agriculture. Merry Lea hopes this successful event has created a framework for programs of this sort that can be sustained without outside funding.

Ownership of Merry Lea was transferred to Goshen College in 1980, though had been providing environmental education opportunities to youth and adults since the 1960s. The range of environmental program topics offered by Merry Lea ELC continues to expand in breadth, and in the past decade has added sustainable food production and agroecology as a focus. This SARE project enables an enhanced capacity to provide public opportunities in this area. And although there are opportunities to learn about agriculture in the region through 4-H, FFA, and through agriculture programs at large universities for further study, a gap is realized in opportunities that promote small-scale, diversified agriculture operations.

Pre-Event Preparations:
Advertising and outreach efforts were made to recruit participants for the October event beginning late summer 2014. Such outreach efforts included distributing posters (in Elkhart, Wolf Lake, and Goshen), newspaper articles submitted regionally (The Elkhart Truth, online at Flavor 574, and The Farmers Exchange), announcements in regional list-serve emails and church newsletters, and targeted emails sent to educational partners (Purdue Extension, other colleges and universities) and other contacts in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Advertising was also done at the Goshen Farmers Market and on campus at Goshen College.

October 2014 Field Day Event:
The field day supported by this grant was held in October 2014 on a Saturday, attracting 24 attendees. With farmers and educators, 34 persons total participated that day. Youth attendees ranged in age from middle school through seniors in college.  

Age of attendees: In terms of youth and young adults, 52% were between the ages of 18 and 22, 5% were in high school, and 14% were in middle school. A few other individuals were between 23 and 25, but were in college (some had taken a year or two off either before college or during the middle of college). Other participants were adult chaperones.

How attendees heard about the event: According to survey results, the most commonly noted means of hearing about this event was by word of mouth (36%), though closely followed by seeing a flyer (32%) and Goshen College online announcements (22%). Direct email was only noted by 9% of attendees, and no one noted the newspaper announcements. 

Visiting farms: Interestingly, 90% of attendees had been on a farm before (10% noted this as their first time on a farm). 53% had been on farms several times before, 11% grew up on farms, and 26% currently farm.

Visiting the Goshen Farmers Market: 45% of attendees had never been to the Goshen Farmers Market prior to this event, despite that fact that all attendees reported living within about 40 minutes of the market. 25% had been to the market once, 20% had been several times.  

Topics in agriculture attendees wanted to learn more about: When asked which topics in agriculture they were most interested to learn about, attendees responses were rather equal when given choices of vegetable/fruit production (21%), managing soils and compost (23%), value-added products and business ventures (16%), animal husbandry (20%), and agrotourism/eating locally (20%).

Tour destinations of greatest interest: Visiting farms were voted as the aspect of the trip folks were most excited about (34% were most excited to see Merry Lea Sustainable Farm, while 26% were most excited to see nearby farms). Learning about Goshen College’s sustainable agriculture opportunities and programs was most exciting to 20%, with the community garden visit (11%) and the farmers market visits (9%) receiving fewer votes.

Future farmers: 42% of attendees reported intending to farm someday, with 21% expressing interest in farming.

Working on a farm: 95% of attendees reported at least some interest in working on a farm someday, with 53% saying they currently planned to work on a farm in the future.

Awareness of Goshen College’s Agroecology Summer Intensive: 40% of attendees had not heard about the Goshen College Agroecology Summer Intensive, which takes place at Merry Lea every summer. Many had heard about the program though knew little of the details. A few attendees had plans to enroll in the program some time in the future.

Awareness of career opportunities in sustainable agriculture: Results were mixed in response to this question, with about half of attendees expressing awareness of such career opportunities and about half having very little awareness.

Awareness and regularity of buying local food from the Michiana region: Only 19% of attendees shared that they knew where to acquire and actually purchased locally-grown food in the northern Indiana/southern Michigan region on a regular basis. 48% said they were aware of where to get such local food, but rarely actually purchased. 19% said they were not at all aware of where to go.

The day’s activities began at Goshen College where attendees completed a pre-event survey (results shown previously) while having coffee and local and organic breakfast foods. A recent Goshen College graduate first showed attendees the college’s composting system and student-led Trackside Community Garden, which offers garden plots for both students and neighborhood residents.

Participants then boarded a 29-passenger bus to visit Goshen Farmers Market, and were given time to shop and interact with market vendors, wearing nametags to facilitate dialogue and connections. Photos were taken at the market, and some participants returned to the bus with items they’d purchased. 

The bus then took participants to a series of farm visits about 45 minutes southeast of Goshen, beginning with Plough & Starts farm just west of Columbia City in Whitley County. Farmer Seth Rash gave a tour, sharing about his college experience at Taylor University and how he and his wife became interested in small-scale agriculture. Attendees walked with Seth through vegetable and herb beds, toured a hoophouse under construction, looked at functional farm equipment, and asked questions about his operation’s philosophy, goals, and advice for young people considering careers in sustainable agriculture.

Prior to lunch, attendees boarded the bus to go to Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, a 1189-acre property near Wolf Lake, IN in Noble County. A hay wagon tour of the property showed youth and families the various production spaces, including a nut tree orchard, permaculture research site (five acres), market gardens, animal barn, and greenhouse facilities. Getting out of the wagon, participants broke into smaller groups to do hands-on activities including building a compost pile, working with shiitake mushroom logs, making soil blocks for vegetable transplants, tending pastured chickens, and spreading mulch and leaves onto fall garden spaces.

The haywagon ride brought participants to an indoor gathering room to share an all-local, mostly organic meal together while listening to various voices share about their experiences in diversified agriculture. These lunch time speakers included Rachel Drescher, a 23 year-old WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteer; Natasha Weisenbeck, a program coordinator running the Seed to Feed program and managing community gardens at Church Community Services in Elkhart, IN; Doug Keenan, a Purdue Extension educator who works with 4-H and promoting agritourism in Noble and Whitley Counties; Jon Zirkle, farm manager and instructor at Merry Lea; Dale Hess, Associate Professor and Director of the Agroecology program at Merry Lea; and Jacob Mulder, graduate student in the Masters of Arts in Environmental Education program at Merry Lea. Attendees were given time to ask questions of each speaker, their background and training, and side conversations took place before boarding the bus for the next stop. 

The last stop of the day was at Old Loon Farm north of Columbia City, a small farm that produces vegetables, herbs, goat milk products, honey, and value-added products for sale at farmers markets and through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.  Participants received tours of the gardens, animal barn, beehives, and summer kitchen.  Farmers Jane and Chuck Loomis also shared about their land conservation efforts to manage their forest acreage sustainably, encouraging healthy native tree species that can be selectively harvested for timber.  

The bus returned to Goshen College to drop off participants by late afternoon.  The day was rich with side conversations, and educational resources (brochures, articles, etc) were included in a folder for each participant to take home.  

Overview of What Attendees Experienced:
Young folks who participated in the October 11, 2014 event were exposed to many careers, individuals, and agricultural experiences in the course of the day.  Here is an overview:
*Witnessing a large-scale composting operation
*Visiting with a young manager of a community garden and walking through raised beds
*Shopping for produce and conversations with farmers and artisans at a thriving farmers market
*Personal conversations with several Indiana farmers on their farms, hearing personal stories about the challenges and blessings of choosing to farm.  Farmers shared about financial decisions, showcased tools and equipment, and talked about health and family matters that affect their careers and personal lives as farmers.
*Up-close exposure to farm animals
*Opportunities to walk through farm structures and explore farm spaces
*Haywagon ride
*Eating an all-local meal
*Personal conversations with several individuals in their 20s and 30s who work in agriculture in some capacity, some of whom had backgrounds in literature, economics, public relations, environmental science, and other diverse personal experience and skill.

Follow-Up Survey Results:
A one-page electronic survey was emailed to participants who came to the field day in late spring of 2015 (approx. seven months after event) to assess if and how the tour had impacted individuals. Though the survey response rate was low, participants completing the survey noted changes in their educational awareness, their future career and training plans, and behavior since the October 2014 field day.

*60% of those who completed surveys reported returning several times to the Goshen Farmers Market since the October event, and 20% said they now go to the market on a regular basis.

*100% of those who completed surveys reported being more interested in growing food, having participated in the field day.

*80% of those completing surveys have since explored training and educational opportunities in sustainable agriculture since participating in the field day.

*When asked how interested they were in starting a farm someday, 40% of participants’ answers had shifted towards greater interest.

*When asked how interested they were in working on a farm someday, 40% of participants’ answers had shifted towards greater interest.

*When asked how they interacted with farms visited on the field day farm tour since then, 80% of those completing surveys reported that they had talked to or bought products from one or more of the farmers at the Goshen Farmers Market since the field day. 20% had since visited the farms’ websites or contacted them directly in some way.

*40% of those completing surveys reported more regularly purchasing local food from nearby in the region.

*100% of those responding to the survey reported that they now are considering or plan to pursue a sustainable agriculture intensive program or volunteer as a WWOOF volunteer (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms).

Overall, Merry Lea staff were pleased to process the positive outcomes as shown by the survey.  Though resending requests to complete surveys was desirable, the amount of time that had lapsed since the event seemed likely to affect results.  And though well after the October 2014 event, Merry Lea continues to be in dialogue with 2014 participants, giving further opportunity to stay connected and promote other subsequent events, programs, and workshops in the future.  For example, CDs of photos from the 2014 event were mailed to families who attended.  We hope the others who participated may have also had positive behavioral responses after attending the field day.  

Post Event Reflections:
Unexpected news came in 2014 during the grant application and project planning stage: Professor Dale Hess of Merry Lea announced his battle with cancer. All throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 2014, Dale’s failing health certainly changed the staff capacity, farm management, and summer teaching dynamics in the Agroecology Summer Intensive, and thus also took away some of the devoted time and energy for event planning that summer and early fall.  Still, the SARE field day happened and was a success, nonetheless.

Despite his failing health, Professor Hess’ direct participation in the October 2014 field day was very meaningful, likely to be the last public event where he would speak before he passed on March 1, 2015. His support of the project and his appreciation of the enabled outreach made possible by this grant were very meaningful to collaborators Jon Zirkle, Jennifer Schrock, farmers, extension agent Doug Keenan, and other lunch time speakers at the 2014 event.

Though a repeat of the 2014 field day was not possible at scale in 2015, a smaller educational workshop was offered in October 2015 during Goshen College homecoming weekend to promote efforts in local, sustainable food production by Goshen College students and graduates.  Coverage was given through The Elkhart Truth, Goshen College online newsletters, and a press release was sent out from Merry Lea through northeast Indiana to smaller newspapers.  The intended audience for this gathering was visiting families in town for homecoming activities, particularly high school students and families with older youth, similar to the age categories targeted in the 2014 field day.

Though weather conditions were wet and quite miserable, nine attendees joined the handful of guest speakers at the college to hear first-hand accounts of young Goshen College graduates and current students efforts to grow food while interning on nearby vegetable farms and in community gardens as well as success stories of those who have started food and farming businesses. Alumni attended this event as well as a family with a high school son, and a few nearby farmers who read about the event in the newspaper.  

The day concluded with walking tours of raised beds created by a student outside the dining hall, a nearby community garden, and a recent Goshen College graduate’s urban farm developed on the nearby property of senior center Greencroft Goshen. Attendees were driven to the farm site by bus to visit with farmer Emma Gerigscott and walk the garden spaces and ask questions.  Emma is now selling wholesale to a small grocery chain in Goshen as well as new restaurants in the area.  She also has illustrated a new publication using her art skills for farmer Ben Hartman of Clay Bottom Farm and works at a new restaurant that features locally-grown ingredients. In meeting Emma and seeing her growing spaces, attendees were inspired by her creativity and dedication to starting a small urban farm and finding markets for her high-quality produce.

In March of 2016, Jon Zirkle attended the Indiana Small Farm Conference as an invited poster presenter to share about this particular SARE Youth Educator project.  With support from the grant, a participating young farmer, Seth Rash of Plough & Stars Farm (Columbia City, IN), also attended the conference with Jon, and was able to mingle with other conference attendees during the poster session and share about his experience being a farm destination during the 2014 Farm Tour.  Old Loon Farm (Columbia City, IN) farmers, Jane and Chuck Loomis, also were present and were able to engage with the poster and attendees, as well as Clay Bottom Farm intern and Goshen College student, Anna Nafziger.  A copy of the project poster is now displayed both at Goshen College in the Biology Department and at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. 

Applying for and being awarded a SARE Youth Educator grant was well worth the experience and enabled some rich activities that promoted awareness of ways for young people to pursue careers and lifestyles in growing food using sustainable practices and at small scales. I recommend others who care about agricultural education, hands-on learning, and sustainability to pursue such grant opportunities. USDA SARE staff members were more than willing to be helpful in supporting projects and events that were made possible from the grant. Such help was greatly appreciated. Funds were allocated in a timely fashion, and assistance with publicity was also more than satisfactory.

In hindsight, it would have been good to work harder at promoting the 2014 October event to targeted schools, 4H groups, etc and identify those from further away who would want scholarship funds to come for the event.  None of the attendees expressed a need for scholarships funds to help attending the event, as most attendees came from within 45 minutes of Goshen, IN.  The event was designed to accommodate 20-25 people, which was limited by the size of the bus utilized to transport attendees.  A larger bus from an outside company might have made more attendance possible, though the size we chose was a good size group and utilized buses and a driver through Goshen College, a process that was simple given Merry Lea's ties to Goshen College.  

Our wish is that many others find SARE grant programs to advance the cause of sustainable agriculture awareness and economic viability, as well as responsible use of the natural resources we find in our care.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Rachel Drescher
  • Emma Gerigscott
  • Jennifer Halteman Schrock
  • Dale Hess
  • Doug Keenan
  • Jane and Chuck Loomis
  • Jacob Mulder
  • Seth Rash
  • Natasha Weisenbeck
  • Josh Yoder
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.