Founded in 2009, the Prairie Farm Corps operates as a youth development program that offers paid job training on an organic farm for diverse teens. This year we will offer a paid internship to a Sustainable Agriculture student from Gateway Technical College to further their classroom education with practical farm experience.
Prairie Farm Corps is a youth development program that integrates personal and professional development with farm work. Prairie Farm Corps is an immersion in sustainable agriculture from seed to table. The students plant the seeds in the greenhouse, transplant the crops into the fields, weed and care for them as they grow, harvest the vegetables at the appropriate time, and turn the produce into something delicious in our kitchen. Through this process of immersion, along with classroom instruction, the students begin to visualize a full picture of sustainable farming and its crucial role in our food system.
- Students understand the importance of sustainable agriculture by experiencing it as farmers, enabling them to draw direct comparisons to conventional agriculture.
- Students build a strong foundation of sustainable agriculture concepts by participating in classroom sessions.
- Students share what they’ve learned about their experience and sustainable agriculture by interacting with mothers participating in food programs (Beacon Place and Women, Infants, and Children [WIC]), and giving talks about their experience at a Celebration event for friends and family.
Educational & Outreach Activities
In 2017, our program hired 13 high school students to partake in our job training program. In addition, 3 former crew members from the 2016 program joined our seasonal staff to act as role models, supervisors, and encouragers to our new crew and to build upon the foundation of their previous summer experience. In accordance with the grant funding, we hired an active horticulture student from the local community college to assist in leading crews in the field and in serving as our farmer’s market manager during the duration of the program.
2017 led to a deepened connection of our students to their food, sustainable food systems, and becoming consumers and advocates of those systems. One of our most powerful measures of results is a pre and post survey that we administer each year. On average, participants in 2017 started the program with 3 out of 24 Farm and Garden Skills and completed their 8 weeks on the farm feeling confident in 14. In regards to Kitchen Skills, which involved farm to table cooking and preparing a wide variety of over 25 vegetables, our students went from having an average of 6 skills to 17 skills, out of a possible 24. Lastly, for the personal and professional skills in which we train our students, all participants, except for one, felt growth or dramatic growth in each of our six assessment areas, which include: interviewing, effective communication, professionalism, teamwork, customer service, and giving and receiving feedback.
The students were able to participate in outreach through sharing their results with a wider audience through two activities: the Beacon Place Mom’s Program and the Celebration Dinner.
Each week, a group of students took produce to a non-profit in Waukegan, Illinois called Beacon Place, where they presented a selection of vegetables, information about nutrition and preparation, and a recipe with sample to a group of 35 mothers to students participating in programming at the location. This experience was beneficial for the students, as it allowed them to share what they were learning about sustainable farming, while experiencing the complexities of the food system, such as food scarcity and access. The vegetables were distributed to the mothers participating in the program for $1, easing the ability of everyone to enjoy the fresh produce the students picked that morning.
The second event was the Celebration Dinner, the climax of the summer. At this event, the parents and families of the program participants were invited to a meal prepared by the students to celebrate their accomplishments. The students each prepared a speech to explain what they had learned. The Celebration Dinner allowed our program to extend the reach of our programming to their families.
As mentioned previously, as a direct result of the grant funding, our program was able to hire an intern to act as a crew leader for our summer job training program. She was involved in the daily educating and training of our farm crew of 13 high school aged team members. These activities included harvesting, post-harvest handling, transplanting, cultivating, and more.
She was responsible for our Farmer’s Market stand, where she trained team members in customer service and served as their support, as they would regularly have to answer customer questions regarding the products we had for sale.
Lastly, she developed a compost workshop for the students. Her presentation was held on-farm, beginning with the basics of what compost is and why we do it, while ending with turning the compost pile and experiencing hands on how decomposition works.
Through these experiences, our crew leader not only grew personally and in her desire to pursue sustainable farming, but also was able to instill passion daily in many of our students. Although we cannot measure the direct correlation between her work in the program and the results indicated through the post-surveys, our experience this summer showed that she was an intricate part of the success we had in 2017.
We are also happy to report that our Gateway Intern has since secured a full-time position at a farm that specializes in organic vegetables, flower production for flower arrangements and natural areas habitat restoration. She acquired this position through contacts made during our program.
Our own organization did not have a change in their support of sustainable agriculture, as we are a sustainable agriculture based non-profit. However, as a result of the internship with the crew leader from Gateway Technical College, we are beginning to increase our networking efforts with their horticulture and urban farming program to encourage more students to take advantage of the opportunities we have within sustainable agriculture on our farm. This relationship was not initiated, but certainly strengthened significantly as a result of the grant.
Throughout the duration of the program, students are given a garden plot, where they choose their own crops and learn to tend and cultivate vegetables with organic methods in a smaller space. Through this portion of the program, students are encouraged to take plants, seed, and their knowledge home to establish gardens of their own. For 2017, three students established brand new gardens at their homes, while one student expanded his already existing garden. Their parents were all involved in some portion of the process, whether approving the grass to be destroyed or actually assisting in the planting and care of their child’s efforts.
The success we had following hiring a crew leader for the team who was college-aged, encouraged us to continue this practice into the future. For the 2018 season, we hired two college aged crew leaders. In the past, we had decided to allow returning crew members to serve as crew leaders, as we wanted to cement the experience they had from the previous season. However, it is challenging to lead someone of your own age group, in addition to a shorter training window for farm practices due to high school schedules. The college age crew leader allowed us to train for more extensive periods and have a larger age gap between participants and leadership. We also still allowed crew members to return, but as a Cultivator, which is a new position for 2018. These students have more responsibility than a first year crew member, but they also serve on teams as in the previous season, and are not required to be the main leadership for the team.
Following is a letter written by the crew leader we hired utilizing the funding from this grant. It is a description of the impact the program had on her journey in sustainable agriculture.
“My summer as an intern for Prairie Farm Corps at the Liberty Prairie Foundation was one of the greatest experiences in expanding my knowledge in sustainable agriculture. From my time working at the program, I was able to learn hands-on, and in more detail, about the cultivation of produce using completely organic methods. Having the whole season and opportunity to see the farming process from seed to market greatly developed my understanding in relation to my horticulture classes at Gateway Technical College. Not only did I learn about cultivation of produce but was also able to regularly network with people who were part of the local food community. I learned so many things from our discussions from food security to pests and diseases as well as other experiences from other local farmers. Prairie Farm Corps is a constant inspiration not only for the kids working in the program, but for visitors and other people from within the community as well. There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t learn something new or felt without purpose. Also, working alongside the kids also was a new challenge for my communication and education skills. The day to day meetings with other leaders and daily interactions with the kids grew my comfort-level greatly. My time as the farmer’s market team lead greatly impacted my growth in those areas. I was able to share the connection of customer service along with cultivation of produce to the kids on a one-on-one level. I now have more confidence in productively communicating directly amongst a team as well sharing new skills with others. My dream going into the field of sustainable food production was to hopefully one day own my own organic farm and educate people within the community, especially youth, about the importance of sustainability for our families, friends and the environment. Prairie Farm Corps gave me such an inspiring, unique and hopeful experience for a promising future in the sustainable food industry. The opportunity has been completely invaluable, and a huge building block in my education. I am extremely grateful for the experience as a whole as well as the people involved who were willing to share their experiences and time with me.”