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

2014 Annual 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

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



During the summer of 2014, details for the October field day event were arranged and confirmed with farmers, farms, and farmers markets. A meeting was convened in August with participating farmers over lunch at Merry Lea Sustainable Farm to discuss goals, ideas, and details. After the meeting, farmers discussed the merits of a new organically-approved soil fertility liquid amendment product, leading to healthy discussion about on-farm decisions.

Especially in early September as schools were again in session, advertising and outreach efforts were made to recruit participants for the October event. Such outreach efforts included hanging of 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 listserve emails and church newsletters, and targeted emails sent to educational partners (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.

The described field day and bus tour took place on Saturday, October 11, 2014. Participants met at Goshen College at 8 a.m. for registration and to fill out a brief pre-survey to assess what exposure participants had previously to agriculture and educational opportunities. Twenty-four participants participated from the beginning of the day’s tour (this figure includes lead coordinators Jon Zirkle and Dale Hess of Merry Lea ELC).  Others joined later in the tour, including farmer Seth Rash and his son (six years old) and participants Doug Keenan of Purdue Extension, Merry Lea masters student Jacob Mulder, WWOOF volunteer Rachel Drescher, and Natasha Weisenbeck of Seed to Feed.  Merry Lea staff member, Jennifer Schrock, prepared the lunch meal and the bus driver joined the lunch to hear talks by presenters.  In total, 34 persons were engaged in the day’s activities.  

Pre-Event Survey Results:

Participants were given a pre-event survey to complete before getting on the bus first thing in the morning while sign-in, coffee, and refreshment times were taking place. The following are the responses to questions given to participants:

Age of attendees: In terms of youth and young adults, a greater percentage of attendees were college-aged students between 18 and 25. 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.

Food factor in determining tour attendance: Most suggested that the food offered while on the farm tour was not a significant draw to the event, though 26% said the food was a significant factor and 16% claimed the food offered was a very significant draw.

Events of the Day: A Recap

The events on October 11th went rather smoothly, and the day was blessed by sunshine and relatively mild weather after a crisp beginning.

The initial visit at Goshen College began with a tour of the composting system behind the college’s Physical Plant. Recent environmental science graduate Josh Yoder (Class of 2014) explained how the college collects and composts considerable volumes of food scraps from the dining halls in an efficient system, later using the finished compost on the campus property. Participants got to look inside the compost bins and ask questions.

Following the compost station visit, attendees crossed College Avenue to visit the student-run Trackside Community Garden which began in 2013. Josh Yoder also led this tour as the point-person for the garden. The garden consists of several community plots managed by neighbors in the surrounding blocks as well as larger blocks of vegetables, herbs, and brambles that students manage and thus are allowed to harvest for personal consumption. Josh showed how donations of composted duck manure, wood chips, and other college compost are used in the gardens, explained growing techniques, identified challenges associated with running a community garden, pointed out fencing and raised beds techniques, and fielded questions raised by attendees.

Shortly after the tour of the community garden, everyone walked a block back to the parking lot to board the bus to Goshen Farmers Market located in downtown Goshen. Attendees were told they had about 30 minutes to explore the market, and were encouraged to seek out vendors of products that they found interesting and surprising, ask questions, and consider purchasing an item if feasible. Merry Lea staff members asked attendees to wear name badges on the tour, giving the vendors and other market customers a way to interact with them and identify quickly who was on the farm tour. Jon Zirkle walked around and reminded a number of vendors and the market manager that there would be youth approaching them with possible questions. Many youth reported afterwards on the bus that they were surprised by some of the products they found—ginger, fiber materials, meat, etc.

The next stop on the farm tour—Plough & Stars Farm—was about a one hour drive from the Goshen Farmers Market. While on the bus, attendees were offered snacks—locally-grown apples, coffee or cider, organic grapes, nuts, juice boxes, and granola bars. Informal conversations took place, and some rested while en route.

At Plough & Stars Farm, the group was greeted by farmer Seth Rash, a farmer in his mid- thirties who operates the farm with his wife and his business partner Scott. A few other visitors were at the farm that morning on a walk, as well. Seth provided a brief overview about the farm, that he grew up in the area and went to Taylor University though didn’t have clear plans about farming at the time. Seth showed the group his recent projects, which included the construction of a small wooden-framed hoophouse and the transformation of part of the barn to create a wash/food prep room where produce could also be displayed for on-farm retail purchasing. Tours of the fields included a walk through the beds of herbs (lots of rosemary still growing at that time), while pointing out the rotations of crops, what was for personal family consumption vs. what was for market, and explained his management of cover crops and tillage. Seth shared advice about education and training, and his own health challenges that affect his family and farm life. Many of the youth enjoyed playing with and holding the various farm cats that lurked during Seth’s tours.

The next stop was at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College. After arriving late morning, attendees loaded into two haywagons for a tour of Merry Lea Sustainable Farm and views of the Kesling Wetland (which was a cornfield a few decades before, but returned to its natural state after the tile drains were removed by Merry Lea staff).   Attendees got to see the rows of mixed perennial woody plants in the permaculture field planted in May 2014 and views of the restored prairies as they rode in the haywagon, then arrived to Rieth Village, an area of Merry Lea property where collegiate programs are run and the farm infrastructure (new barn, greenhouse, hoophouse, tool sheds, offices, etc) is located. Participants were asked to break into small groups and choose between activities of: 1) removing soaked mushroom logs from a large water tank, 2) adding layers of leaves and grass to a new compost pile, 3) emptying chicken litter and straw onto old vegetable beds in preparation for winter, 4) and collecting eggs from the pastured chickens’ eggmobile. There was a brief amount of time to explain the history of Merry Lea Sustainable Farm and the agroecology program, both of which are relatively recent projects at Merry Lea ELC.

The haywagon ride continued and ended back at the old Kesling Farmstead at Merry Lea where attendees gathered for an all organic and local lunch, prepared by Merry Lea staff member Jennifer Schrock. This included baked chicken, potatoes and root vegetables, ground cherry cobbler, and salad raised at Merry Lea Sustainable Farm. During lunch invited speakers shared about their work in the field of sustainable agriculture.

Lunch speakers included Doug Keenan of Noble Co. Purdue Extension who presented about the Farm to Fork initiatives he works with that involve agrotourism and working with diverse farms throughout the county—lavender farms, buffalo ranches, orchards and vineyards, vegetable CSA operations, and a maple syrup operation.

Natasha Weisenbeck shared about her role coordinating community garden food donations throughout Elkhart County, IN through Seed to Feed, a project of Church Community Services. Natasha also spoke about her educational background in public relations while at Goshen College, her internship at Merry Lea Sustainable Farm, and how her life goals, past work experience, and education are helping her in the field of sustainable agriculture and non-profit management.

Rachel Drescher share slides from her time as a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – at Merry Lea and two other farms in Maine and Maryland, explaining about her college experience and interest in acquiring new skills and perspectives by working on farms. Many of the youth had questions for her and were rather intrigued by the WWOOF program.

Jon Zirkle and Dale Hess shared about their agricultural backgrounds, their roles at Merry Lea, and overviewed the Agroecology Summer Intensive offering through Goshen College, the production at Merry Lea Sustainable Farm, and offered ways that young people can connect to agriculture through Merry Lea/Goshen College. They also briefly described Goshen College’s Masters of Arts in Environmental Education program, as there was a current graduate student Jacob Mulder present at the luncheon, and the Sustainability Leadership Semester offered through Goshen College at Merry Lea ELC. 

The day ended by boarding the bus for one more farm stop to Old Loon Farm just south of Merry Lea. Attendees met the farmers Jane and Chuck Loomis who operate a diversified Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation consisting of vegetables, fruit, and value-added products and also raise chickens, dairy goats, geese, and honeybees. Attendees toured the animal barn to see the animals, walked the gardens, and visited the kitchen where baked goods and canned items are prepared.

After the visit to Old Loon Farm, everyone boarded the bus and returned to Goshen College by about 3pm. Surveys were collected by Jon Zirkle and Dale Hess, and attendees were reminded that they would be contacted in March for follow up about the impact of the farm tour.

Concluding Thoughts:

The October 11 farm tour event was a success. Attendance was better than expected, as the 29-passenger Goshen College bus was filled to capacity and the events of the day went rather smoothly and were mostly on time. Weather was cooperative, and attendees shared satisfaction with the activities, the food, the learning opportunities, and the social interactions.

Though youth participation numbers were sufficient, the proportion of youth being college students was not expected. The hope was to have more youth in the middle and high school age categories, though in planning the event it became clear how difficult it is for middle and high school youth to have free time on a Saturday in October for such an event, given the many extracurricular activities many of them participate in (band, sports, church/family events). The timing of the event on October 11 corresponded with Goshen College fall break, which made many college students available and interested in the tour. The event was also free of charge, involved food, and provided social opportunities and a chance to get out of town (many college students do not have personal vehicles, and the free transportation was appreciated).

In hindsight, much was learned. Planning a farm tour geared towards 13-18 year olds may be better suited during the school week, with ample planning time to make sure students could arrange to be away from school. Homeschooled youth also attended this program, and the schedule time and date were not problematic for their more flexible schedules. These factors should be considered for future events. Also, less time on the bus and more stops to farms that are closer together may have advantages, as well.



Dale Hess
Ecological Field Station Director and Agroecology Associate Professor
Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College
P.O. Box 263
Wolf Lake, IN 46796
Office Phone: 2607995869
Emma Gerigscott
Farmer and Local Food Advocate
315 W. Washington St.
Goshen, IN 46526
Office Phone: 5749715324
Seth Rash
Farm Owner and Operator
Plough & Stars Farm
3099 W Lincolnway
Columbia City, IN 46725
Office Phone: 2604331490
Doug Keenan
Extension Educator – 4H and Youth Development
Purdue Extension – Noble County
2090 N. State Road 9, Suite D
Albion, IN 46701
Office Phone: 8006015826
Josh Yoder

Community Garden Manager
Trackside Community Garden
1700 S. Main St.
Goshen, IN 46526
Rachel Drescher
WWOOF volunteer
Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College
P.O. Box 263
Wolf Lake, IN 46796
Office Phone: 2607995869
Jane and Chuck Loomis
Farm Owners and Operators
Old Loon Farm
7551 N. Brown Rd.
Columbia City, IN 46725
Office Phone: 2607994422
Jennifer Halteman Schrock
Public Program Coordinator
Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College
P.O. Box 263
Wolf Lake, IN 46796
Office Phone: 2607995869
Natasha Weisenbeck
Seed To Feed Co-Coordinator
Seed to Feed (Church Community Services)
PO Box 2346
Elkhart, IN 46515
Office Phone: 5742953673
Jacob Mulder
Graduate student
P. O. Box 263
Wolf Lake, IN 46796
Office Phone: 2607995869