- Sustainable Communities: community development, local and regional food systems
- Project Duration: May 1, 2015-September 30, 2015
- Date of Report: February 22, 2016
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Prior to receiving the SARE Youth Educator grant, Minnesota Food Association had minimal experience educating youth about sustainable agriculture. We hosted various on-farm events where youth and children were present with their families, but we never had any developed lesson plans or intentional educational programming. We did, however, have extensive experience educating immigrant and minority farmers on starting their own independent organic farming businesses through the Big River Farms Training Program, which launched in 1998. Some components of this adult educational program were able to translate to our new youth and family program.
The goals we set out to achieve as part of this project included:
- Pilot a youth and family education program in the 2015 season
- Strategically recruit youth participation from the same diverse communities which we recruit our farmers.
- Partner with Nan Roberts to design and deliver a 3-section curriculum to introduce youth to sustainable agriculture practices and present examples of successful, small scale farming businesses.
- Offer sessions once a month or more, to host 5 sessions – 2 family days and 3 student groups – over the season in order to reach 50-125 individuals.
- Complete a program evaluation with recommendations for improvement in 2016.
- Develop and finalize the curriculum with partner, Nan Roberts. MFA decided to contract an experienced youth educator to write our curriculum in order to adapt her preexisting knowledge of youth agriculture education to our specific farm and program. This took significantly less time than having a less experienced staff person create and deliver the program.
- Finalize program guidelines and expectations. These documents were essential to use for recruiting student groups and families to participate in the program. Again, we drew off of Nan’s previous experience to influence the creation of these documents and decide what to include, and we also compared similar guidelines from other youth educational farms around the nation to make sure all necessary components were included and relevant.
- Develop publicity materials and preform outreach. This process took more time than anticipated, and we engaged help from some local university students to assist. It was often difficult and took a lot of time and phone/email tag to find the contact person at any given school or institution that would really help promote the program. Identifying groups and families that represented the farmers we served, who also had enough resources to participate – even in a donation-based program – proved much more challenging than we expected. Transportation and timing were the most common barriers to participating for these groups. The most effective outreach methods from which we generated the most engagement ended up being an online parenting website, local Girl Scout activity listing, and word of mouth.
- Offer sessions once a month or more. The scheduling of the program was not as straightforward as we anticipated. Girl Scout troops often had limited availability as to when they were able to come to the farm, and families had very busy schedules in the summer. Other student groups had even more scheduling restrictions. We learned early on that we would need to be flexible with this scheduling, and that it was much easier to adapt to interested groups’ needs than to try to find groups that would fit into our predesignated schedule. Furthermore, outreach to families needed to happen much further in advance than we originally thought. Although we did not offer the programming once each month, we did end up offering it more than an equivalent number of times, sometimes more than once in a given month. We ultimately engaged 10 Family groups, 6 School groups, and 3 Girl Scout Troops, comprising a total of 149 children and 49 adults over the season.
- Complete a program evaluation with recommendations for improvement. Evaluation was more difficult than anticipated in the format that we originally planned on. As children and groups often had different attention spans and timeframes (some left early, some would need to take breaks, etc), and as we were moving around the farm for various lessons, it was much more difficult to get an accurate headcount of who answered a given question in a certain way. Better results came from engaging in less formal evaluation measures, and then from a follow-up emailed survey to program leaders and adults. After each program, MFA staff and Nan debriefed with each other come up with ideas for improvement, and also had a longer meeting at the end of the season to talk about and compile a list of plans and hopes for 2016.
MFA engaged with many different groups, organizations, and individuals in the pilot season of our program, each with varying degrees of effectiveness. They included:
- Nan Roberts – Experienced youth educator, with who we contracted to design, deliver, and help evaluate the program.
- University of Minnesota Students – 2 students from a class taught by Julie Grossman assisted in procuring and developing program materials, fliers, and program outreach.
- Volunteers – we recruited 2 volunteers to assist in delivering the program. However, after the first two sessions, we realized that with smaller size of most of our groups, volunteers were not needed.
- Farmers – MFA farmers enjoyed talking with children about their story and what skills it takes to be a sustainable farmer. The 3 farmers closest to the gate received the most visitors as it was the shortest distance to walk. One farmer, who is very knowledgeable about chickens, also volunteered to show the children the birds almost every time as well.
- MFA received a Minnesota GreenCorps member, Ethan Lewis, who also helped significantly after he started in September. Ethan has extensive youth agricultural education experience and was able to help adapt some lessons to meet Girl Scout requirements as well as assist in delivering the program.
- Many additional groups were also contacted for publicity and outreach help, the most successful connections being the local Girl Scouts, MN Parent Magazine, Midwest Food Connection, and Face 2 Face Academy.
One result of our youth and family education program was the development of 5 hands-on lesson plans that introduced children to various sustainable agriculture concepts such as soil makeup, animal integration, the seed to table cycle, plant families and vegetable anatomy, and the role of a farmer. Students were introduced to the effects of agriculture on ecological systems, the amount of work, time, and energy it takes to produce quality food, and agricultural differences of various cultures. Although we had some difficulties reaching the diverse audience we aimed for, when we did engage immigrant and minority students, they were able to see farmers from cultures like theirs who were making a living on sustainable agriculture.
These materials were adapted by Nan Roberts for use at the Minnesota Food Association (MFA), and were based on curriculum shared between farm education entities and made available to the public online. Sources included the Farm-Based Education Network, the Edible Schoolyard Network, Gale Woods Educational Farm, and others. The Meet Our Farmers lesson plan was created by Nan Roberts with input from MFA. For more information on MFA see: www.mnfoodassociation.org
We evaluated the program through informal measures, like conversations and verbal affirmations, as well as an emailed survey. Responses to the follow-up survey indicated that 40% felt the programming was very good, 60% felt the programming was excellent, and 100% said they would recommend the program. Almost all children indicated that they learned something about sustainable farming through the program. Attendance was also an indicator of success, and as the summer drew on and word of mouth and other outreach improved, attendance rates increased. Favorite parts of the programming included interacting with animals, as well as collecting compost ingredients for the soil lesson.
As discussed above, we ran into some unanticipated challenges with scheduling and transportation, especially with the limited resource groups we were targeting. Some potential solutions to successfully engage these groups may be to seek other funding to be able to provide transportation, as well as plan farther ahead to be able to accommodate busy summer schedules and transportation conflicts. It may also be in our best interest to focus on establishing partnerships with organizations that already have access to busses or transportation funding but also work with the students we are hoping to reach.
Furthermore, we received a higher level of interest from older and pre-K youth, and quickly realized that they would require a different sort of programming than elementary and middle-school aged participants. Making a truly successful multi-aged program for entire families to stay engaged in was a challenge when groups were too small to be divided by age range. In the future, we would recommend hosting fewer events to try to draw larger groups that can be divided, or create separate curriculum for older and younger children.
Overall, there were many wonderful results from this program. Countless simple lessons, such as realizing what a broccoli plant looks like in the ground or that there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, helped youth start to engage in their food system and develop an appreciation for the places and people that produce their food.
MFA shared the information from our project with many community partners through social media (Facebook and Instagram), our quarterly and CSA newsletters, events (BRF Open House, Harvest Party, Food Day, Minnesota State Fair, etc), meetings, and various other means of communication. The youth program was featured in a local newspaper, the County Messenger, and was also advertised on a local Girl Scout website, MN Parent magazine, through listservs like SUSTAG, and on local community bulletin boards. Extensive time went into emailing and calling local organizations and networking with partners to find the most effective way of engaging our target population. Our curriculum was also shared on a flash drive with Youth Educators at the 2015 FFA Convention and the 2015 National Association of Ag Educators Conference. We will continue to promote and publicize the program in all of these ways and expand our outreach for the 2016 season.
I have found the program easy to use and very resourceful. No changes recommended.