Prairie Farm Corps Youth Development Program

Project Overview

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2017: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Liberty Prairie Foundation
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Manager:
Shannon McBride
Liberty Prairie Foundation


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: demonstration, workshop, youth education
  • Soil Management: composting

    Proposal abstract:

    Project Abstract

    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.

    Detailed Project Plan and Timeline

    Sustainable agriculture is at the core of the programming for the Prairie Farm Corps. Our program uses two primary methods for teaching the participants, experiential and classroom sessions. Throughout the program, participants are immersed within sustainable agriculture. They will grow vegetables using sustainable methods, harvest and cook the vegetables, distribute the vegetables through farmers markets and community outreach, and meet other members of the community involved in similar work. The experiential learning is a crucial component of our programming. It is our goal that the participants understand the importance of sustainable agriculture by experiencing it, enabling them to draw direct comparisons to conventional agriculture. Their conclusions arise from tasting the difference in freshness and flavor, viewing the environmental impact, and empathizing with the farmers and animals that are affected. However, tying experiences to a strong foundation of concepts is also an important aspect of how Prairie Farm Corps participants learn. Each week, the participants engage in a classroom session, designed to teach the concepts behind the work we are completing in the fields. This approach is best demonstrated in our student gardens. Each participant is given their own plot to grow vegetables they wish to take home. The gardening spaces are used to integrate what they learn in the fields and classroom into a scale they can replicate after the program in their home or a community garden.

    In regards to the three pillars of sustainability, our program addresses them through both methods of teaching. Economic viability is addressed through participants’ work at the farmers market, where they can see the monetary value attributed to the labor they have poured into each of the vegetables they grow. During class time, the students are walked through an exercise to analyze the viability of a farm business by looking at the expenses of a farm business in comparison to the income.

    Ecological soundness on our farm is best described through our farm mantra of “Feed the soil, and the soil will feed the plant”. This phrase is the summation of how we teach our students about important sustainable practices and also how we treat the land we farm. Each of our farming techniques is designed to grow a healthy plant and create an environment in which the plant thrives. The students plant cover crops and add compost for fertilization, and practice a variety of weed control techniques to eliminate the pressure for water and nutrients. These practices are then implemented in the individual student gardens and explained through the gardening lessons.

    The social responsibility of sustainable agriculture is most evidently addressed by the day to day farm work that the participants experience. There is no better way to understand a farmer’s quality of life than to become a farmer. They are able to understand the hard work that goes into farming, but also the rewards of fresh air and great produce. We also introduce the students to gleaning and seedling and produce donations, demonstrating roles farmers can play in assisting people in their community struggling with food insecurity.


    Spring 2017: The job openings for18-21 high school team members are released to the public and our team begins recruiting at local high schools. Qualified applicants are interviewed, and hiring decisions are made with an emphasis on enthusiasm for an aspect of the program and preference for low income participants.

    Late March: Parent’s Night. The parents are invited to the farm and presented with a program outline designed to excite the parents about the program their young adults are about to experience.

    Early April: Spring training begins and lasts 8 weeks. The participants come after school and spend 2 hours each Tuesday learning about the program, sustainable agriculture, and beginning farm work.

    Early May: The program participants host an organic plant sale fundraiser, a great opportunity for the students to experience their first taste of offering customer service, and also an example of farm transparency, as the public is invited in to see the farm where their food is grown.

    June through July: Students complete 8 weeks of farm work, working Monday through Thursday from 8-2. Their day to day includes outreach to the local health department with deliveries of fresh vegetables, farmers market stand operation, cooking a farm-to-table lunch, field work, and field trips on occasional Fridays.

    First Week of August: Students participate in a Celebration Dinner, where the program and the students’ accomplishments are showcased for friends and family, allowing students to practice public speaking skills.

    Resources Used


    •Lindsey Shiffley and Terri Salminen- Jamie Oliver Food Revolution Ambassadors.
    Serve as guest chefs with the students.

    •Lunch Guests – Each week in the summer, leaders and role models from the community are invited to the farm to come to lunch. They are selected for their expertise in different areas, including social work, farming, cooking, and business.

    •Jeff and Jen Miller: Owners of Prairie Wind Farm, a neighboring farm. They serve as mentors to our farmers and program participants.

    •Matt DeCesaro and Rory Klick- Horticulture Professors from College of Lake County, the local community college. Assist through facilitating a tour of their horticulture department and offering information about career options in horticulture and sustainable agriculture.


    Symphony of the Soil- This is a film about soil health and sustainable agriculture. We use clips from this film to discuss soil science.


    •Eco-Justice Center: A ecological educational center that started their own Farm Corps. Both programs attend field trips at the other’s respective farm and share information. Their farm has an animal component, thus giving our students a chance to interact with animals.

    •Green Youth Farm: A similar program run by the Chicago Botanical Garden. Our programs share information, and additionally visit each other’s farms for field trips.
    Books/ Curricula

    •“French Fries and the Food System: A Year Round Curriculum Connecting Youth with Farming and Food”. Sara Coblyn. The Food Project

    •“Growing Together: A Guide to Building Inspired, Diverse and Productive Youth Communities”.

    •Boston Food Project Manuals. The Boston Food Project has many manual available for free online covering topics such as developing a volunteer program and how to engage youth in urban farming.

    •Prairie Farm Corps Skills Based Cooking Curriculum, a cooking curriculum developed specifically for our program.


    During the summer, there are three main outreach components, Beacon Place, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Celebration Dinner.

    Each week, our team harvests and washes vegetables for 40 mothers that participate in a program for their children at a non-profit known as Beacon Place. Two summer interns take a group of our program participants each week to distribute the vegetables, along with a sample of a meal prepared with those vegetables and information about proper storage and ways to use each vegetable. Each mother only pays $1 for approximately $12 worth of produce. During this experience, the high school students share about our program and the information they have learned about the vegetables from their experiences in the kitchen and garden.

    They facilitate similar programming for the Lake County Health Department in Round Lake, a city located near our farm. Mothers in this program receive the same programming as the Beacon moms; however, they receive $15 WIC vouchers that they exchange for $15 in organic vegetables. Through both of these experiences students are able to share about our program and the information they have gained, but also are able to come face to face with individuals in their own communities struggling with food insecurity.

    The Celebration Dinner is the outreach component that reaches the friends and families of the program participants. The event is an evening featuring a dinner prepared by the participants with vegetables from the farm, speeches about their experience from each participant, and an overview of the program by the program director. Participants will each pick a different topic covering many different facets of both their experience and what they’ve learned about sustainable agriculture.

    Student and Community Impact

    Pre and Post Program Surveys will be utilized to gauge the overall project impact on the participants. Students will self-assess their progress. The surveys will cover knowledge in the following areas pre and post-program: •Confidence in Farm and Garden Skills (an assessment of 21 skills)

    •Confidence in Specific Kitchen Skills (an assessment of 24 skills)

    •Confidence in Preparing Specific Dishes (an assessment of 30 basic dishes) •Growth in Personal and Professional Skills (an assessment of 6 skills)

    As an example, in 2016, students assessed their Personal and Professional Skills in 6 areas: “interviewing,” “effective communication,” “professionalism,” “teamwork,” “customer service” and “receiving and implementing critical feedback.” Each student determined that they had seen some improvement or dramatic improvement in each of these areas over the course of the program. In regards to Farm and Garden Skills, program participants in 2016 initially felt confident in only 2.6 of 21 tasks, but left feeling confident in 16. We will implement similar surveys in the areas mentioned above, and are striving to see even greater results for the 2017 season.

    Weekly one-on-one sessions with the individual students are also used to qualitatively assess the overall student impact. These sessions, known as straight talk, are opportunities for staff to encourage the participant in their successes and suggest an improvement, known as a delta. A record is maintained for each straight talk session, and this information is useful to track the progress of a program participant from start to finish.

    Program Impact on the community will be measured through counting the number of mothers participating in the Beacon Place and WIC programs weekly, along with the total value of the produce donated through those programs.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Engage Prairie Farm Corps participants with understanding the importance of sustainable agriculture through experiential learning opportunities. 
    2. Empower students economically by providing opportunities for professional growth in the form of paid internships and work at the farmers market.
    3. Empower students to live healthier lives through development of their kitchen and gardening skills.
    4. Extend impact of program to wider community through delivery of produce to local programs that provide affordable fresh produce to mothers and children in need, and through presentations to family and friends at a dinner celebrating the Prairie Farm Corps.
    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.