by Allison Cloo

Melissa and her daughters on the farm.

Halfway through its sixth year at Oregon Aglink, the Adopt a Farmer program shows no signs of slowing down. It has evolved from its pilot year with three schools to nearly 50 in its current form. This year alone, the program will use its field trips and classroom visits to introduce approximately 5,000 middle school students to local farms. In some ways, the reach is even greater.

Melissa Collman of Cloud Cap Farms, a second-year participant in the Adopt a Farmer program, knows an encounter with a student on a field trip could be the starting point for a whole chain reaction of understanding.

It seems so simple: a student asks a question, the farmer gives an answer. The information doesn’t stop there, though. That student could share their newfound knowledge in the cafeteria at lunch, or around the dinner table with family. The experience may end up online on Instagram, with a middle schooler taking a selfie next to a Holstein munching hay.

So what makes Adopt a Farmer so different from other programs or field trips that bring around 500 students to Cloud Cap Farms each year?

First, Melissa says, “the kids are typically older than the students we normally see.” As opposed to the kindergarten and elementary students that Melissa often guides through her barns, middle school students in the Adopt a Farmer program are right on the edge of adolescence, developing their critical thinking skills and expanding their sense of the world.

Beyond that, Adopt a Farmer also tries to recruit urban or suburban schools where students may have little to no firsthand knowledge of where their food and fiber originates. “The kids are very removed from agriculture,” Melissa says. “Some of these kids have never left the city.”

Still, the students visiting Melissa’s dairy often arrive with more than the simple image of Old MacDonald and picture book farm animals. Even if they are removed from agriculture, as Melissa notes, they receive plenty of food- and farm-related messages “on the internet or [from] their parents.” The gap between an urban student and their rural neighbors will be bridged one way or another.

So, while some students ask the innocent and funny questions like “Do boy cows make milk,” other students echo myths about dairy farming spread on social media and blog posts.

On one such occasion, Melissa recalls, “a boy walked up to me and said milk has pus and blood in it,” repeating a common accusation of animal rights activists and concerned vegans. Melissa’s solution? “I milked a cow in front of this little boy and he got to see for himself that there was no blood and no pus and he was shocked.”

She saw an opportunity to explain how farms care about food safety, making sure that only quality milk is leaving the farm, and animal health too, separating and treating any sick cows before they return to the line. It was a happy ending to a tough question. Melissa remembers, “He was so excited to go home and tell his Mom that he saw for himself that the milk was safe and that our cows really did look happy.”

Not every farmer-student interaction deals with such challenging questions, but each interaction does offer a chance to build up a sense of trust and empowerment. “Some of those questions are tough to answer,” Melissa offers, “but it is important not to lie. There are ways to explain why we do what we do that can help consumers understand.”

Harrison Park School students at Cloud Cap Farms in Fall of 2016.

One of the more successful strategies that Melissa uses to differentiate enclosures for her dairy cows and their calves is to explain it in relatable terms. Calves advancing from their individual hutches to small groups and then larger pens is laid out as the process of graduating from preschool to grade school and high school. Younger animals are vulnerable to spreading germs or injury, but as they grow older they learn to socialize and be productive members of their society.

Field trips on a working farm present challenges, of course, but Melissa makes it look manageable. The schedule can be a bit tight trying to balance chores and visitors, but she finds the time. Safely conducting tours around live animals and moving machinery means a little extra vigilance and good communication with teachers and chaperones.

The final element of the Adopt a Farmer program may also be part of what makes it so valuable. Getting a farmer like Melissa into the classroom for a visit or two may be tricky to schedule when she needs to milk her cows twice a day, but logistically it ends up being easier than bussing several dozen students from one place to another. Something as simple as putting the farmer in the classroom has a big impact, though, and Melissa knows it.

Melissa shows students how butter is made in a jar in Spring 2016.

Aglink staff will help with the activity, like making butter in a mason jar, but the farmer is the star of the day. “I think it makes the kids feel a little special,” she says, “They not only came to see your farm, but you go and see what they do. Not often do kids get that from a stranger who isn’t being paid to be that role model.”
At the end of the year, Melissa receives batches of thank-you cards from teachers and students, who write about their favorite memory from the field trip or her visit. She makes note, she says, of things that will help her better tailor her message for the next year.

“After doing tours now for years and doing the Adopt a Farmer program for the last two, it is becoming painfully clear that kids really don’t have a true understanding of where their food comes from.” She continues, “Having a real life reference is way more memorable and impactful than just reading something from the internet. These moments, though, are not possible if we don’t put ourselves out there.”