By Allison Cloo
Now in its eighth year, Adopt a Farmer has broadened its reach at the same time as it broadens the horizons of students who may have never visited a working farm or ranch.
As we celebrate growth and plan for more, looking to some of the longest-running school matches reminds us that returning volunteers deserve as much fanfare as the newcomers.
Pearmine Farms was one of three operations that piloted the program during the 2011-2012 school year. In the next school year, the number had grown to nine, with three of those operations—Pugh Seed Farms, Victor Point Farms, and Gray Farms—falling into a rhythm that has brought them back year after year. While the number of matches has hovered between forty and fifty for the last couple years as some farms take breaks and new ones get involved, the continued participation of long-running matches is an important measure of success.
The farmers themselves speak highly of their experiences.
“I feel like I’m the winner in this relationship,” says Skip Gray of Gray Farms near Albany. “The school and teacher I work with are amazing. She has absolute control of her classroom yet has a lot of fun with her students.”
Gray has been paired with Michelle Heuberger of St. Mary’s School since his first year. It’s a smaller group of students—usually twenty to thirty students in one class period—and the size means they frequently end up driving together on the bus while Gray navigates and then brings students out into the field to see work underway.
Other school-farm matches come with a bigger crop of students each year. Twice a year at Pearmine Farms in Gervais, Molly McCargar spreads out the 180 students from Rachel Carson Environmental Middle School over four days of field trips at a time in fall and then spring. This is how a very large group is broken down in to forty-five students, and that number gets even smaller when students are split into groups to rotate through “stations” on the farm.
“It can be anything as simple as climbing in an out of tractors, combines, and other big equipment to giving them a chance to experience jobs like moving irrigation pipe or just digging in the soil,” says McCargar, who has become adept at breaking down big farm jobs into hands-on activities that make farming real to the students. “Maybe head out to the fields and learn to scout for pests, how to identify them, what actions you might need to take or not. Take soil samples, talk about soil health, different soils and how all of this plays a part in production.”
Inviting along guest speakers can spread the work around and expose students to other professions involved in farming. “There are so many jobs connected to agriculture,” says McCargar, “it’s important for kids to see and understand they can have a future in agriculture, even if it’s not as a farmer”
At Victor Point Farms in Silverton, a group of anywhere from 145 to 190 students comes during one big field trip, but is split into five groups to rotate through stations that vary from year to year. Co-owner Jesse Rue has run an equipment station for several years, with students climbing in and out of cabs while they match different vehicles and implements to their functions on a worksheet. His brother and Victor Point co-owner Lucas almost always runs a station about soil profiles, drainage, and erosion. Depending on who else they can arrange to be present, the students might talk with a field rep about precision agriculture or tour neighboring Ioka Farms’ grass seed cleaner in a bus.
Even with smaller groups, like the thirty students from St. Paul Parish School in Eugene who drive to Pugh Seed Farm in Shedd, having guest speakers helps students understand how farming takes so many different skills. Owner Denver Pugh might not even be able to keep the field trip all to himself if he tried: “I have a warehouse manager, Allen, who completely embraced the fall tours and sets up diagrams and demonstrations for the students.”
In spring, when students return for a special second trip to see the fields in bloom, Pugh may invite an agronomist or his bee keeper to explain their roles in keeping the crops productive.
Pugh has dialed in the routine of the field trips and what works best for his students and him, including when it comes to class visits. “Because I’ve done this a number of years now, it’s gotten way easier speaking to the students in the class. Way less intimidating now than when I first started.”
Skip Gray is another farmer who makes sure that class visits are part of the contact he has with students. Part of it is greeting them on their own territory and bringing the farm into the school environment. “It’s also way easier for those who make arrangements for field trips,” he says, “Since I’m merely a guest speaker and my visit to school doesn’t necessitate transportation and supervision.”
There are always challenges to work around—rain can lead to some muddy field trips, and snow days at the schools have forced a rescheduled visit or two—but the Oregon Aglink staff, teachers, and farmers are always finding ways to make it work and reasons for participants to come back year after year.
The farmers all have a similar story about why they stay involved. Take Denver Pugh, for example: “It still is totally worth it. It gives me a chance to show others what an actual working farm is like. Many kids these days don’t get these opportunities, and if I can show them what all it takes to run a farm and how important we are to the health of our society, then I’m all for it.”
Jesse Rue knows his favorite part right away: “Just seeing the kids’ reaction outside of the classroom is rewarding when they get to be on a farm and see firsthand what we do.”
Skip Gray also comes back to the curiosity and imagination he finds with a new group of middle school students each year. “At their age, there is so much variation in physical development and maturity, so getting out on the farm or even having laughs in the classroom while we talk farming is really fun for me.”
For the farmers and ranchers who feel like they might not have enough to share to hold the interest of a classroom during one trip, let alone two or three, Molly McCargar has encouraging words: “If someone thinks it’ll only take one trip to share their farming operation, they aren’t giving themselves enough credit for everything it takes to farm.”
What about the farmers and ranchers who worry about getting bored with the same material? Well, McCargar has an answer for that too: “If there’s anything consistent in agriculture, it’s that every year nothing ever stays the same.”
Luckily for Adopt a Farmer, it’s clear that the value of these farmers and their experience stays consistent for every new student who comes through the program.