Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dreaming farming, talking farming: one thousand new beet eaters

I don't want to be overly romantic about farming. I grew up on a farm after all. I know about the hard, dangerous, and sometimes boring work involved in farming. But experience and evidence from the Edible Schoolyards shows that helping to grow food does have an impact on students. I wanted to know if Michial has also seen this with college students.

What changes have you noticed in the students who work with you?
Aside from students service learning experience I have a small number of work study students and volunteers with whom I work more closely. From that population I have found that students who start at the farm, regardless of their background, tend to stay with the farm throughout the rest of their college career. Several who have graduated have gone on and are either gardening or raising livestock at their homes.

About one quarter of my work study students over the past six years have come from an inner-city background.... those students become the most devoted to the farm and are most vocal about their aspirations to take their skills with them back home to promote healthy eating/living.

Alice Waters has noticed that the elementary school students who participate in Edible Schoolyard are more interested in various foods, more willing to try new foods. I know you farm with them, and maybe don't often eat with students, but am wondering if you've been able to detect any such effect with your farm volunteers?

I do eat with the students and I have absolutely noticed a difference. We obviously work most closely with the college students, but we also host  a number of local public school groups out for field trips and the change is noticeable across the board. I regularly hear from our public school teachers that their students are trying 'new' (I use that word in quotes because many of the foods that we are labeling as 'new' are in fact culturally old and have simply been neglected in the tsunami of processed and convenience foods that have deluged our markets) vegetables.

One of my personal favorite foods to reintroduce to younger generations is the beet! Beets are loaded with natural sugars (in fact it is the beet from which we derive our processed granulated sugar) and incredibly diverse. We have, at various on campus festivals, successfully convinced nearly one thousand middle school students to try beets with splendid results.

In our own cafeteria here at the college I am pleased on a daily basis to see our students selecting steamed chard, a kohlrabi based dish, or something equally uncommon. This time of year roasted root vegetables are commonplace in our kitchen. Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas appear on many student plates in the dining room.

 Getting students to try 'new' vegetables was many times easier than convincing them to try meat dishes occupied by livestock they once knew. Starting in 2009 we began raising and processing all of the turkeys used for the thanksgiving meal here at the college. The students have their hands in every step of the process from picking up the day old chicks to plucking, eviscerating and finally handing off the finished birds to the chef (this is all done in a state inspected facility of course). The turkeys led to lambs, the lambs to goats, the goats to rabbits. This year we are raising the first of our own hogs.

That first year there was some pretty loud opposition to the 'inhumane act' of killing and eating our turkeys. The second year the program resumed by a resounding demand from the students, by the third year it was not only accepted, but expected. From time to time one can find gyros in the kitchen. On those days I will have students find me during the lunch service to ask, "Who are we eating today?" (While I make a point not to name the animals I can hardly stop the 900 students from giving them names).

Any question I haven't asked that you would like to answer?

 "What is your relationship with the food that you raise and eat?"
The simple answer is that one can only respect themselves as much as they respect what they are putting into their bodies. Here at the farm whether it is animal or vegetable, nothing is a number, or a commodity. The sheep, the carrots, the eggs, the corn, even the grass that feeds much of our livestock are all living things and exist in a system that we are part of and not above or outside of. All of these things deserve our respect and should be/are treated with the utmost care.

We live in a culture where we want to be provided with the freshest, safest, highest quality foods, but we often can't make the time to become intimate with it and where it comes from or how it is raised and what impact that makes on the planet for the coming generations. This is something that I think we can change through educating our children who will educate their parents [bold mine, jbm].

Knowing your food and knowing the farmer(s) that raise it are the best possible avenues to solving many of environmental and health conundrums that we face today.

Alice Waters and Michial Russell  are in California and Maine--about as geographically separate as they can be, but they are neighbors in philosophy, in believing in the importance of kids knowing about growing food and all of us knowing where our food comes from.

Thanks Michial for taking the time to answer my questions. Thanks dear friend  Liz (director of student counseling at St. Joseph's College) for setting up this interview. Thanks St. Joseph's College for the great work you are sponsoring--and the photos. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Dreaming Farming, Talking Farming

St. Joseph's College-Standish, Maine
We are still in deep winter. Iowa temperatures are expected be down again tonight. We have snow and ice, icicles and slush. What better time to think of farming?

Since working on the Alice Waters biography, Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious, and reading about Edible Schoolyards I have been on the lookout for school farms. The experience of planting seeds and growing food, of tending livestock is as strange as space travel to many kids. School farms offer a whole new realm of education.

Today I want to share a school farm--Pearson's Town Farm, which is part of St. Joseph's College in Maine. Students are not required to work on the farm, but St. Joseph's does place a high value on service learning so work on the farm is encouraged.

I interviewed farm manager Michial Russell and want to share that interview with you over a couple of blog posts.

Michial Russell

1. What would you guess is the  percentage of students that have previous experience with growing vegetables or caring for livestock?

Answering this very unscientifically with 'data' collected from conversations with students as they spend time at the farm I would estimate that about one quarter of the students have had some form of a family garden growing up. Closer to one third have memories of their grandparents having a vegetable garden.

The number of students with 'livestock' is on the rise with many local municipalities adopting ordinances allowing residents to own limited sized flocks of chickens. Many student's parents now have flocks of six or fewer birds that they are keeping at home for egg production.

In the last two years I have had two dozen students, give or take, who have either worked on a farm with livestock as a summer job or own and board their own horses.

2.What are most popular jobs with livestock? in the gardens?

As you can imagine, working with the livestock is much more popular that working in the fields. Still there are those students who enjoy the quite nature of being outside. In the field the top two jobs are the transplanting of seedlings, and harvesting of vegetables. Students get excited about the food coming out of the kitchen when they can identify that they planted or harvested some or all of the ingredients in the dish.

Working with livestock varies. Different students tend toward different animals. Our rabbits have the largest draw with the goats coming in a very close second. The rabbits provide a certain therapeutic service that makes cleaning and tending to them less undesirable, though I don't know that I would refer to their maintenance as a job.
As far as 'jobs' go lambing/kidding is hands down the most popular actual work especially among the nursing students. Often times we merely watch the labor and delivery process helping out with the neonatal care. Drying off the lambs/kids, post-delivery clean up, weights and measurements, and bottle feeding of orphaned lambs/kids are the most talked about activities. Every year we have one or two lambs that have to be assisted out and this is a coveted activity.

The goats are very, very personable. Much like puppies, the goats develop unique personalities and students often bond with one or two out of the herd. It is not uncommon to have students come over to the farm to take the goats out for walks on leashes either around the farm or on the trails behind the farm. Every now and again we will have brave students who take them over to the main campus for a stroll.

3. What are least popular jobs with livestock? in the gardens?

The cleaning of stalls tends to be the least popular. I say 'tends to' because we always have a handful of students who not only don't mind doing it, but they volunteer to do it. In the garden weeding is hands down the least popular followed by operating the walk behind tiller.

I love the notion of a college student walking a goat around campus. Sounds like a great stress reducer. Just having a place to go to do physical work, to let one's brain rest and tend a goat or pull a weed also sounds great. (And of course our brains never really do rest. I read just today that the "idle" brain is firing more neurons than the conscious part of our brain.)

In the next installment we'll hear how students are changed by the experience of working on the farm and/or walking goats on campus. [All photos courtesy of St. Joseph's College]