What PMCF Can Learn from Other Educational Farms

  Sydney Randall, Sarah Hooghuis, and Jerry Lerman devoted nine months to their study. 

Sydney Randall, Sarah Hooghuis, and Jerry Lerman devoted nine months to their study. 

For anyone who’s interested in the educational potential of Pitney Meadows Community Farm, a 100-page report produced by three Skidmore College students provides much food for thought.

Sydney Randall, Sarah Hooghuis and Jerry Lerman devoted nine months to interviewing representatives of ten educational farms throughout the Northeast to see what lessons Pitney Meadows could learn from their experience. They also surveyed K-12 teachers at 33 schools throughout Saratoga County.

Among their findings: Teachers at area schools are keenly interested in a range of educational initiatives on which Pitney Meadows might embark. Elementary school teachers are especially interested because children between ages 8 and 11 engage especially well with topics in environmental literacy.

More than 60 percent of the 62 teachers who responded to the students’ survey said they would be interested in having Pitney Meadows staff to workshops in the classroom.

That option would be of particular interest to schools that have neither the funding nor the flexibility to take their students to the farm. “Bring the farm to them,” the students recommended.

The students make ten major recommendations in their report, which will be considered by the Pitney Meadows Board of Directors in developing a strategic plan, said President Sandy Arnold. Those recommendations are below.

Click here to access the full report, “Sowing the Seeds for Farm-Based Education and Agriculture: Action Research with Pitney Meadows Community Farm.” 

 

HIRING AMERICORPS WORKERS AND INTERNS

Hiring AmeriCorps workers and interns during the first few years of operation is a cost-effective means of labor. AmeriCorps is appealing both for individuals looking for work and for organizations looking to hire as worker salaries are federally funded. Pitney Meadows Community farm could have free, full-time workers dedicated to fostering community partnerships, designing farm-based curriculum for educational programming, or any other specific needs the farm may require during its start-up years. The program is ideal for AmeriCorps workers as they receive an educational award on top of the stipend that can go towards graduate school upon completion of service.

Moreover, AmeriCorps utilizes a host of promotional channels to post job listings of participating organizations free of charge that make finding individuals interested in sustainable, community agriculture or education easy. For example, the Radix Center, in partnership with AVillage, Inc. and Hunger Free America, hires AmeriCorps VISTA workers every year. It is a full-time position to promote access to healthy, fresh, and safe food in Albany’s South End (The Radix Center 2017). The workers are responsible for developing educational and marketing outreach strategies to encourage neighborhood residents to attend and shop at the South End Farmer’s Market. Additionally, the worker is responsible for improving access to healthy food via nutritional education for low-income residents. This takes pressure off Scott Kellogg, the Program Director at the Radix Center, and allows him to focus on other initiatives of the center such as hosting school groups.

An advantage to hiring interns is that they can be offered for academic credit or experience rather than monetary compensation. Shelburne Farms takes advantage of its proximity to Burlington, Vermont, a hub for environmentally conscious college or graduate students. They offer internships through the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension that are designed to provide college credit for students and give students the opportunity to observe and learn to teach in a collaborative team in the summer camp program, adventures preschool program, and school group visits for youth ages 3-17 (Shelburne Farms 2017). Given Pitney Meadows Community Farm’s distance from Saratoga Springs High School, Skidmore College, and SUNY Empire State internship programs are certainly replicable. Saratoga Springs High School has an Environmental Science club; it would be worth gauging interest from those students in an after school or summer internship program. In exchange for their labor, high school students will have the opportunity to learn what it takes to operate a nonprofit educational farm, acquire technical farm skills such as starting, transplanting, and harvesting crops, and attend educational workshops hosted at the farm.

At Skidmore College, PMCF could offer off-campus internship opportunities through the Sustainability Office, which already offers on-campus internships. Finally, seeing as SUNY Empire State has a graduate program in nonprofit management, PMCF could provide graduate students with internships tailored to give them hands-on experience in nonprofit operation.

 

ACCESSIBILITY BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT

There is a national and global pattern of local and community food initiatives excluding certain socioeconomic groups while catering to those with high income. One means of making PMCF readily available for all community members is accessibility by public transportation. The Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) oversees the public bus route in Saratoga Springs – there are three routes for the city: Route 450, 451, and 452. For the purposes of PMCF creating a bus stop on Route 452 would be most ideal. Joining Route 452 would connect the farm to downtown Saratoga Springs on Broadway. Broadway could serve as a center point for communities to access transportation to the farm as other bus routes also have stops on Broadway. This opens the potential for community members who cannot directly access Route 452 to take another route that connects them to it. Moreover, Route 452 has a stop at Skidmore College. The convenience of being connected to a college campus makes partnership for potential field trips, programs, and internships more feasible.

Saratoga Springs High School is only 0.4 miles away from PMCF, about an eight-minute walk. However, in order to walk to the farm students would need to walk-along and eventually cross West Avenue. In order to make this a safe route for high schoolers, installation of a crosswalk and sidewalks or a wide shoulder is necessary. The Saratoga Springs YMCA is even closer at only 0.1 miles, or a 3-minute walk, away. The YMCA is also located on the opposite side of the street. To encourage YMCA programs to utilize the farm a crosswalk should also be installed here.

 

CUSTOMIZE CURRICULUM

The ability to meet teacher needs, State Standards for curriculum, and student interest are key components to a successful school system partnership. Teachers feel must adhere to Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and any other state-specific or school-specific goals. This can make incorporating hands-on learning into the curriculum more difficult. However, teachers are much more willing to visit places that are able to break down which learning objectives or standards different programs fulfill. When discussing potential topics that would encourage teachers to visit the farm via field trips, teachers often discussed the importance of integrating mandatory curriculum into experiential education opportunities and how that can dictate their decision making process. One 3rd grade teacher from Milton Terrace Elementary (Ballston Spa) stated that they “only clicked ‘plant life cycles’ because it can be difficult to ask permission to go on a field trip if it doesn't align with any of our standards. If that were not the case, I would have clicked all the options.”. This demonstrates the importance of PMCF to create lessons and curriculums that are flexible and can be incorporated into pre-set public school guidelines. Morris Farm, CitySprouts and other regional educational farms we interviewed discussed the importance of looking to the State standards when designing any programming or curriculum. Crafting programs that connect to state standards or having the flexibility to shift programming to match state requirements is crucial to creating a viable option for public schools.

 

TRAINING WORKSHOPS FOR TEACHERS

As discussed in the findings, many of the educational farms offer training opportunities for educators, specifically Shelburne Farms and City Sprouts. Offering an outlet for teacher in-service training will establish the farm as not only a viable option for field trips but also as a source where teachers can fulfill service training requirements through interesting workshops. Giving teachers the option to learn skills on the farm is an excellent way to keep them bringing school groups and encourage students to pursue after school programs or camps at the farm.

From the survey of Saratoga County teachers, it is clear there is a desire for such opportunities. A Ballston Spa 8th grade Science teacher discussed the option for teacher in-service training on the farm: “Through STANYS (Science Teacher Association of New York) they construct an event called Lab day for science educators to take part in-- participants sign up for multiple workshops in a day to take part in a given lab.  Could you do this, as well- utilizing local, hands-on experiences?”

PMCF has an opportunity to incorporate itself into these teacher networks and act as an outlet for the desired local workshops. It is just as important to bring students to the farm as it is to provide teachers with the proper training to bring farm and environmental education into the classroom. Again, if more teachers are involved with farm-based education in-service training and find ways to incorporate the work into their daily lesson plans, the field will grow in legitimacy.

Shelburne Farms is an excellent example of a farm that provides support for their teachers. The Vermont Feed program is an excellent venue for creating opportunities and providing support to local teachers (discussed above in findings). City Sprouts also provides ten hours of annual support to each of their partner schools through their School Partnership Program (discussed in findings).

 

OPPORTUNITY FOR SCHOOL INVOLVEMENT

Through the survey it is clear to see that teachers in Saratoga County are interested in partnering with or visiting PMCF in the future. The highest number of respondents were Elementary School teachers, which aligns with environmental education research that ages of children 8-11 are the most susceptible to positive behavior changing experiences in terms of environmental literacy and awareness (Stone, Barlow 2005). Therefore, it is beneficial that the highest number of responses stemmed from Elementary School teachers. Pitney has an opportunity to create programming designed for specifically elementary school aged children to capitalize on the high level of interest from the teachers in the county.

Teachers also expressed their interest in having PMCF staff do workshops in the classroom (64.4 percent of respondents). This is another opportunity for PMCF educators to engage with local schools, especially those schools that may not have the funding or flexibility to take their students to the farm-bring the farm to them. Accessibility is key in order to be a successful community farm program.

Multiple educational farms (Ambler Farm, Morris Farm, City Sprouts) stressed the importance of integrating into school systems, saying that a connection to a local school adds legitimacy to the farm education program and can boost their reputation as a reputable source for curriculum, teacher in-service training, field trips and after school programs. Pitney Farm has the unique advantage of being within walking distance of Saratoga Springs High School and could potentially develop an after school program/apprenticeship program (similar to Ambler Farms) with the High School students as well as internships with the High School and with Skidmore as discussed above.

 

WORKSHOPS AND COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS

One way to successfully integrate oneself into the community is through developing partnerships with local artisans, artists and craftsmen and women to put on workshops for the farm. Part of entering a community is through creating an identity for the farm as integral to the success of others in the community. Sell local products, support local musicians, put on workshops for adults and children on the farm teaching topical skills. All are excellent ways to create a connection to the people who live and work in the community as well as foster local talent. Saratoga Springs has a wealth of people and corporations that could partner with PMCF. Scott Kellogg of Radix often travels to put on workshops, a potential option for Pitney. Local musicians could perform in the fields and craft fairs for the community could bring people together. PMCF is already on its way to developing strong community connections but there can always be potential for more involvement.

Many of the farms we interviewed promoted local talent and put on workshops for the community. New Pond Farm brought in a local biologist to discuss the biology of porcupines. Bread and Butter Farms puts on a Weekly Burger Night which features local musicians. Through selling and promoting local artisans and putting on events for community members to participate in you will become an integral part of the community and be successful. 

 

MEMBERSHIPS

Membership programs allow community based farms to create an “inner circle” of area residents. These residents in turn feel a deeper sense of connection to your farm since they have truly bought into your program. Membership programs also offer a series of benefits to the members such as reduced prices on workshops, events and potentially CSA fees if applicable. Memberships also provide a great deal of supplemental donations on top of potential grants and larger scale donors. Shelburne Farms is a great example of success within their own membership program. Shelburne Farms has around 3,700 members from 44 states around the country. Memberships are a vital aspect of any community farm that is striving to create a core community. Many programs have tiered levels of membership programs, allowing participants to be involved as much as they want either with educational programming, CSA’s or workshops. PMCF could potentially start a membership program as a means to get more people involved in the community. Saratoga Springs already has a thriving farmer’s market, demonstrating the interest in the community.
 

OPPORTUNITIES FOR STUDENT ADVANCEMENT

Camper or student advancement is a tactic that summer camps have employed for generations. As students or campers rise through your program you give them incrementally more responsibility each year. This structure creates a dynamic where the younger students look up to the older students. Younger students look forward to the future where they will be given more responsibility on the farm and have the trust of the farmers to implement projects independently and successfully. The advancement structure has a great deal of positive effect on retention rates. Ambler Farm and Kevin Meehan have established an effective advancement program through their apprenticeship format. Students progress from the earliest ages (5th grade) where they start by exploring and learning the basic functions of the farm, with little responsibility. By their senior year of High School these students grow up to help run Ambler’s maple sugaring business, composting program and any other task that Meehan could call on them to assist with.

 

ADVERTISING

Community based farms and farm-based education programs tend to save a great deal of money on advertising. The farms we studied make up for advertising dollars spent by being entrenched in local school system and community. Many farms that we interviewed also participate in a great deal of social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Social media allows farms to instantaneously promote potential programs, events and workshops in a non intrusive way. Finally, the best form of advertising will always be word of mouth. PMCF must begin to cement themselves within the Saratoga community in order to spark word of mouth advertising.

 

START SMALL, GROW BIG

The most successful community farms started small at one point. Building a community farm is a long and involved process. In order to be successful, a common trend within the industry, and advice successful farms gave to us is to start small and grow big. Community farms tend to initially start with what they know best and know they can implement effectively. PMCF should start with one project, such as their community gardens, and make the program as successful as possible. Once the program has developed and become integral to the community, PMCF can utilize the momentum that comes from success and transfer this into planning their next programs. Once the organization has developed a reputation of excellence in one field will have the ability to expand your operation.
 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, PMCF has the opportunity to engage with a plethora of programs with a variety of stakeholders. Saratoga Springs is already an environmentally conscious city and PMCF acts as the next step in their sustainable journey and fills a gap for the city. The citizens and teachers in Saratoga County are interested and will potentially prove to be extremely useful to PMCF in terms of promotion, involvement, donations and overall retention rate. PMCF is located directly across from the Saratoga Springs High School opening up many channels of possibilities for partnerships.

Farm-based education is one effective means to creating positive behavior changing attitudes for people of all ages. Through Summer camps, workshops and teacher training, PMCF has the potential to create an extremely positive impact on the city of Saratoga Springs. PMCF must work to make their programming and opportunities on the farm inclusive to all members of the Saratoga Springs community. By making the programs affordable and transportation accessible to the farm they can truly become a community based farm and not only cater to those who have the means to participate in the programs and drive to the farm. PMCF has the opportunity to create an outlet for all people in Saratoga Springs, they can simultaneously act as a community hub, an education center (for adults and children) and a source of fresh and local food. The data collected and recommendations proposed are just a small part of the work that PMCF still has yet to do. The organization is off to an excellent start, with passionate people and a strong mission statement and the work they will do for the community will undoubtedly be invaluable.