Who’s your Farmer? Connecting food, farming, and education.

“Aren’t you the teacher from the garden?”

“I know you…You are the garden lady right?”

“Hi Farmer Amy! What did you bring for us to try today?”

All of these are frequent greetings I receive from school kids in Missoula, but that last one is by far my favorite.

Farmer in the Classroom lesson about SEEDS!

When I began my service term, my fellow garden educator Katie asked me what I would like the kids to call me. It seemed like an odd question. Teacher Amy? Ms. Amy? Ms. Harvey?  None of those seemed quite right. I’ve never had a formal teaching role and was worried whether the kids would think I was fun, interesting, and ‘cool’ enough. Katie politely suggested, “You know, Pete (the “rockstar” former service member in Missoula) and I both started having the kids call us Farmer Katie and Farmer Pete and we really like it.” Following their advice I went for it and was introduced as Farmer Amy during our first fall garden lesson. Now, almost halfway through my FoodCorps service term I could not be more grateful to be called Farmer Amy.

All of the second graders in Missoula County Public School District #1 have at least one Farmer in their lives. There are 9 elementary schools, 33 second grade classrooms, and roughly 600 students who participate in Garden City Harvest’s Farm to School program “Farmer in the Classroom”. The program begins in the fall, with an educational field trip to the PEAS Farm and is followed by six, once-a-month, hour long in-class educational visits by a Farmer from November through April. The monthly visits are focused on a variety of Montana food and agricultural topics specifically developed for 2nd graders; including winter storage crops, the reason plants make seeds, the chance to grind wheat into flour, and learning how cows digest grass. The program concludes in the spring with another field trip to the PEAS Farm. The Farmer in the Classroom program is intended to help children understand the importance of the food they eat as it pertains to their health, the health of their community, and the world as a whole. It is truly an astounding way to involve a large number of students in farm-to-school learning.

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Farmer Katie harvesting kale for National Kale Day

The label of Farmer does not come without complications.  We are by no means traditional farmers, making our living from the land by running a farm. Rather we are educators doing farm-related work. So, are we tricking the kids into assuming that we are real farmers? Possibly. However, the kids quickly learn to respect the title of Farmer, and hopefully that respect translates into enhanced awareness of their food choices. To me, connecting the students to a farmer, “real” or not, is a huge step towards their formation of lifelong healthy choices and environmental stewardship.

As Jason Mandala, the Farm to School Director for Garden City Harvest, says, “My favorite thing about doing this job is helping kids realize that they like foods they have never tried or never given a chance before. Also, I love the opportunity to facilitate exploratory learning both at the farm and on school grounds, either via school gardens or in the classroom, seeing kids make their own discoveries is hope-provoking for me.” Katie Mikelsons, the School Garden Coordinator for Garden City Harvest, shared with me that everywhere she goes in Missoula, students, parents, teachers, and even principals, call her Farmer Katie. She loves how much kids want to share their personal food experiences with others once you get them talking. They want to tell you all about their grandma’s tomato plants, what their families are growing at home or in their community garden plot, or what weird food they tried for dinner last night. Once they make the connection between growing real food and eating real food, it is contagious!

IMG_0061All of these pieces came together for me last month. A quiet first grade girl came up to me before a classroom activity making Pumpkin Pie smoothies (with pumpkins from the school garden!) and in a very hushed voice asked me if she could give me something. Too rushed to accept it before we started, I asked to receive it afterwards, and as I was packing up my pumpkin puree-covered supplies, she again politely asked if she could give me something. She passed me an extremely tightly crumpled up piece of notebook paper. I thanked her and stuck it in my back pocket before rushing off to the next class. I finally opened it up when I got home and was overwhelmed by nothing shy of joy. The only words were “To Farmr Ame,” with a drawing of a garden bed on one side and a farm animal resembling a sheep on the other. It was the simplest gesture, and I know teachers get notes like this all the time from their students, but it made all of my day-to-day hard work and challenges worthwhile. I grew up in a farming family and at the age of 61 my dad is a long way off from retiring his title as a Farmer. Even though I am a very different type of farmer than he is, I feel incredibly grateful to be a Farmer to the kids in my community.