By LACEY JARRELL
In a few weeks, nearly 3,000 Oregon middle school students will have an opportunity to get out of the classroom and into farm fields through the Adopt a Farmer program.
The program was developed by Agri-Business Council of Oregon as a way to introduce sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to where their food and fiber comes from and to experience life on the farm firsthand, said Geoff Horning, ABC's executive director.
For the "adoption," one middle school teacher partners with a farmer for an entire school year, from fall until spring. During that time the instructor accompanies his or her students on at least one field trip to the partnering farm, and the farmer visits the students at school at least once per quarter.
"It's really neat to get the kids out on the farm," said Michelle Heuberger, a science teacher at St. Mary Catholic School in Stayton, Ore. "The biggest things they took away from the program are learning the opportunities in farming and knowing how much agriculture there is in our area."
During the 2013-14 school year, Heuberger estimates 44 of her sixth- and seventh-grade science students will participate in Adopt a Farmer. Last year, Hueberger partnered with farmer Skip Gray, owner of Gray Farms in Albany, Ore. She said she'll be partnering with his farm again in the coming year thanks to the range of production for her students to learn about and because her students enjoyed working with him.
"He worked really well with the kids," she said.
Each farm experience varies depending on the farm, said Corey Dickman, co-owner of Dickman Farms. He focuses his 1,800-acre farm on crop diversification that minimizes economic risk. Last year, 200 students from Victor Point School near Silverton visited Dickman Farms and learned first-hand how crops such as onions, green beans and cauliflower are grown and handled.
In the classroom, Dickman led students in farm-based activities, such as a risk management exercise that requires small teams to devise multi-crop projection sheets and plant crops accordingly. Then students rolled a die for unpredictable weather or market events like late freezes or sudden drops in prices.
"We want to give kids the understanding that farming and agriculture is a business; decisions are based on economics, not just science," Horning said.
Neither ABC nor partner schools prescribe a set curriculum for the farmer-student interactions, and ABC prefers to let the students lead the conversation based on their own experience and background. Horning explained that students from the Rachel L. Carson School Of Environmental Science came to the program with an advanced knowledge of farming practices and wanted to discuss complex topics such as genetic engineering, while students visiting another farm last year from an inner-city school had never seen a tractor.
"In that instance, it became a very basic conversation about how farms operate," Horning said.
For Dickman, one of the most important lessons he hopes students take away from the experience is realizing where food comes from. Oregon's agricultural production is valued at $4.3 billion but the number of residents licensed to sell farm products is less than 1 percent of the state's population. He believes the Adopt a Farmer program is a way for farmers to tell their stories and help bridge the disconnect he sees between consumers and producers.
"When kids are like, 'Oh my gosh, bread doesn't come from the grocery store,' it's pretty cool," Dickman said.
ABC launched Adopt a Farmer in 2011 by partnering with three Beaverton School District middle schools that brought 400 students to the program. During the 2012-13 school year, Adopt a Farmer tripled its school partnerships, and Horning estimates 20 to 25 schools will participate in the program during the 2013-14 school year.
"We're hoping to take the program statewide; it's just a matter of doing incremental increases," Horning said. "We would rather do it right than take on too much too quick."
For more information or to become part of Adopt a Farmer, contact Geoff Horning at firstname.lastname@example.org .