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Teaching About Living Systems On The Farm - Linda Booth Sweeney

Teaching About Living Systems On The Farm - Linda Booth Sweeney

Teaching About Living Systems On The Farm - Linda Booth

Note from the Executive Director Happy Winter! I heard the most inspiring news today from a teacher-farmer here in Massachusetts – they have planted their fi rst seeds of the season on his farm! For those of us on the east coast, that kind of news can almost keep you warm on these 20 degree days. The Farm-Based Education Association will be three years old in May and there is plenty to celebrate. So many things have evolved in the fi eld of farm-based education and the work we all do has never been more important. As we brace ourselves against the current economic winds, working, productive farms that sustain and nurture people with their food and public programming will continue to be a critical resource for individuals, families, and communities. Speaking of a critical resource, this year’s NOFA Winter Conference (Northeast Organic Farmers Association) had 300 more attendees than it did last year. Over lunch and some really delicious chocolate, a seasoned teacher-farmer from the Berkshires (and frequent Winter Conference attendee), noted that the crowd at this annual event has never been younger. The increase in attendance seemed to be made up of young people—many fresh out of college. These young adults were looking for a different way to live successfully, mindfully, and responsibly—a better path than the bumpy road of our country’s ailing corporate culture. And here they were exploring farming and farm-based programming! I hope we will see you at one of our events this year—see the back page for details. Also, keep your eyes open for some exciting new features on our website this spring –think farm-based education 2.0! Brooke Redmond Executive Director P.S. The November Conference announcements and brochures will all be online – we will not be mailing any conference materials. If you don’t occasionally receive e-mail announcements from us and would like to, please send your e-mail address to info@farmbasededucation.org. WINTER/SPRING 2009 Teaching about Living Systems on the Farm: Remembering What We Already Know by Linda Booth Sweeney These days, children tend to learn about nature far from nature. In classrooms and labs, they try to understand the nutrient cycle and other living systems that comprise our world. When children meet farmers and are immersed in the real work and cycles of life on a farm, farms can become classrooms where students can see and touch systems and come to understand the interconnected and interdependent nature of all living things. When farmers become educators, they can share their understanding gained from experience, that nothing stands in isolation, that connections in nature, people, problems and events bind us all. On a recent trip with a group of third graders to Gaining Ground, a non-profi t farm in Concord, Massachusetts, I found myself spellbound by the outhouse. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The outhouse had been lovingly painted in a riot of colors, and carved in a gingerbread theme. It was at once whimsical and functional, and clearly a valued structure on the farm. The farmer, Verena Wieloch, talked about the structure to students, who had cautiously gathered around it, giggling, wincing, and pinching their noses in anticipation of foul odors. “Is this where we go to the bathroom?” said a boy, squeamishly. Verena smiled. She had a secret to share. This was no ordinary bathroom. This was a composting toilet. “After you use the outhouse, the waste is composted, or broken down into a fertile soil that is full of rich nutrients, like nitrogen, for the soil. The farmers here put that compost on the herb and vegetable gardens.” Verena stopped before detailing what that meant: We then eat the herbs and veggies that grow in the compost from the outhouse. After digesting our food, we can return to the outhouse and the cycling of nutrients continues. Verena’s point that day was that in nature, there is no such thing as waste. One species’ waste is another’s food. This is the “waste = food” living system. At this farm, the outhouse-to-garden practice of turning our waste into food for herbs and vegetables reveals how if we understand living systems, we can work with them, rather than disrupt them. Our farms can thrive when they mimic the ways of nature and in doing so, foster respect for land and nature, an essential element to understanding and meeting today’s environmental challenges. Developing Systems Intelligence on the Farm The idea that waste = food, or closed loops of nutrient recycling, is not new. What is new is the increasing interest among educators and school administrators to teach students to think about systems, to see and understand the interconnections and dynamics of the natural and social systems around them. Students who understand the principle of waste = food, may then be challenged to look for examples in their everyday lives where waste from one system can become food for another. What about cafeteria waste? Can that become “food” for the school garden? The mission of the Farm-Based Education Association is to inspire, nurture and promote farm-based education. continued on p. 4

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