Writing Down the Farm
Written onMarch 01 , 2008
The logic is straightforward and simple. It goes like this:
Farming is the one business that everyone needs, because everyone eats. Add to it the fact that children grow up—often faster than adults can imagine. And when Vermont children become adults, they may want to become part of the local food system, either as a farmer or an eater.
Such is the reasoning behind the Farmer to School Correspondence Course. The program matches farms with classrooms so that students and farmers can correspond about the joys and challenges of farming. Through the letters, students come to understand that farming “is so much more than sitting on the front porch and watching animals graze,” reports Scout Proft, a farmer and the pioneer of the program. “And some children who live on farms are regarded almost as celebrities.”
This school year, approximately 75 farmers, 120 teachers, and 2,000 children in 12 Vermont counties are writing letters and sharing information.
“We are thrilled this year to be matched with a farm in our own community,” says Barbara Leonard, a second-grade teacher at The Pomfret School in South Pomfret, whose students exchange letters with the nearby Emmons family of Cloudland Farm between November and May. Nearly every grade in the school participates in the correspondence program, but this year, only the second grade has the distinction of being matched with a farmer in town—with the possibility of an end-of-the-school-year field trip to the farm.
A veteran teacher, Barbara finds many ways to incorporate the program into her curriculum. For example, the letters that the students write, as individuals and as a group, address the Vermont Department of Education’s standard for knowing how to write a friendly letter. And when she reads Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy to her class in the spring, she will ask the students to compare and contrast the chores that Almanzo did in the 1800s with the chores that 12-year-old Will Emmons does with his family today.
“In this modern world, kids don’t necessarily know how we used to live or how to be self-reliant,” Barbara says. “It is so important for them to see that farming exists right here in their own community.”
The Farmer to School Correspondence Course began in the summer of 1998 at the farm stand of Someday Farm, run by the Proft family in East Dorset.
“I always have a lot of activities for children at our farmstand,” says Scout, a mother of five children. Farmstand customers of all ages enjoy them. One summer, three customers, who also are teachers, approached Scout, asking her to bring some of her farm knowledge and activities to their classrooms. The only hitch was location: they lived in New York City, Florida, and Texas.
“I told them, ‘I have a hard enough time getting to town to do errands!’” she recalls with a laugh. “‘But I certainly could write to you.’”
For the first few years, Scout corresponded monthly with the faraway classrooms. Sometimes she would send a box of feathers, soil samples, or other intriguing hands-on materials. During this time, she got a sense of what was most useful to the teachers and most engaging to the students.
In 2005, Scout approached the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) to see if they might sponsor a program that linked farmers and children in Vermont. Since Scout was serving as one of NOFA-VT’s Farm to Community Mentors at the time, it made sense for NOFA to support and promote the correspondence program.
Now the correspondence program is part of NOFA-VT’s Farm to Community Mentor Program, in which six farmers around the state receive a stipend to implement farm-school programs. Because the correspondence program is under the wing of NOFA-VT, some people mistakenly assume that it’s only open to organic farmers. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Scout says. “This is about sharing all of Vermont agriculture with children.”
There’s a lot of variety in what the term “farm” means in the program. The smallest participating farm is a homestead; the largest is a dairy farm with 130 Holsteins. Cheesemakers, beekeepers, and small-scale growers are involved, too. And more are welcome! The goal is to have at least one farmer for every elementary and middle school in Vermont, and to match farmer expertise with teachers’ interests. (There is no charge to enroll in the program.)
Education is about planting a seed, tending it, and watching it grow, and the correspondence program plants a range of seeds in the minds of students. “They may choose to buy local, or to be farmers, or they may be applauding from the sidelines,” Scout says. “It’s really exciting. I feel that it’s going to change the way Vermont looks.”