By Lily O’Brien
These days, terms like ‘organic,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘locally sourced’ and ‘farm to table’ are commonly tossed around in the media as well as at cocktail parties, in regard to what we are eating—whether it be at home, at the grocery store or in restaurants. We know it’s chic to eat organic vegetables, cage-free eggs and grass-fed beef, but do we fully understand how important it is for our bodies, and for the environment? And more importantly, do our children understand? It’s unlikely that you will find classes on this topic in public schools, but the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM) is filling that void with their Farm Field Studies program—which gets kids to farms to observe sustainable food systems with their own eyes.
The program originally began years ago as a partnership between a number of organizations, and was then taken over by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). After several years, MALT partnered with Marin Organic, who ran the program for around five years. Marin Organic decided to disband, and last winter, handed the project over to AIM. The focus of the program is to educate young people about “the connections between the environment, agriculture and the food they eat.” Field trips to select farms throughout Marin and Sonoma counties expose kids to everything from vegetable growing, to beekeeping to milking cows.
“We were very lucky to pick this up from them, and we were very honored that they thought of us in the light that we could take this program and bring it to new heights,” says AIM’s Tyler Thayer of Marin Organic. Thayer, also known as “Mr. Green Jeans”—he actually does wear green jeans—co-manages the successful program with Blake Miller.
The Farm Field Studies program runs mainly during the school year, from August through June, and currently has eight farms signed up. “It’s a wonderful program,” Thayer says. “We just want to connect the students with where their food comes from. We try to teach different things at different farms— anything from science to environmental education to math to health and nutrition.”
Each trip is custom tailored for teachers, and generally lasts for around three hours, which includes two hours of farm activities and lunch. Designed for kids in kindergarten through high school, the experience is always hands-on.
AIM charges $15 per student, though scholarships are available for those in need. The fees go directly to the farmers, as the tours take time out of their day; compensation helps to maintain both the farm and the program.
Thayer says that he is very pleased with the current program, but would like to see it expand. “We are working on creating a really strong volunteer program where we can get people to actually go to the school before the tour and to talk to the students and prepare them for what’s going to happen and give them some educational lessons there that will prepare them to go to the farm,” he says.
The Farm Field Studies program, Thayer believes, is “empowering children on how to make healthy food choices and learn where their food comes from.” He adds, enthusiastically, that it’s wonderful to see the kids get out there and just “light up.”
Windrush Farm, one of the eight participating farms, is a working sheep farm located in Petaluma’s Chileno Valley. Founded in 1995 by Mimi Luebbermann, it offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with a variety of animals. “We start on the basis that a farmer is a very good steward of the land,” Luebbermann says. “We are trying to educate the kids about what animals do live in Marin. No we don’t have zebras and no there are no giraffes,” she says with a laugh. Luebbermann is also trying to help children understand the concept of the domesticated animal and what the partnership is between the farmer and the animal—how the farmer takes care of the animals, and how the animals share what they have to give with the farmer, which could range from wool to milk.
But Luebbermann doesn’t just focus on the animals; she also educates kids about the nutrition found in the seeds that she feeds them. “I have a flower grinder, so we have them identify wheat on the stalk and then we grind the wheat to make flour and talk about the fact that there are a lot of seeds we don’t want to eat just right off the plant,” she says.
The kids also get to visit the llamas and learn about different kinds of wool and how it can be spun. “We go out and visit the guard llamas and talk about that they have a certain kind of wool, and we run through all the different animals that give wool that we can use,” Luebbermann says. “And then they learn about spinning and how the wool can be spun and why it’s such a wonderful fiber and that we have been using it for 10,000 years.”
Assisting Luebbermann on the farm is Mia McFarland, a wildlife specialist who takes groups out to a pond full of frogs, tadpoles and dragonflies. She explains to them the importance of not using sprays that can pollute the water that will eventually wind up in the ocean. This way they get the full concept of protecting “the watershed, the wildlife and then the domesticated animal.”
“It’s been fabulous—we’re really happy with it,” Luebbermann says of the AIM program. “They know about education, they’re very enthusiastic and they’ve been great to coordinate with and work with.”
Ultimately, the program is successful due to the contributions of each farm. “This is our program and it is very specific to us,” Luebbermann says. “There are other farmers who do different kinds of things. We’re particularly successful because we are set up for kids and particularly for little kids to be able to be close to the animals but be safe.”
Learn more about the Farm Field Studies program at agriculturalinstitute.org.