Farming’s future is in their hands
June 19, 2009 · Updated 1:12 PM
More students are participating in hands-on, farm-based education.
With their fingers gingerly wrapped around stems of garlic, students of Peggy Koivu’s first- and second-grade class slowly pulled soil-covered bulbs from the ground, releasing their distinctive aroma into the air.
It was the first garlic to be harvested this season, and it also marked a small milestone in a larger movement to integrate education and farming on the island.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to get students out here through the whole school year,” said Jonathan Garfunkel, the founder of Global Source Education. “These students have now seen the process from start to finish.”
The garlic crops the students helped plant in the fall were plucked, cleaned and prepared to be sold last week at Betsey Wittick’s Laughing Crow Farm stand at the Bainbridge Farmers Market.
The experience is being facilitated by Global Source Education, an island-based nonprofit that is developing learning opportunities focused on local food and farming.
“Our kids have really learned a lot about food, eating local and our own community,” Koivu said. “The kids aren’t only hearing about (these lessons), they get to see it in action and interact with it.”
And while Koivu’s Odyssey class spent a little over an hour helping prepare the produce, farmers and educators are hoping the lessons learned reach far beyond their brief experience and into their everyday lives.
“It’s going to make them a little bit more aware when they go to the farmer’s market or into the grocery store,” said Heidi Urish, an intern with Global Source Education. “It’s important to fill in the blank between the field and whatever it is that they make for a meal. They’ve seen that first hand.”
But education is also seen by local farmers as one of the most promising developments in the struggle to keep island farming alive in spite of declining revenues and a limited amount of land dedicated for cultivation.
“This is the time when you get it,” said Brian MacWhorter of Butler Green Farms. “I got hooked on farming when I was six or seven years old. Now the average age of a farmer is 57, and we’ve got to pass on the knowledge of how to do things or that knowledge is lost.”
To that end, educators are finding no shortage of ways to link the knowledge of island farmers to lessons usually learned in the classroom.
From animal habitat to geography and science to math, Global Source Education is helping to connect students to an ever-expanding role of farms in local curriculum. Over 220 students participated in farm-based education this year.
“We’re taking this working landscape and we’re putting a layer of education infrastructure over it,” Garfunkel said. “Every class we work with, we’re finding a curricular connection.”
That connection is aided by long-time, dedicated island farmers like Gerard Bentryn, Akio Suyematsu, Karen Selvar, MacWhorter and Wittick, whose knowledge reaches well beyond the life cycle of plants.
Bentryn, who runs Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery with his wife, Jo Ann, has worked his Day Road farm for more than 30 years. As a former physical geography teacher, his insight came in handy to visiting high schoolers who were learning about the geology of the island. The massive glaciers and rivers that helped carve Bainbridge are evident in the sloping landscapes of the Day Road farms.
While Bentryn enjoys speaking to students about the physical characteristics that make the Day Road area ideal for farming, he admits there is something promising about having a younger generation using the land for education.
“I used to think, what do high school students care about farming?” he said. “But we get notebooks from classes filled with drawings and letters, and they are very positive. It’s changed my attitude towards the next generation of young people.”
Bentryn admits there is also an economic incentive to educational outreach.
“I am hoping they’ll bring the message home, and that they remember there are people working here and that they support their local farms,” he said.
According to Garfunkel, the economic impact is a byproduct of farm-based education, which includes a healthy perspective on what it means to live on Bainbridge Island and think locally.
“Making this a place of learning will give more interest to what is going on here,” he said. “It opens the discussion of what farming means to us as islanders. Then we can leverage these educational opportunities toward community and economic development.”
Lessons outside the classroom provide an opportunity for teachers to engage students who don’t respond to traditional learning methods.
Bill Covert, a fourth-grade teacher at Wilkes, has brought his class to the Bentryn/Suyematsu farms in order to bring a local flavor to his Social Studies and history lessons.
“This is where schools belong, bridging these educational areas,” Covert said. “There are kids in every class that may not fit a certain niche and maybe this opens their eyes to the possibility of being a farmer. It’s important to know there is something out there for everybody.”
For the farmers, it’s about inspiring a new generation that will not only support farms through purchases, but push to preserve farming as an important part of island life.
“It’s a community service. You have to have a passion for it,” MacWhorter said. “I dedicated my whole life to farming and feeding people. If I just go away, that whole thing is for naught. I have a responsibility now to educate and get kids stimulated to do this.”
Global Source Education offers farm summer camps for students and a farm institute for teachers. Visit: www.globalsourcenetwork.org.