By Adrienne Cedarleaf, Local Foods AmeriCorps volunteer, Pocahontas County, 2010-2012
If you don’t have any immediate connections to local farmers, your County Agriculture Extension Agent will be able to help. Introduce yourself, explain your role in Farm to School, and explain that you’d like to bring a farmer to your school. They will know the best way to reach local farmers and may even suggest someone in particular who might be more interested than others to talk with schoolchildren. Your Ag. Agent may even be a farmer and could come as a part of his/her job.
In my experience, because farmers can be hard to reach and do not prefer meetings, I found it best to call and meet with them one on one. I’ve had success calling around lunchtime or in the evening when they are back inside. If you have directions to their farm, sometimes it can be easier to just stop by and track them down that way. When you do schedule a farm visit, see if you can volunteer to help for a day to really get a feel for their daily routine. This way, the farmer won’t feel as obligated to “entertain” you and you won’t worry about taking time away from his/her duties. By expressing interest in their way of life and allowing such time to talk with one another, you can really be on your way in building a positive and understanding relationship.
Another option is to think of a supportive individual in the community who may know a farmer. They might be able to make the call for you and ask if they would like to come to a school. Don’t forget to ask around the schools. Sometimes farmers are right under your nose, disguised as school teachers or custodians.
In Pocahontas County, the farmer actually found us. A young and beginning farmer, Joe was very excited to share his knowledge and passion in growing food. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) was the perfect way to introduce him and his vegetables to the elementary students. On three separate occasions the Food Service Director bought local produce from Joe through the FFVP. On the first day, “Farmer Joe,” the cook, the Food Service Director, and I went around to each classroom delivering the neon- colored Swiss Chard stalks snack so the students could become acquainted with the person who grew their food. It was a great opportunity to connect the food on a store shelf to food growing in the ground, to the person harvesting and selling it. Joe brought a Swiss Chard plant in a pot living plant their snack came from and we teamed up to talk about what local food means, why it is important, and how it benefits the community. Joe also gave a small lesson on the plant, how he harvested it, and what “heirloom” means.
And always, be flexible and understanding. Some farmers may be more confident in public speaking than others so be sure to provide many ways in which they can participate. Demonstrations, teaming up with others, or Question and Answer formats may be less stressful options.
Adrienne Cedarleaf served as an AmeriCorps volunteer for two years in Pocahontas County implementing a Farm to School program and working to develop family gardens through Grow Appalachia. She is now starting a market garden at Briar Patch Farm where she hopes to sell to local schools, restaurants and families.