Yesterday it snowed. Big wet flakes drifted down in real-time slow motion. A group of four and five year old students from our Natures Nursery School slowly wandered across the farm, wrapped in mittens, hats and thick jackets. All of them had their faces turned to the grey sky, little mouths wide open, catching the descending snowflakes with cheerful giggles. The teacher impatiently hurried them on, not really taking in what they were doing. They had an indoor activity to go to.
Farm educators teach many things - concrete and useful information - we instruct our audiences to where their food comes from, why land stewardship is critical, we explain their role as consumers and how the choices they make regarding their food have an impact on farming and farmers.
Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Where does maple syrup come from? How much does a full grown sow weigh or how does the chick get inside the egg? Those are familiar questions farm educators answer for their audiences. It is this kind of information we impart during farm tours, at seminars, at the farm market stand or when CSA customers come to the farm for their weekly vegetable pick-up. We want them to know about agriculture and to understand their role in it. This is the tangible side of farm education, of what we are trying to impart.
But there is the other side of what we teach, in the realm of emotion and feelings, far removed from understanding soil ph and detailed explanation of milk fat and learning about the benefits of whole wheat. What do we want them to “feel” at the sound of the word “farm”? What memories and sensory experiences will the suburban or city child have in future to draw on?
For me the word farm is linked with rich and very evocative memories. The sweet smell and womblike warmth of a Swiss dairy barn in winter, brown cows standing side by side in stanchions munching meadow hay in front of them, pulling huge swaths with a jerk of their big heads, tongues lolling and neck chains rattling. I can recall the sweet/sour taste of currents, picked after a spring rain in the garden, the feel of wet clay between my toes wading into the small pond below the farmhouse. Every fall here in New England there is that one perfectly warm day of gilded sun, leaves ablaze when all things on the farm look more real than real. It brings up a familiar wistfulness, awareness of winter to come, of seasons ending – it connects to farm overlay memories made many years ago, from a day just like that, a fall farm day. Each winter that brings fresh snow, connects me with a childhood memory of snapping up snowflakes in a wintry apple orchard.
This isn’t just to romanticize farming or to imply that being on farms is some indulgent boutique experience (the way some very picturesque magazines do). Farming is hard- days are long and the work is important. It is skilled and often scientific work that requires knowledge. Farming means life, without farms, we do not eat.
But we need to be self-aware as farm based educators that “being” on the farm, just being - is often as profound and shaping as anything we “do” with our audiences. We live in an age of “doing”, of staying busy, of filling every moment with an activity or a purpose. We have concrete goals. But maybe one of the most impactful moments we can offer our farm audiences, particularly children, is time, room to daydream, to sit, to think, to play, to feel and to experience the agricultural environment. How do we best facilitate that, how do we make it available to them?
As the kindergarteners slowly wandered out of view - I kept walking in the thick snow. This really made me think – making those kids hurry and getting them to move to their next structured activity was the teacher’s goal, she meant well. Just maybe she had forgotten what it was like for her when she was young to catch snow flakes in her mouth? Then it struck me - maybe she had never done that herself? Maybe she had no memory of walking across a farm during a gentle spring snow, no emotion of sheer joy connected to it?
Maybe that seed had never been planted.