Q&A with Josh Slotnick, University of Montana

Missoula, MT

May 2012

Josh Slotnick is the PEAS Farm Director and a University of Montana Professor. Josh also recently contributed a chapter to Fields of Learning; The Students Farm Movement in North America, Edited by Sayre and Clarke.

What is the PEAS farm and Community Education Program?

The PEAS farm is run partnership between the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program (EVST) and the Missoula, MT food security non-profit, Garden City Harvest (GCH). The 10 acre farm hosts a semester-long, hands-on course for EVST students spring, summer and fall. The students and teacher do the work to maintain the farm. GCH covers the operating expenses, and distributes the food – some of the produce is sold though a 90 member CSA.  The farm also custom grows 15,000 lb. of vegetables for the Missoula Food Bank. The farm is on Missoula County Public School district land 3 miles from campus and has been in operation since 1997.

EVST graduate student Erica Curry started the GCH Community Education Program (CEP) in 2005. CEP hosts 2500+ schoolchildren annually on field trips to the PEAS farm. University of Montana students participating in the course, “Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture Education”, lead the trips as part of their coursework. The CEP director teaches the Practicum course as an adjunct faculty member in EVST and is the liaison to the school district. The Practicum students incorporate lessons into the field trips that take into account the school district’s stated science goals. CEP covers the costs of transporting the children to and from the farm. CEP has expanded in recent years to include a Farmer-In-the-Classroom Program and 5 (and growing) school gardens.

Why are college farms important/relevant to the farm based education community?
College farms are typically public, are geared towards education, and are usually close to a population center. These factors make student farms ideal locations to do farm based education for children. The learning opportunity however is not only for schoolchildren. For university students interested in Environmental Education, the student farm becomes a classroom of a different type – they can begin to learn to teach in a supervised yet real setting. An organization can partner with a student farm to do farm based education – and not actually have to maintain a farm, as the farm is happening already. Most colleges would be thrilled for the good press and community outreach opportunity Farm Based education provides.

 

Why is working on a college farm relevant to prepare a student for the real world or “work force”?
If a student farm is structured properly, the experience can engender a powerfully transformative embodiment of personal empowerment and community responsibility. Humble labor, in small groups with valuable and tangible results yield a potentially life changing educational experience. Students take with them the deeply felt understanding of the meaning of personal effectiveness, accountability and belonging. Whether they go on to become farmers, public health advocates or science teachers, the lessons learned on the student farm inform their experience.

How do farms on colleges increase connections to the community?
College students working on a student farm can encounter the greater community in ways not available in typical academic settings. Our students meet schoolchildren, teachers, community volunteers, middle-class CSA members and Food Bank clients. Because of their participation in the farm, the students don’t just learn about the community, they become part of it. Watching these connections emerge annually is as priceless and beautiful as seeing the birds return and the first apple blossoms open.

How have you observed the Community Education Program at PEAS benefiting UM students?
The presence of children on the farm increases the conception of value of the place. The fact that teachers would choose to bring their kids to the farm increases the university students’ sense of allegiance and obligation to the farm. The school kids also create an obvious opportunity for hands-on experience in environmental education. When kids are on the farm, the place is that much more alive. The farm can sometimes, when conditions are just right, literally thrum electric with the presence of so many engaged and happy people.

Any resources you recommend for people entering the Farm Based Education field? (people, programs, books, etc.):

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Shelburne Farms is the coordinating organization for the Farm-Based Education Network 

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