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Place-based Farmer Education: Alex Bryan and Jeremy Moghtader Part I

In this segment, we will talk about local food systems and place-based farmer education with Alex and Jeremy.
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Welcome back to this T chat on food sustainability. I’m here with Alex and Jeremy, again. And we’re going to be talking about the value of place based education at a location like the botanical gardens in the U of M campus farm. So Jeremy, to jump right into it, can you tell us a little bit more about kind of how you use this space to interact with students and kind of what the relationship is there? » Yeah, so I think it’s a really assured goal for both of the botanical gardens as well as the campus farm to serve as a living learning laboratory where students can have authentic and high impact teaching and learning opportunities.
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In the case of the Campus Farm, that means that we are giving the students, who are the student manager of the farm, the agency to run that farm with my support and technical assistance, but they’re, sending out the orders, taking the orders, cutting crops, and growing them. And I’m helping them learn how to do that, whether that’s from the finance management standpoint, or serving on a hiring committee, or learning how to grow lettuce, that they’re getting to do all those components and with it really empowers them to be engaged learners.
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I think more broadly, beyond the farm, food systems really is at a really interesting nexus with a lot of incomplicated and important environmental issues and social issues that brings together climate change, or brings together impacts on human health, on our economy, how we grow food, where we grow it, who has access to it, what we’re eating. All of those things are creating this complex nexus of sustainable ag issues that are really impactful and really draw a lot of students into the space.
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So, away from the vegetable production piece, you can see there weren’t enough physical space like this structure that was built by a class that was studying sustainable architecture through the School of Art and Design and Program and Environment, and they studied studied building structures or alternative building structures all semester. And then as a capstone project, they came up here and built this structure, which is made from earthen plaster and trees that were sick or fell down on the campus. And so they really were able to have that living room lab experience here.
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And I think if you talk to any of them, they would say that that was probably one of the most impactful learning experiences they had at their time with the university. » Wonderful, thanks. So thinking about how to continue to engage younger generations in this type of work, Alex, can you talk about your involvement, your experience working with the Young Farmers Coalition? » Yeah, so I’ve been serving on the board of National Young Farmers Coalition for seven years now. And that organization is really about trying to reduce the barriers to entry to farming. Our average farmer is nearing 60 years old.
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We have farmers over 65 outnumbering farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one, which is just kind of crazy when you think about it. We need more people involved in food farming and our food systems. Those farmers are going to age out and that land will go fallow, we’ll be losing food production crops. We need sort of direct numbers of farmers. But we also need people to think about what is a better farming and food system out there so that farming is more attractive. And so the way to get there is, in part, hands on in the campus farm and where that campus farm produce goes, which is the connection to Michigan dining.
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So then our students are preparing that food. Our students are eating that food. We’re turning it back into compost. We’re closing that loop internally so that students can see that theres another alternative, right? And help them just envision continued alternatives to the current food model that we have in the US because we just have to find a different one at this point. » Sure, yeah. So thinking about kind of the group of students that come to programs like this, folks coming in with very different academic and personal backgrounds. How does a program like this kind of cater to folks that maybe don’t have a lot of experience working in a garden or on a farm?
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I think it comes from a couple of different angles. I think, certainly, there are students here that wish to go into agricultural production. But I think the majority of the students are really passionate about those more complicated, many of those complicated issues that we talked about around sustainability in food systems. And so what I see in the farm is people coming in and really wanting that experience. I’m a graduate student and I want to do sustainable ag policy. But I feel like it would be wrong of me to do that without some direct experience.
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And I agree with that perspective and so, if they can work out here for a summer or be part of the management team, I think that provides that. Whether they’re in business, or program in the environment, or anthropology, I think the thing that they all have in common is that they want to go out on the world as change agents and make a positive impact for sustainable change. And food systems seems like a lens to do that. So any experience they can get that sharpens their skill set while they’re here, I think, helps us be more sustainable going forward.
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Yeah, and I think, just as not everyone who enters into an art museum becomes an artist, or goes to a piano recital will become a pianist, not everyone that comes to a farm is going to be a farmer. I mean, that’s definitely not the point, but they’re more well-rounded and a better person for it, right? And so we can ask these questions, particularly on something that we’re usually doing multiple times a day, which is eating food. The more educated we can be in where that food is coming from, how it’s produced, who produced it along that chain, the better that we’re ultimately going to make the planet.
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Which is what I think we’re here in part as a university, is to make change agents for a better future. And I think that that applied learning is that route to get there. » And I think, as humans, we rarely value things that we don’t understand. So I think, given the size of the impact that food systems have on environmental sustainability, I think it’s really critical that students are getting a better understanding of food in order to make those choices. » Sure, so thinking about our learners that are coming in from many countries around the world to this teach out, what is kind of one action that they can take to get involved in something like this.
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Yeah, I mean, it’s cliche, but it is, I think, for me, to put your hands in the soil somewhere. And that could be, I spent some time in Korea talking about urban agriculture there. But I would walk around and there would be an old suitcase on the rooftop and there will be pepper plants growing out of it, in some soil. I think we can look at the ability to grow food anywhere we’re at, even if it’s just on the windowsill. One plant or large scale multiplakers, I think just putting your hands in the soil or asking those around you if you’re already doing that to come lend a hand, I think, goes a long way to the hands-on learning.
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I think I can’t really top that answer, it’s a good one. I feel like helping provide those kinds of reflective and authentic learning opportunities, if you’re out in the world, then you have the opportunity Interact with someone who’s a student or a friend or relative. And just to talk to them and help them think about and understand where they’re food is coming from, and how it affects them, and how it affects others. I think that those conversations are best had by your hands in the dirt, but if you can’t have your hands in the dirt, then have them over dinner. » Yeah, break bread together, right? » Yeah. » For sure. » For sure. » Perfect.
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Well, thank you, Alex, and thank you, Jeremy, for joining us. And thanks for inviting us into this awesome straw bale house. It’s wonderful. » Glad to be here. » And thank you so much for joining us in this segment of the Tea Chat. We look forward to continuing the conversation in the discussion forums.

Alex Bryan and Jeremy Moghtader continue the discussion about the University of Michigan Campus Farms and the benefits of students receiving a experience based sustainability education.

Alex Bryan is the Sustainable Food Program Manager for the University of Michigan as well as an affiliate of the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. Alex’s bio here.

Discussion: Was there anything in this segment that surprised you? How could an environment like the Michigan Campus Farm exist outside of a college/university setting?

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