ProFarmer: An Innovative Curriculum to Train Future Farmers

Ecological health and farm viability are at at the center of project-based learning in the ProFarmer program

ProFarmer: An Innovative Curriculum to Train Future Farmers

Walking through a waist-high field of rye with buckets, shovels, and a measuring contraption called a “penetrometer,” the Farm Hub ProFarmer trainees set out in the rain last week to take soil samples from fields across the farm. Led by Conrad Vispo from the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, our ProFarmers, Jess, Andrew, and Jesse, joined members of the Farm Hub staff in digging and mixing samples from each field. They then plotted the site’s location using GPS and measured soil compaction with the penetrometer. The final samples were shipped off to Cornell University for the Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health, a test that goes beyond the usual chemical analysis of a soil sample by looking at biological and physical characteristics.

As part of an ongoing soil-monitoring program that will track the impact of the Farm Hub’s ecological farming methods over time, ten samples were taken from each of one hundred different fields over the course of two weeks. One of many projects the ProFarmers have jumped into since arriving at the Farm Hub in early April, the soil sampling typifies the ProFarmer program’s approach: project-based learning centered around the ecological health of the farm in the context of LEP’s larger mission in the Hudson Valley food system.

“Project-based learning uses real life experience to teach,” said Sara Katz, Associate Manager for Education Programs at the Farm Hub. “We are creating an alternative educational environment where people are learning by doing while also exploring the context and future implications of what they are growing.” This approach will no doubt prove rewarding as the ProFarmers, along with the farm crew, take on the farm’s thirty-two acres of vegetables this season – a five-acre market garden as well as four major vegetable enterprise crops (edamame and green beans, root crops, sweet corn, and broccoli and cauliflower). These vegetable enterprises provide a platform for intensive practical training in organic production through the season’s progression: from crop planning to budgeting, growing methods, harvesting, and marketing.

In addition to using project-based learning as a primary training method, ProFarmer team leaders are incorporating the principals of another alternative educational concept, “popular education.” In the words of Pancho Arguilles of Paz y Puente, an expert in participatory education who has provided curriculum guidance to the ProFarmer program this year, “Popular education is a methodology of participatory techniques and exercises used to create a space where people can share their experiences, learn from one another, and acquire the skills and knowledge to help them transform their realities.”

This means that everyone in the program has a role to play in teaching and learning. “It flips the traditional learning environment on its head,” Sara Katz added. “Rather than having one teacher leading the whole discussion, it becomes very learner-centered. I love using popular education with adults in a professional environment – they have so much knowledge and wisdom, and taking that as the center for dialogue in an educational setting is really effective.”

Popular Education works particularly well on a farm, where teamwork is essential to success and where ProFarmers, crew members, and teaching staff all bring a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to the work at hand. Whether working together to re-configure a tractor implement into an asparagus planter, creating a Spanish/English glossary for machine shop tools, or starting sweet corn in the greenhouse, the driving spirit behind curriculum design is evidenced in the sharing of individual experiences throughout the learning process.

In addition to daily practice and farm skill building, each day in the field, ProFarmers are contributing to the evolution of the Farm Hub’s collaborative learning environment. Additional trainings will be taking place in the coming months around communication and building a culture of inclusion, and the entire Farm Hub staff is active in the development of on-farm language learning that involves creating multi-lingual spaces and providing both ESL and Spanish instruction – all topics critical to the Farm Hub’s educational philosophy and as important to the health of our food system as the soil under our feet.

 

The application process for our 2017 ProFarmer program will begin soon. Applications will be online the week of June 20th, visit our Farmer Training page in the weeks to come for more information.