My own life-long pursuit of small-scale agriculture and gardening has been deeply influenced by West Virginian hill country women farmers: my maternal great aunt, and her niece, my aunt. These two women both are descended from a long line of Old and New World hill famers, ranging from Switzerland to West Virginia, one a master gardener and the other a single woman farmer from the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. The former I visited, being encouraged to work alongside her on her farm. The latter I spent a large part of my childhood and youth living with and learning techniques for small-scale and bio-intensive household gardening, also developing an appreciation for ecological uses of local native wild foods. I began my first garden at the age of nine in the backyard of a Rust-Belt city in northwestern Ohio. Through this endeavor, I found my own relationship with the natural world enriched by harvesting food that I had planted with my own small hands. Having gardened and farmed in rural and urban settings, I know that pedagogical gardening/farming provides an opportunity for fostering socioecological awareness in any region.
At Rainshadow Farm the main objectives in building a farm-based learning center are (1) to explore, alongside local residents, ways of developing, increasing, and maintaining socioecological intelligences; (2) to help re-embed local people in the regional landscape in ways that are meaningful to them; (3) to discover whether socioecological knowledge encourages concern or compassion for both the natural world and for other human beings; (4) to learn if such concern and “intelligent compassion” (Milton, 2002) might motivate ethical socioecological action; and (5) to develop an effective farm pedagogy for meeting these objectives. We who work at Rainshadow Farm feel we have confirmed these objectives. Consequently we believe farm/garden pedagogy could be developed as one effective source for community transformation anywhere – potentially helping transform individual lives and after that transforming life in a community. This transformation will affect not only the human communities but the communities of the natural world, as people learn to work with and alongside their environments in comprehensible and ecologically sound ways, rather than struggle against their various environments.
David Orr has said, “all education is environmental education.” If we maintain with Orr that environmental learning might permeate all education, we would be wise to examine areas where we have been less than successful in educating for sustainable lifeways. If all education, in fact, is some form of environmental education, some forms of education have been environmentally destructive. For instance, Orr declares that educators, including environmental educators, have continued for decades to educate in ways that deny the critical nature of various current global ecological crises such as increasing desertification, loss of fossil groundwater, and destruction of productive soil for farming in regions that were, in fact, once fertile. By engaging in collaborative and emergent socioecological education on a small farm, it might be possible to directly address some of these shortcomings in environmental education. In a community learning center on a farm/garden, we might have the freedom to explore not only education about sustainability, but education for and as sustainability.
At Rainshadow Farm we have begun to do this, including deep discussion about why and how people can develop and foster socioecological intelligences and the importance of building sustainable local food systems. We have also found that re-skilling could become the backbone of a farm- or garden-based pedagogy. In the process of developing a localized farm-based pedagogy, we have also discovered that learning in collaborative ways may generate some chaos but the chaos is not insurmountable. In fact, we have found that such chaos may become the path to new forms of learning and deeper collaborative order. This kind of collaborative learning might be implemented anywhere by a small group of sufficiently motivated people.