Recipe for a Farm-based Learning Center

Working Principles for Farm-based Pedagogy

(1) Begin with children and teens.
We have discovered in this research that memories from early years with gardening/farming seem to lead to life-long interest in caring for the local environment and a strong sense of embodiment in nature (Cajete, 1994; Louv, 2008). Learning “the language of nature,” which includes the language of creating sustainable local food systems, may be acquired in ways that are not dissimilar to learning any spoken human language. In fact, the language of nature is best learned by people in ways that they acquire most knowledge: in social and cultural context and in the context of their own natural environments (Cajete, 1994; Rogoff; 2003; Rogoff & Lave, 1999). While I feel it is important to begin with children and teenagers, I am certainly not saying that socioecological intelligences cannot be developed and fostered in adults.  Farm/garden pedagogy is an intergenerational process.
(2) Maintain a collaborative process.
 As this research has shown, farm pedagogy thrives in situations of strong and committed collaboration, imbued with deep listening and respectful dialogue. Remain open to diversity: in people, in crops, in farm practice, and in learning topics and strategies. Trust people who are working in an environment of mutual respect to solve problems skillfully and creatively (Bohm, 1996a, 1996b; Freire, 2000; hooks, 1994, 2000, 2003; Vella, 1994).
(3) Remember that socioecological learning in farm pedagogy is, at its best, an intergenerational endeavor.
All ages, from children to older adults, have something to add and much to learn from one another (Armstrong, 2005; Bateson, 2010; Wheatley, 2007; Peña, 2005). People have always learned best in multi-age groups in community (Rogoff, 2003; Rogoff & Lave, 1999). Farm pedagogy is ideal for this kind of learning toward sustainable food systems.
(4) Find your garden/farm space and genuinely observe it.
Garden/farm pedagogy may take place anywhere: it may take place on rural acreage as this research did; likewise, it may be accomplished in the suburbs, the exurbs, or an urban setting – perhaps especially urban centers (Waters, 2008). Before you begin any farm/garden pedagogy, it is wise to get to know your land. Sit with it and listen to it. This is the way that sustainable food systems have been developed for millennia (Anderson, 1996).
(5) Allow for incremental growth.
Learn patience with your land and with yourself as a gardener or farmer. Some land has been deeply disturbed and it may take time to reestablish land health. Some land is inherently more difficult to work with than other pieces of land. Rainshadow Farm was a challenging piece of land, churned up by bulldozers to build the farm house and in a harsh and semi-arid locale. In difficult circumstances, if you do not want to resort to use of chemical amendments, it may take up to ten years to develop healthy soil for food production. As you “compose your landscape” keep agrobiodiversity in mind; use your garden and farm margins to encourage biodiversity (Janke, 2002, pp. 209-219; Lockyer & Veteto, forthcoming). Remember to add livestock mindfully; do not be in a hurry. These are living beings deserving of respect and mindful care. In any situation it is no shame to start small. Good things can take time to grow. Do not be afraid to start small. People can learn a great deal from growing even a single tree (Fukuoka, 1978; Smith, 1950).
(6) Expect difficulties but stay the course.
Learn to view difficulties as challenges that can move you along in local knowledge and can bring you, if you exercise patience and determination, to the next step. Apply patience and compassion to yourself, to those working with you, and to the land you are working with. Valuing people in all of their diversity, valuing the natural world as the matrix we exist within, and valuing all communities of life, not just the human, is integral to overcoming our difficulties. Deeply respectful and participative dialogue and an extradisciplinary approach, along with the idea of “presencing,” may help with creative problem solving and may help the movement in a group from chaos back to a new level of order (Bohm, 1996a, 1996b; Senge, et al., 2004, Wheatley, 2007; also see Chapter V).
(7) Form a core group.
Just as a farm-based learning center may be a hub of activity for a regional community, the pedagogical project will thrive with a core of dedicated people at its hub (Sayre & Clark, 2001).
(8) Learn to recognize your attributes and challenges: personally, as a group, and within your garden/farm environment.
Our learning ecologies took place on a very small-scale farm in a marginal and semi-arid environment; however, garden and farm learning may be adapted to any bioregion. Collaboratively designed workshops may take a variety of forms, depending upon what the people in the region feel is important to learn to build toward more self-sufficiency and more sustainable food systems (Cleveland & Soleri, 1991; Traina & Darley-Hill, 1995; Waters, 2008).
(9) Always remember that there are no sustainable food systems without socially just food systems, from seed to field to market to table.
When farmers and farmworkers are treated unjustly and do not receive adequate compensation or sufficient respect for the important work they do, the entire food system is thrown off. To call a food system sustainable means that all people are able to obtain safe and wholesome and sufficient food regardless of their incomes; also they are able to actively participate in food policy-making.  In addition, justice in food systems includes understanding that deep systemic problems cause the current food system to leave poor people and farmworkers, particularly undocumented farmworkers underserved and frequently maltreated (Chavez, 1998; Guthman, 2004, 2008; Peña, 2005).
(10) Be sure to have fun! Socialize as much as you work; this helps build a strong community of practice.
An overly austere or puritanical approach has generally never led to compassionate, sustainable societies. Rather, taking a positive approach in which people discover that they can build meaning into their lives and help others seems to encourage actions that promote social well-being and ameliorate tendency toward destructive actions. This has been demonstrated in classroom and community settings (Goleman, 2004, 2009; Krishnamurti, 1953; Maser, 1999; Montuori, 2008).
 (11) Always remember that farm pedagogy is an ongoing process. It will never be a completed project.
What occurred at Rainshadow Farm emerged bit by bit through exploration through an iterative process. Coherence emerged from the inside out, certainly not from the top down. Change was not a problem; change was part of how the learning ecologies and learning relationships developed.

About rainshadowfarm

I teach anthropology, am an archaeologist, a drylands agroecologist, community educator, and a single mother of eight grown kids. I currently own and operate an educational and research farm in the southern Mojave Desert, Rainshadow Farm. I'm 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Not necessarily in that order.
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