Late in May, near the end of the 2020-2021 school year, Oregon Aglink staff visited Victor Point School in Silverton for some important business: bringing Adopt a Farmer back into the classroom.
After a year of school closures and safety measures due to COVID-19, the Adopt a Farmer had its first in-person event in 438 days.
In a typical year at this small Willamette Valley school, the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes would be paired respectively with a dairy farm (Abiqua Acres), a hazelnut farm (Aman Bros), and a berry operation (Willamette Valley Pie). When COVID-19 still had schools in safety mode for the start of the school year, the Adopt a Farmer program pivoted to virtual field trips and take-home kits for students who were either learning remotely or could not have visitors in the classroom.
Eighth grade teacher Megan Lierman has participated in the Adopt a Farmer program for several years and was looking for a way to keep this crop of students involved. “I appreciate the field trips and the class visits that then connect the field trips to science concepts,” says Lierman. “[Students get to] apply learning to real life situations and explore career paths,” she continues, “and it also shows that there are multiple career options in agriculture that require higher education.”
Luckily, the move to reopen schools with safety measures lined up with the construction of a new outdoor recreation area at Victor Point School. Adopt a Farmer staff received approval to do a “pop-up” event for all of the students who would have been receiving visits from farmers or taking the school bus to different farms during the year if the pandemic hadn’t caused such widespread closures.
Taking advantage of the good air circulation and shade, Oregon Aglink staff and volunteers set up four stations in the recreation area where small groups of students could comfortably spread out. A favorite station was the classic Turf Buddies activity, which highlights photosynthesis and the local grass seed industry. Another stop for the students included making ice cream in a bag after watching a virtual field trip of the robotic milking at Abiqua Acres.
One familiar face at the pop-up event was Jake Tschiegg, an agronomist with Valley Ag who has participated in previous field trips to local grass seed operation Victor Point Farms and a packing plant Northwest Onion. This year the focus was on hazelnuts, from their early days in the field to the later stages of processing and distribution.
“Some of those kids were at the Aman’s farm,” says Tschiegg, referring to the eighth graders who would have visited the hazelnut operation two years before. “They still remembered Tom teaching them how to crack the nuts with their hands. That was neat to see that Tom taught them and they kept it.”
The hands-on learning is a signature piece of Adopt a Farmer programming that helps students connect higher-level concepts to memorable activities where they physically move, play, and practice their problem-solving skills. In line with this thinking, Tschiegg had the students act out the stages of spraying in orchards where newly planted trees compete with weeds for nutrients–in this case, mini candy bars the students could keep.
Liz Schaecher, the most recent staff member to join the team at Oregon Aglink and Adopt a Farmer, was hired just before the closures began in 2020. She has been key in adapting content and farm-school matches into the virtual format that still allowed students to connect with their local farmer. The Victor Point visit was her first in-person activity with students, and she brought a new activity for the Adopt a Farmer program: separating strawberry DNA to show how every berry contains “instructions” for growing into the sweet treats that people love eating every summer.
“It was really fun to do a quick hands-on science experiment with them and watch their eyes get huge when they saw the DNA clump together in a test tube,” says Schaecher. Still, she adds, “I can’t wait to get back to normal in the fall and be back on field trips and in the classrooms with the kids, and also hopefully we’ll be able to reach even more students with our virtual farm trip resources we’ve created.”
Rotating through the stations, students seemed enthusiastic to be learning in the fresh air. Teachers from all three grades looked grateful for the guest speakers. Everyone seemed to enjoy the change of pace from computer screens.
The first and last in-person Adopt a Farmer activity for the 2020-2021 school year felt a little too short, but staff are already reaching out to past schools and farms to set up the familiar routine of class visits and field trips beginning in the fall. The students at all of our Oregon middle schools may not know it, but the staff and volunteers of Adopt a Farmer are just as excited as anyone to be back in the field connecting young learners with the agriculture in their state.