In farming, good business practice involves measuring your return on investment. What do you get out after everything that you’ve put in? What crop yields and profits come as a result of every dollar spent on labor, taxes, and other costs of doing business?
For a nonprofit like Oregon Aglink and an education program like Adopt a Farmer, the numbers going in are often more quantifiable than the results coming out. We can factor in the budget spent on materials and staff hours and come to the conclusion of X number of schools reached (27 last year) or Y number of students who have gone through the program (over 20,000 in the nine years leading up to this fall). Those aren’t outputs, though. Like other factors in the equation, they are inputs that tell us what was mixed together as the result of classroom visits and field trips.
How, then, can we measure the real impact of Adopt a Farmer and the investment we have collectively made in this program?
Between October 2019 and June 2020, Oregon Aglink staff members attended nine monthly Project Impact classes led by the Dialogues in Action team at the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. Each session covered different aspects of defining and measuring the intended and actual impact of our Adopt a Farmer program with middle school students.
The final sixteen-page report laid out the desired impacts of the program and the relevant patterns from student interviews conducted by staff members in March. Our quantitative assessment was cut short this year due to the school closures after the outbreak of Covid-19. Still, the student responses told us a lot about the program and the ways Adopt a Farmer is both successful and has room to grow.
Investing our own time and resources into this Project Impact course has yielded some outputs in which Oregon Aglink, its volunteers, and members can take pride. Not only is the value of Adopt a Farmer more clear than ever, staff now have better evidence of what works and where best to focus future efforts on development.
Desired Impacts: What would we like to see as the result of student participation in our program?
Major Insights from Student Interviews
1. New Frames of Reference
Learning about the time, planning, and large scales of farming are consistently challenging and memorable. Farmers may see their fields and orchards every day, but students always came back to how surprised they were by the sheer size and complexity of the farming operations they visited.
2. Open Arms at the Farm
Students remember the positive feelings of safety, confidence, and accessibility at farms during their field trip, and those feelings can help develop a trust that opens the door for more learning. Warm welcomes and earnest answers from farmers make students comfortable with asking better questions and learning bigger ideas.
3. No Blank Slates
Students come to the program with a wide range of background knowledge and preconceived notions about food production that Adopt a Farmer can challenge. Even “rural” students can have ideas about organic farming or food safety that they might end up adjusting after meeting a farmer who explains why they plant or spray in certain ways.
4. Systems and Self
As students piece together the larger systems that intersect around farming and food production, they get a better sense of their own place and confidence within that system. Students are learning that they aren’t just engaging with farms via the grocery store. A farm or ranch is connected beyond the food chain to the water cycle, local wildlife, the economy, and of course the communities where students live.
5. Getting Their Hands Dirty
Students respond positively to even small moments of participation and firsthand experience, which gives them the authority to form their own opinions. The physical sensation of running the length of an orchard row or trying to crack a hazelnut open in their hands also serves as a tangible memory to ground the other lessons.
6. Imagining Pathways + Education
Many students are able to distinguish between formal education and what experience or knowledge would be required to get a job in agriculture, but we do not yet see students drawing regular connections between themselves and education or careers, in agriculture or otherwise. This is a huge opportunity for Adopt a Farmer program growth.
Oregon Aglink staff will use these insights to refine current plans and develop new farm-school matches based on what is working and what needs work.
The best part about the Project Impact process is that it can be repeated as often as necessary. The qualitative and quantitative assessments can be adapted for future student groups and also the teachers and farmers involved in the program. Adopt a Farmer can be a wise investment of time and energy for every group taking part, and the staff and volunteers at Oregon Aglink are committed to making that happen.
– Allison Cloo