As the 2020-2021 school year begins, the Adopt a Farmer program has reached its tenth year with a winning formula: mix equal parts middle school classroom with your choice of Oregon farm, ranch, dairy, nursery, or orchard. Add in great activities, humor, and lots of learning about our state’s agriculture.
The result? Students come away with a greater appreciation for agricultural products and the people responsible for them.
To say that the program has both hit the decade benchmark and shows no signs of stopping invites us to look back at the first years and even earlier. While other programs like Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom and Oregon FFA work with larger national models to connect students of different ages to nearby agriculture, Adopt a Farmer evolved in Oregon out of a specific moment and with exactly the right committee.
Telling the story about how Adopt a Farmer came into being required a special phone call with one of the program’s long-standing fans: former Oregon Aglink executive director Geoff Horning. He led many of the original meetings that shaped the Adopt a Farmer committee: a small group consisting of farmers, nonprofit administrators, business leaders, and an extension agent.
Defining The Moment: Bill Levy
In 2011, the Oregon Aglink board of directors was welcoming the new year at the Northwest Ag Show in its original location at the Expo Center in Portland. Several months of work had already gone into a new campaign supporting Oregon agriculture but the energy wasn’t quite there. According to Horning, it was Bill Levy, CEO of Pacific Ag, who called time-out and asked simply “What’s our elevator pitch?”
What, in other words, would all the board members take to their different organizations and clients and neighbors to pitch as the real work of Oregon Aglink?
“We decided to take the organization down to the foundation, down to scratch, and reimagine what we were doing,” says Horning.
Oregon Aglink had already been going through a transition of sorts as it moved on from other programs that had run their course. Over the next few months and several meetings, staff and board members sketched out an idea: reclaim the roots of consumer outreach and education by reaching an untapped audience: children and preteens.
“We need to do kid education,” Horning recalls Levy saying . “That’s where it’s at.”
Building The Concept: Amy Doerfler and Tom Silberstein
Middle school students were the target audience, filling a gap in agriculture outreach and education between other programming at the time for elementary and high school students around the state. Everyone agreed that it was important for an exchange to happen: farmers would visit the school to see the students in their own environment, but students would also get a chance to visit a working farm or ranch.
Essential to making this happen was finding some farms willing to pilot the program and an ag professional who could help with creating some signature activities.
Along with Molly McCargar of Pearmine Farms and Greg Satrum at Willamette Egg Farms, Amy Doerfler of Doerfler Farms was one of the first farmers willing to take the leap of faith and host a group of students out on the farm in the fall of 2011.
Doerfler recruited the next piece of the puzzle: Tom Silberstein, the extension agent for Doerfler Farms. Together with Amy and her brothers, Silberstein filled in the realistic details of the first version of the Farming Game that is still used during classroom visits a decade later.
“It was a learning experience,” says Horning. “We weren’t quite sure how the teaching community would take it. How many do we do? What can we do?”
Between the first and second years, the group made careful adjustments. “The big one, frankly, was we were adamant initially that the field trips would happen right off the bat,” says Horning, with the farmers coming in to connect with students at the start of the school year. However, he continues, “it became really clear that post-harvest, in September and October, the farms weren’t doing that much.”
“You want to show the magic to the kids,” says Horning. The program evolved to include spring field trips as needed, when fields were being planted or worked. “We realized that we needed to be more flexible that there wasn’t a cookie cutter program that would fit for every operation”
Completing the Committee: John McCulley and Terry Ross
Getting ready for the second year of the program, the committee started to take a more official shape. Bill Levy, Amy Doerfler, and Tom Silberstein were joined by long-time Oregon Aglink board member John McCulley of the Oregon Fairs Association and Oregon Aglink executive committee member Terry Ross.
Both men were regular fixtures on other committees and brought their respective talents and perspectives, which are still evident in their recent work with Oregon Aglink. McCulley has a thoughtful approach born of long service to other non-profit organizations and involvement with Oregon agriculture. Ross offers frank feedback and is always ready to rally support for a program and recruited many of the farmers going forward in the program.
What makes a successful committee?
The lesson here, beyond how to start up an agricultural education program, is the power of getting the right people working together on a project. Many of us have spent time on committees, scanned minutes for approval, and talked around a table in one conference room or another. For the doers of the world, it’s hard to connect those meetings with the end product.
Nevertheless, committees can get things done, and Geoff Horning had his thoughts ready for the final question: what makes a successful committee?
“Honestly,” he says, “there are two components to a successful committee. First and foremost, have someone outside of the staff who believes in the project and can drive it.”
Horning continues to his second and somewhat surprising point: ”Turnover. You want fresh input. It’s a delicate balance between changing everything every year and getting stale. You want some continuity but you don’t just want to say ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’”
In the case of the Adopt a Farmer committee in the early years of the program, it didn’t get any fresher than brand new. With hundreds of classroom visits and field trips completed in the past decade, the program and its success speak to the solid groundwork laid by those who first envisioned it.