Agrarian Adventure: Bringing the farm to the classroom

Historically, brussels sprouts are not particularly popular among school kids, but Ann Arbor nonprofit Agrarian Adventure  makes the vegetable the star of the show in its 'Farmer In the Classroom" programs.

"[Students] light up when they see you come in," says Agrarian Adventure vice president Deb Lentz. "They just see vegetables peeking out and they’re making guesses at what it is. Sometimes [presenters] are bringing a giant Brussels sprout stalk, and a lot of the school has never seen Brussels sprouts growing on a stalk. They don’t know that it’s almost like a tropical plant in some ways, and it looks really funny."

Lentz, who also co-owns Tantre Farm in Chelsea, was one of Agrarian Adventure’s first farmer-presenters in 2007. The nonprofit has been offering agricultural education opportunities since 2003, but Farmer In the Classroom proved particularly popular with local teachers. The program has now expanded to employ 11 farmer-presenters, who visited 39 classrooms in 12 different schools last school year. Lentz says farmers bring a variety of unusual produce to the classroom, like kohlrabi or purple cauliflower, playing guessing games with students and using the five senses to 'make it fun for them to discover what they’re going to be sampling."

"I think it’s really important for youth to have the connection to the environment in their community and to make informed choices about what they’re doing, what they’re putting in their bodies, what they’re putting in the soil so they can be stewards of our planet and our communities," says Agrarian Adventure board member Emily Canosa.

Canosa is more heavily focused on Agrarian Adventure’s broad-ranging involvement in Ann Arbor school gardens, the nonprofit’s second main initiative alongside Farmer In the Classroom. The key project in that department is offering guidance to Tappan Middle School’s parent-teacher-student organization as they maintain the school's garden.

Agrarian Adventure also helped fund and build a hoop house at the school in 2006, which has since been significantly scaled back due to support issues. The Agrarian Adventure board is currently seeking more guidance from the school district with regard to what happens next. 

However, the Tappan garden is still going strong. Students flock to it during Tappan’s unstructured 'advisory periods,' and for an after-school garden club run by Agrarian Adventure.

"They’re not just sitting off in the distance taking advantage of the hour," says Agrarian Adventure secretary Lise Anderson. "They’re actually there, really working in the garden. It’s kind of a cool thing, I think, because it’s not just a class where they’re coming out very specifically, which happens as well...they come out there just because they want to be out there."

Although Tappan represents Agrarian Adventure's biggest school gardening project, it's not the only one. The nonprofit also distributes seedlings from Tappan to other area schools that request them, and has collaborated in setting up gardens at King Elementary and Slauson Middle School. Canosa says the organization's diverse, long-lasting relationships with local schools grow out of strong multi-stakeholder collaboration.

"If you're doing any programming in the schools it's really important to have parents involved, teachers involved, students involved, administration, the PTSO–kind of all these pieces playing an important part," she says. "I think that helps us to build a lot of inclusivity with what steps we take."

Although the organization is currently making a fundraising push to revitalize the Tappan greenhouse and to support other new projects, its programs remain popular and its longevity is impressive. Anderson says that's thanks in part to Ann Arborites' attitudes about food.

"There is real excitement in Ann Arbor about food system change," Anderson says. "School gardening is one big part of that. Our community supports small farmers and the connection between the city and the consumers and producers. I think we have unique conditions here and people who are really willing to partner."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and lead writer for Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

Hey! Like this story? Then you should "LIKE" Concentrate on our Facebook page.  Click here to show us a little like and... we'll like you back. OR follow us on Twitter @ConcentrateA2

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.