Preparing Students for a Career in Food and Agriculture: an Interview with Karen Swan of the Center for Land-Based Learning
In our second of three interviews with the directors of programming for the Center for Land-Based Learning, Karen Swan talks about the collaborative mission of the two programs she runs, FARMS and GreenCorps. Through both programs, students are taught leadership and agricultural skills which connect them to California's food system and careers within food and agricultural sectors.
An introduction from Karen Swan
I started at the Center for Land-Based Learning as a part-time FARMS Leadership Program Coordinator for the Sacramento Valley five years ago. Through my post-college jobs in outdoor education, I learned that I wanted to be involved in science outreach for my life-long career, specifically related to agricultural and environmental sciences. I quickly figured out that there were some barriers I didn’t understand that teachers faced when trying to access and take advantage of outreach and opportunities to get the kids outside. I realized that if I wanted to be great at providing science outreach, I would need to get some first-hand experience in the classroom. This led me to a teaching credential and a great job teaching 8th-grade science. After two years, my district was making some major changes I wasn’t too excited about, and I found out that Center for Land-Based Learning (which I had visited with one of my classes as an undergrad at UC Davis) needed a part-time FARMS Leadership Program coordinator. I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I absolutely loved how my job has evolved into a full-time position, working with a variety of projects at CLBL that involve working with high school and college youth, connecting them to California's food systems, and helping them prepare for a successful college and career experience. My favorite thing about working at CLBL is how dynamic all of our projects are. We have very successful tried-and-true models for youth engagement and agriculture education to rely on, and using those as a base we can adjust our programming to fit the changing needs of the region and the students we’re working with at the time.
Edible Schoolyard Project: How did the FARMS and GreenCorps programs come about? Did they emerge from a need or a desire within the community?
Karen Swan: Both. FARMS Leadership was started in 1993 by an organic farming family who was concerned about how disconnected youth were becoming from the land that sustains us all. They took the initiative to address this concern and help connect students with the land and how food is grown through creating the FARMS Leadership Program. Because of desire and need within communities around the state, the program is now happening in seven regions, serving students in 11 counties. GreenCorps began in 2010 with a stimulus package grant for green jobs training in the Sacramento region. There was a huge need on the part of the students we served in our school year programs for employment training and paid summer work, and it was wonderful to be able to address that need for over 25 students.
ESYP: How are FARMS and GreenCorps different from SLEWS?
KS: There are a few differences. In SLEWS, students adopt a restoration site with other students from their schools and really get to know the restoration cycle over 3-5 field days. In both FARMS and GreenCorps, we visit multiple sites and participate in a wider range of sustainable agriculture topics. Both programs include students from multiple schools, so part of the leadership training component is helping students feel comfortable meeting new people and working with others from different parts of their community. In the Sacramento Valley, FARMS students are SLEWS alumni who are interested in continuing their education and leadership training around sustainability.
ESYP: Is GreenCorps a summer continuation of FARMS or is it a program more directly focused on technical training than leadership skills?
KS: GreenCorps is a great summer continuation of either FARMS or SLEWS, but is also open to students who are new to CLBL. Because leadership skills are so important, we incorporate that training into all CLBL programs. GreenCorps is structured so that both technical and leadership training are inherent.
ESYP: How are the programs structured?
KS: A student participating in GreenCorps works with CLBL throughout the summer, and the number of workdays per week we can offer depends on our funding that year. We use CLBL headquarters as our home base and start the day there, then travel to restoration sites and small farms throughout the area to work on projects. The projects and partners we are working with change almost daily, so the youth learn to adapt to new situations and be flexible. The program also includes a community service component; and a lot of training on how to look for a job, write a resume and cover letter, and be a professional.
In FARMS, 6-9 students from several different schools come together about once a month throughout the school year for field days. FARMS students from each school also work together throughout the year on a Community Action Project, where they use their new knowledge about agriculture and the environment to address a need in their community.
ESYP: Who is your target community and how large of a network does this program reach?
FARMS serves high school youth from 11 counties, from Orange County all the way to Colusa County. GreenCorps serves high school and college-aged youth from the Sacramento region—mostly Yolo and Sacramento counties.
ESYP: Why does FARMS work with high school age children? What is the value of engaging high school students in sustainable farming?
We feel very strongly that as a high schooler, it’s important to get to participate in real work to understand that what you learn in the classroom really is important. One of our FARMS students was helping to build a compost bin and commented that she learned more math doing that than she had all year. That’s because she had a chance to see that the math she’d learned throughout the year had an application that she cared about. An experience like this can help a student go back to the classroom and be more motivated to pay attention because they understand the need.
Additionally, it’s very hard for secondary teachers to get students out of the classroom. They need a sub to teach their other classes, and the students need to be able to miss all of their classes. It can be more complicated than in elementary school, and it requires a lot of support. We address this challenge by offering effective programs that we’ve evaluated heavily and proven successful, including important aspects such as connecting students with professional and college mentors, going into the classroom to help students prepare to get the most out of their field days, stressing to the students that they need to maintain good grades in all of their classes so they can follow through with their commitment to attend each field day, and helping cover the cost of substitutes when necessary.
ESYP: What are the most popular activities/projects?
KS: Two of the most popular activities in FARMS are building owl nesting boxes and gleaning fruit and bringing it to the local food bank. In GreenCorps, youth love harvesting tomatoes and strawberries for CSA baskets, and the farmers always let them take some home. We also did a citizen science research project monitoring blue oak habitat on a cattle ranch the first year of GreenCorps that was extremely popular.
ESYP: What are you looking for in the students selected to participate?
KS: The first thing we are looking for is a student who is really interested and committed to completing the whole program. Each field day (in FARMS) and each work week (in GreenCorps) builds on the last and it’s important for a student to partipicate in each experience. Beyond that, there’s a variety of things we look for when selecting youth: some youth may be selected because they are especially interested in a career in ag or environmental science, while some may be selected because we know that this opportunity will help them build confidence to overcome some struggles they may be facing.
ESYP: How are the programs funded and are there improvements that you wish to make to the programs?
Both of these programs are funded primarily by grants and donations, both large and small. GreenCorps funding has been harder to secure the last two years, so we had to run a smaller program last year, and will this year as well. We are constantly improving both programs to address the current needs of the region, especially by changing the focus of a FARMS field day to make sure we are giving students experiences in things that are current in their communities related to agriculture. For example, this year we added a fruit gleaning field day in Oak Park, and then learned all about the services offered by the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.
For GreenCorps, the biggest improvement I’d like to make right now is to secure sufficient multi-year funding to run a full program. The impact of GreenCorps is huge: I spend all summer getting to know the youth and can figure out what areas they need continued support in, and then we help connect them with resources or provide that support ourselves. I continue to work with a lot of our GreenCorps alumni and have helped them get to college and find jobs and scholarships, so being able to continue that program with more than a few kids each summer is very important to me.
ESYP: How do you measure success?
KS: We are very proud of our evaluation methods, which we have developed and improved with the help of Dr. Heidi Ballard from the UC Davis School of Education. Students complete pre-and post-surveys, coordinators complete Field Day Assessments, and we use daily field journal entries and student responses to reflections to assess what students are getting out of the programs. We’ve also conducted a lot of end-of-program oral interviews with students and teachers, which help us guide our programs.
ESYP: What do you find is the greatest value of land-based learning?
KS: Getting to be involved in multiple steps of food production and seeing it make an impact on the community; or finding inspiration to take that knowledge home and do something with it, helps teens realize their potential and gives them the confidence to act. When they learn how something is grown, get advice from the farmer while they help plant seedlings, go home and help their grandmother plant her garden, glean fruit from neighborhood trees and take that fruit to the food bank, or learn how it will be distributed within the community, they can see a tangible difference in the world based on their actions. There is a lot of power in how passionate teenagers are about the world around them and their interest in making others’ lives better. It’s huge, and it’s very exciting to be a part of that perspective! I love my job.