FARM-BASED EDUCATION INTERNSHIP
Farming is an inherently human process, and it is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to reconnect with the natural world in a society that is currently largely disconnected from it. During my semester of interning at Green Gate Farms, an urban farm in Austin, Texas, I have learned the value of farming as a way of reconnecting with nature while contributing to the economic success, social equality, and health of a community.
Erin Flynn and Skip Connett, a married couple with two teenaged children, run Green Gate Farms. The farm is certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture, and is one of only 42 organic farming operations in the entire state of Texas. Erin and Skip lived in Atlanta, Georgia, before moving to Texas to start their farm. The land itself has a rich history; it originally served as a farm and a home for immigrants, set up by a Swedish immigrant family- the Bergstroms- in the early 1900s. Today, it continues to serve its community by providing healthy and affordable produce to its neighbors, as well as by offering programs that educate people of all ages about organic farming and everything that goes into such an operation. This area of East Austin classifies as a food desert, meaning that it is difficult for residents to purchase affordable, healthy, fresh food. In talking to Erin, it is clear that she cares deeply about the community surrounding her farm, and she loves being able to provide organic produce to these families.
Green Gate works with Austin’s Sustainable Food Center (SFC) to provide locals with organic produce in exchange for SNAP credit (formerly known as food stamps). The SFC reimburses Green Gate for any SNAP or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) purchases, and even allows these customers to receive twice the value with their Double Dollars program. Green Gate sells produce via their on-site farm stand on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The CSA program is a hands-off approach that allows Green Gate to sell produce to community members on a weekly or biweekly basis. They provide bags full of whatever produce is available each week, and community organizers pick up the bags from the farm and distribute them to CSA members in their respective areas of Austin. CSA shares cost $25 each, so CSA members tend to come from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds. The CSA gives Green Gate a steady source of income that is more reliable than selling at a farmers market or solely from the farm stand. The increased stability this program allows for is vital to the farm’s survival.
Green Gate also serves the community by providing frequent farm-based education opportunities through their non-profit, New Farm Institute. Teachers and schools can sign up for field trips year-round, during which students receive a tour of the farm, learn about its mission, and usually participate in farm chores, such as planting, harvesting, watering, working with animals, and construction. New Farm Institute also hosts weeklong camps during spring and summer breaks, which give children more in-depth experiences and educational opportunities. There are also day camps held throughout the year, along with classes on a variety of farm-related topics, including chicken harvesting, natural soap making, composting, and even yoga. Erin invests her time, effort, and passion deeply into farm-based education.
Overview of Duties
During my time as New Farm Institute’s Farm-Based Education Intern, my central duty was to help Erin with anything related to the farm’s educational programs. To begin, I went through paper records of past field trips, all the way back to 2012, and made a spreadsheet listing previous schools, teachers, and what they did on their field trips. This process was long and somewhat tedious, but it gave me a better understanding of what typically happens during field trips.
Field trips at Green Gate Farms come in a variety of forms. All of them involve a tour of the farm, unless the group has already visited the farm a number of times. During the tour, someone from the farm staff leads the students from station to station, teaching them about the farm stand, the CSA program, the no-till fields, the pigs and how old pigs are when they become bacon (six months old), the goats, and the horse who thinks she is a goat. After the tour, the kids usually help with farm chores, such as working on the chicken coop, cleaning produce and packing CSA shares, pouring boiling water on ant piles to destroy them, pulling weeds from the fields, and watering the goats. When I spoke to my mother about Green Gate, she decided to take her own high school math class to the farm for a field trip. Her class will build a handful of birdhouses for the migratory birds that pass through the area, and each birdhouse will be a model of a famous building.
There are a couple of private school groups who do service-learning projects at Green Gate. One elementary school sends a group that completes whatever chores the farm needs done that day. Another group of middle-school girls visits every month to work on the garden, where they are building an herb spiral, a permaculture concept that, when finished, will be a small hill on which the girls will design a spiral made of rocks. They will plant herbs in the spiral according to their watering needs. Herbs who need the least water will go at the top of the spiral, so that when the plants get watered, the water will travel down the spiral to the plants that need the most water. Erin gives the girls full-reign on the project, only giving them guidance when she spots a gap in their plans.
Aside from field trips and service learning, New Farm Institute also holds camps. The Spring Break and Summer Farm Camps are weeklong day camps that allow kids ages 5-15 to immerse themselves in farm life. They leave farm camp with a deeper understanding of agriculture, animal husbandry, and- Erin hopes- a sense of ownership over the farm. There are also Farmer for a Day Camps, scheduled on weekdays when public school students do not have classes. These camps are similar to the other camps, and give kids a chance to get dirty and reconnect with the earth for a day.
I worked for three out of the five days of Spring Break Farm Camp, during which I led a variety of activities. One day I helped the campers paint an old metal cabinet, which was one of the messiest projects I have ever had the privilege to be a part of. I left with paint stains on my shoulders from little ones walking past me with their brushes in hand, and on my knees from kneeling down in paint. I also led greenhouse activities, which became the station Erin most commonly assigned me to. We also had the amazing opportunity to witness the birth of two kids (baby goats). I had never seen a birth in-person before, and it forever changed my view of Annie, the mother goat, and Avery, the farmers’ daughter who delivered the babies. Both of them were fearless, as I learned it is important to be on a farm.
During the largest field trip of the season- 115 third graders- the entire staff split into six stations. I led the greenhouse station, where I taught the kids each planted sunflower seeds. I also showed them a tray of seedlings, most of which were short with thick stems, but the last row of which were long with flimsy stems. I asked them why they thought these had grown differently, and the kids all shouted out answers, such as that the longer plants had received more water or were a different type of plant. The students were all surprised when I explained that the taller, flimsier seedlings had actually received less sunlight than the others because they were pressed up against the side of the greenhouse, out of the direct path of sunlight. They had grown taller to reach it, but their stems had not received enough to become thick and strong. My favorite part of camps and field trips was the pure excitement and interest children showed regarding the farm. It gave me a hopeful feeling that these kids might continue to pursue their excitement for the outdoors.
Aside from working during field trips and camps, I also did some farm work. I helped as the farmers began building their no-till fields. Tilling, which uses tractors to prepare fields for planting, ends up leaving a hard bed of soil underneath agricultural fields, which stifles plants’ growth. No-till, which avoids this issue but has a higher labor cost, has become more popular recently, especially among urban farmers. To create these plots, the farmers first started by planting a cover crop- pea shoots. Pea shoots have long green stems and sprout tiny purple flowers, along with pea pods, and their presence improves soil health. We then marked the rows with bamboo, left over from another project, and lay down a thick layer of leaves, followed by a layer of compost. Once the rows were finished, they began planting produce in these fields.
In addition to farm chores and working with children, I also performed a lot of administrative work. My main tasks had to do with New Farm Institute. I kept up with registrations and payments for classes and camps, advertised for Spring Break Farm Camp, contacted organizations about sending speakers to Summer Farm Camp, and occasionally posted on social media outlets regarding upcoming events. On my last day, I helped Erin organize and share her Green Gate Farms and New Farm Institute folders in Google Drive, which would allow her staff to easily retrieve any document she created. She took notes as I explained how to upload new documents to Google Drive, along with a few other useful options Google offers.
It was sometimes easy, especially on slow days or when I had little direction from Erin, to go to the farm and not get much done. Toward the middle of the semester, I made a conscious decision to look for ways I could help out, and I deliberately approached each task with confidence. I basically filled in the gaps wherever the farmers needed me to, and though there were times when I thought I was inadequate, by the end of the semester, I felt like an integral part of the staff.
As I mentioned in the introduction, modern American society is deeply disconnected from the natural world. For most of my life, I woke up indoors- protected from natural elements- and ate some sort of processed food while watching television; traveled to school in a machine slowly turning the planet into a place in which humans could not survive; sat in a classroom learning about subjects that were, for the most part, thoroughly detached from non-human nature; drove home; and watched television while eating more processed foods. This lifestyle was normal for me, and in many ways it still is. But outdoor education cracked open my assumptions about normality. It introduced me to a world that emphasized the importance of knowledge of my surroundings, the ability for creative thought, and the embrace of nature’s challenges, purely because of how beautiful and educational they were.
My first experience with outdoor education occurred in a program focused on Grand Canyon National Park. Though it is not a designated wilderness area, many aspects of it are wild beyond our imaginations. My education in this program instilled in me the idea that the natural world is all consuming, all-powerful, and untamable. Farming is less wild, and alternatively relies on the knowledge that we can connect with the natural world, ask it to give us what we need, and tend to the earth in order to receive its bounties. My initial education gave me a sense of reverence for nature, whereas my education at Green Gate Farms gave me a sense of deep connection with and dependence on nature.
Working on the farm was a spiritual experience; it introduced me to a new realm, in which I might find future fulfillment. But aside from the benefits I- one person- received, Green Gate also provides opportunities for low-income neighbors to buy healthy and affordable food and to spend time connecting with the earth. In addition to making organic produce accessible, Green Gate Farms also shares recipes that use the vegetables they sell, which help families understand how to get the most out of their food.
Another aspect, which may be the most important, is that Green Gate is part of a growing community of Austin farmers who support each other and encourage new farmers to join the trade. According to Erin, when she first moved to Austin, no farmers were willing to share their knowledge, give advice, or work in tandem with amateurs. Erin, on the other hand, believes that organic urban farming is central to a sustainable urban future, and so she puts most of her eggs in the farm-based education basket. She wants to share her knowledge with others interested in farming, and it’s working; her passion certainly rubbed off on me.