Welcome Table Farm employee Liz Phililps helps a Berney Elementary School student guide a single-horse walk-behind cultivator in the potatoes.
Photo courtesy of Beth Thiel
I’m youngish. At 36 I have some qualms about soon entering the new category of “middle aged.” But compared to other farmers, I’m really quite a spring chicken. The 2012 Census of Agriculture conducted by the Department of Agriculture found the average age of farmers is 58.3 years. In another 22 years, I’ll reach the average. I should have a good long run after that.
There’s good reason for the concern about the aging demographics of the people who feed us. I’m thrilled with the new efforts to support young farmers, such as the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Our regional land grant university, Washington State University, was one of the first to offer certificate and degree programs in organic agriculture. Andy graduated from The Evergreen State College’s Ecological Agriculture program. These courses offer excellent support and technical training for young people who have decided to farm.
How are young people inspired to make that choice? When kids are being guided toward a career, do they think of farming as an option? I’d like that to be the case. Some of the best and the brightest folks I have ever known did not dwell at a university or in an office, but in the fields.
For the last couple of years we’ve been able to share this message with the second- and third-graders in the Walla Walla School District. Through a two-year USDA Farm to School Initiate Grant, and the support of School District No. 140, every third-grader has had the chance to visit Welcome Table Farm. A whole grade level comes from a school at a time — two buses, 70-110 kids, for two hours.
The Farm to School USDA grant that has helped fund these school field trips ends this summer. Coordinator Beth Thiel and an advisory committee are looking for ways to continue the programming.
Other goals of the grant have been to increase local foods served in the school meal programs, support gardens in the schools and provide nutrition and cooking education for students and parents.
Great gains have been made. If you’d like to support future activities please contact Beth at email@example.com.
We divide the kids into five or six groups that rotate through different stations led by our fearless farmers. Tasting, transplanting, pest management and bug collection, animals and compost, draft horses and tillage tools and marketing were the regular stops on this spring’s tour. Highlights for the kids always include petting the dog, eating strawberries and watching when the horse takes a pee.
And at each station we talk about being farmers. How it requires really good problem-solving skills and critical thinking. For my part, I share that I feel really lucky to be able to work outside. I love that my job requires so much of me, both physically and intellectually. It’s the challenge of making such a complex system work that is so appealing. I eat really well. I’m in good shape. I make a decent living. In other words, farming is an option.
For field trips we charge a small fee per kid, which covers our prep time, some maintenance of facilities, the time of the actual field trip and the food that the kids sample. We also host field trips for private schools, Camp Fire, the YMCA preschool and other groups in town.
The second-graders in Lucy Gregoire’s class at Green Park Elementary visited Welcome Table in September. Lessons continued in their school garden this fall. Over the winter Mrs. Gregoire read my Weekly columns to her students. They thought of additional questions to ask “Farmer Emily.” I answered these inquires via email. It was really fun.
Mrs. Gregoire writes: “Our hope was that this correspondence throughout the winter would help keep the children thinking about soil, farming/gardening and vegetables. I have noticed a marked interest in my classroom response to the WSU Food$ense program this winter. For the first time, my class discussed nutrition outside of the lessons.”
Spending time in gardens and visiting farms helps kids make better food choices. Research shows they are much more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they see how they grow. We see this on Saturday mornings at the Downtown Farmers Market. Kids bring their parents by the stand for more of those peas or spinach that they tried and loved at the farm.
My greatest compliment, however, was recounted to us by a parent whose third-grader visited the farm. One day her daughter said, “Mom, when I grow up I want to be a scientist. Yeah. Someday I’m going to be a farmer like Andy and Emily.” That a girl!
Emily Asmus and her husband, Andy, own and operate Welcome Table Farm, a small, diversified farm in the Walla Walla Valley. This column describes what’s going on at the farm each month. They can be reached at 509-529-0772 or firstname.lastname@example.org.