Located at Katama Farm on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, MA, The FARM Institute is a nonprofit, fully operational farm that has provided educational programs for both youth and adults since 2000. The organization has a team of Farm-Based Educators, primarily college-age young adults, who teach their students – ranging in age from 4 to 12 – about where the food that they eat comes from, including how to collect eggs from chickens, compost, and even build farm infrastructure.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with the Executive Director of The FARM Institute, Jon Previant, to discuss the role that the organization is playing in building consciousness about food in the next generation, and how that consciousness is spreading in a way that makes it look like it’s here to stay.
In what ways do you think your educational programs are contributing to youth being more aware of the food that they eat? How do you teach students about the connection between knowing the source of their food and making healthier diet choices?
The entire curriculum for the FARM Institute is the farm. So, we have an experiential learning model, and the kids – throughout the summer, fall, winter, and spring – are actually engaged in various acts of the food production, food consumption, or food preparation. I think that exposure on a hands-on basis is what is transformative.
When you’re teaching by the experience, it’s the experience that matters. The kids have actual chores to do when they’re in [our programs]. They have eggs to get, chickens to feed, fences to move, [and they’re] in the garden, planting, weeding, harvesting. And that experience, the actual experience of doing it – that is what makes this a unique camp, is that it’s a full-fledged working farm, and they get to participate [in that].
How do you see your students and volunteers go on to pursue their interest in agriculture?
I think we have realistic expectations that we’re not going to see a lot of people decide that they’re going to be farmers. We have had that happen [however], and it’s a pretty stirring moment when people announce that their experience here has changed their goals in life or orientation toward [a career]. What we’re really just hoping to do is make sure that they have some kind of understanding of what it takes to grow food, and how it’s done.
The goal is just to expand [a student’s] brain about food, and get them to understand that it’s hard work, and the reward is in the hard work and in the consumption of something you’ve raised yourself. We want to show the path from the dirt to your belly – [show that] this [connection] is true, this is real. What do you want to do about it? You just want to be an eater? That’s fine. You want to be a grower? That’s great. But this is the reality of how it happens, and I’m happy to show you that, and want to show you that. We know that our scope is narrow, but it’s not any less deep for that.
Have you seen an increase in the amount of tourists that come to the farm in recent years?
We’ve definitely seen an increase, especially this year, as well as last year, and it’s hard to know whether we’re doing a better job of advertising or whether people are actually seeking out farms as a tourist destination. Our traffic is up substantially. We do a combination of actual tours and then people [also] just walk around, as we’re a public space…we certainly have about 50 or 60 visitors a day – and maybe some days, even more. The tours, the one that we conduct, are groups of 8 to 12. I had a group of probably twelve here this morning from Saskatchewan. And this afternoon there will be all sorts of people walking through and [riding] on bicycles. It’s hard for me to say [whether] it’s all because of us, but it’s pretty easy to say that we’re seeing a lot more people.
What are some specific changes you’ve seen in the agro-tourism industry here on the island specifically in the past few years?
Well, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the term “agro-tourism,” but I understand that that’s the term that people are using. We don’t know the motivation for people coming [to the farm]. I think, in my conversations with tourists, people walking into the office or around outside, [that] there is a serious interest in: what does this mean? There’s a real appreciation for just little bits and pieces of information. You’re only talking for 15 or 20 minutes, so you’re not going to give them a long lecture about farming. But I’m seeing people with much more substantial curiosity and questions than [I would] a few years ago. They hear all these words and see these words on menus, and now they have an opportunity to see [what they mean] in real life and experience it – bringing it back to experiential learning. So when we talk to them, we try to relate it to, “You know when you see on a menu, where it says ‘pasture-raised,’ ‘free-range’? This is what that looks like.” So there’s a real appreciation of that.
Would you say that the advent of this farm-to-table movement in the restaurant industry has contributed to the growth of farms locally?
That’s a tough question to ask, and we’re in an unfair location, because this is a very food-centric island, even in the off season. People are great cooks on this island even without trying, without bragging about it. Some part of that might be the bounty here – the access to fresh seafood and locally raised beef and pork and chicken. [But I think that] our experience would be skewed.
In a general sense, I am skeptical as to the depth of that influence [because] I’ve been doing this for a long time. I used to say to people, “I remember the last time farming was popular, and the time before that.” I’m a little jaded in that way – but even though I’m a skeptic, my suspicion is that this current interest in food and healthy food and how it gets raised has a little more depth to it, and I think it’s going to stick a little longer. And I think it’s because it’s starting from the idea of, “What are we doing to our bodies with what we’re eating?” Whereas the earlier movements had a lot more to do with escapism and getting out of the city.
What I’m hearing now is people asking much more thoughtful questions – “Why are you doing this?” “Why does that work?” “Why is that good?” I’m cautiously optimistic that this [current interest in where food comes from] has solidity to it and depth to it based on the questions that are being asked. But I’m also a farmer, so I’m optimistic by nature.
So you’ve definitely noticed an increased interest that people have in wanting to know where their food is coming from?
Well, maybe the people that come to a farm to ask these questions are a self-selecting group. But we’re getting better quality questions. You sense that there’s more thought being put into this. We’re also seeing [fewer] people hoping that this is a petting zoo, or petting farm – asking if their kids can get in the pen [with the animals]. Those intentions, or desires, seem to be dropping, and there are more questions like, “Why are those pasture-fed chickens getting supplemented?” I think these are all really positive signs.
Do you also see this trend in the questions the kids are asking? Do you think they’re getting that influence from their parents?
I think the kids are educating the parents. Here’s an example: we slaughter our own chickens, and we let it be known when that’s going to be happening, and we give parents the option to let their kids observe. I would say that probably 80 percent of the kids want to watch, and 100 percent of the parents don’t want them to. And when kids come home with stories about getting eggs for the first time, it makes such a connection for them. They slide their hand under this warm-bodied hen and it’s clucking away, and they come out with this warm egg. They get an egg, they understand it, they see it all the time – but there it is, right in front of them: there’s the hen, there’s the egg. And of course they can’t resist crushing it – which is fine! But we’re seeing the kids show much more interest, and relating the stories, than the other way around, which I think is perfectly reasonable.
I think that the kids are great educators themselves. They may have it a little garbled, they may not [always] have it exactly right – but the enthusiasm that they’ve been conveying to their parents about what they’ve been doing [on the farm], I think, has a bigger effect on the parents than talking to other adults [does]. I think that kids spread the fever.