North Manchester students Rachel Brandenburg, Gabbi Wilcox, Zach Shenefield, Sydney Mattern, Makayla Mobley and Jacob Casper (left to right).
(NOTE: This article also appeared at indianalivinggreen.com.)
The invitation came in the mail. You read that right: snail mail. With a postage stamp.
On the invitation’s cover: “Food. Farm. Future.” … with three illustrations: wheat, a farm tractor, and an outline of Indiana with a thought bubble suspended above. Inside, a handwritten note from Leah Sorg, a senior at Manchester Jr.-Sr. High School in North Manchester.
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“Food. Farm. Future.” had no Eventbrite, no link to a Web site, Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter account.
I’m surprised a carrier pigeon didn’t deliver it to me.
I was invited to this event because I know this school well, having visited a number of times over the past year and a half. The AP Environment Science teacher behind this invitation is Jabin Burnworth. Jabin is an exceptional educator. You had one of these teachers when you were in school. The one who was deeply invested in your education, and in your trajectory. The one who knew your parents; knew who and what you cared about. You made career and life decisions based on what learned from this teacher.
But this presentation, on March 25, in North Manchester, at the Junior High School, was not Jabin’s doing. It was his students’. They devised and implemented it.
What they accomplished that evening can be replicated throughout the state and beyond.
The Great Divide
Late last year, Purdue release research entitled “Agricultural stakeholder views on climate change; Implications for conducting research and outreach.” A collaboration with Iowa State University, the authors, led by Purdue’s Linda Stalker Prokopy, detailed a familiar, disturbing, predicament.
While the majority of climate scientists say humans are creating climate change through carbon pollution, only a tiny minority of Midwestern farmers — eight percent — agrees that climate change is mostly attributable to humans. Instead, according to this study, the majority of farmers either believe that changes in climate are mostly natural (25%) or say there isn’t sufficient evidence to determine climate is even changing at all (31%).
On a global scale, we know 97% of climate scientists deeply understand the connection between greenhouse gases and climate change. The science is also clear that increasingly extreme weather will wreak havoc on our agricultural system. Yet there’s a great divide between this scientific community and the very people growing the food that we eat.
Studies like Purdue’s tend to put the onus on scientists to communicate better to the general populace, imagining, perhaps, that scientists have lots of extra time on their hands to come up with clever, non-threatening ways to massage their message
The question for many in the scientific community — and for those of us who are simply freaked out about our future — is how to get scientists and farmers together, to dialogue about our climate crisis, and determine ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
But maybe we don’t have to get scientists and farmers together.
Maybe we can rely on our kids.
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Food. Farm. Future.
I walked into Manchester Junior High School just before the 7 p.m. start time.
North Manchester, for the record, is a rural community with a population around 6,000. It is located about two hours north of Indianapolis. The city of Wabash is just a few miles south; Fort Wayne is just under an hour away. The town itself is lovely, with mom & pop-owned shops and a quintessential, small-town feel.
I had visited this specific building once before. On Feb. 3, employees from the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Department of Agriculture held a Farm2School meeting with the surrounding community.
Farm2School is a national initiative dedicated to getting locally sourced food into school cafeterias. The idea is that kids will eat better, less-processed food, learn about food miles and nutrition, and local farmers will enjoy an economic boost.
In attendance that day were over forty folks: farmers, school officials and Purdue Extension professionals, along with people like me, all of us interested in improving food systems in schools and supporting local economies.
North Manchester was picked for this Farm2School meeting because the high school cafeteria manager, Becky Landis, is a bit of an Indiana legend. She is deeply committed to Farm2School practices — even before she learned of the program she was getting students to eat locally grown food in her cafeteria.
Her students eat local produce in their salad bar on a consistent basis. The students know about it; and they know why it’s important
Which brings us to their “Food. Farm. Future.” event.
Each year, as part of the environmental science curriculum, Jabin’s students craft hand-written letters to their grandparents, asking them to describe what the land was like when they were their age. In response, the grandparents write letters, sometimes including photos as well.
I’ll pause here while you experience shivers running up your spine.
In a larger culture where elders are cast aside, in North Manchester, Indiana, they are respected and engaged.
This year for the first time, Jabin’s students decided to turn these hand written letters into a format for a public gathering to discuss the most critical issue of our time: climate change and the future of our civilization.
This massive subject, however, can best be addressed on a local level. And agriculture is both problem and solution when it comes to climate change.
This is where the students come in.
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Let’s get local
I entered the room immediately transfixed by these handwritten letters from the grandparents blown up to poster-size and affixed to the wall. [See sidebar for more on this room and building.] The letters talked about farming, but they also described the fun they had and how much slower life was in the old days. Many of the letters talked about the prices of items, how a candy bar cost a nickel.
Attendees read the letters on the wall, discussed them, pointing out particular sentences of note.
Also prominent at the entrance to the room was a hydroponic growing system, created by one of Jabin’s students, an example of the future of farming the high school-ers would soon be addressing.
The 40 or so attendees were directed to our seats by Jacob Casper, and then Cole Isbell and Leah Sorg got up to read aloud two letters from grandparents. One grandparent related about how much time he’d spent outdoors, enjoying nature, fishing and exploring. The other letter was about growing up in coal country, going to school and having an hour for lunch to go into town and eat a massive meal for 50 cents.
To hear the grandparents’ voices through the mouths of these teenagers was unexpectedly moving.
It set the stage for three power point presentations, you guessed it: “Food. Farm. Future.”
The students doing the “Food” section showed a stunning chart on the precipitous fall of the cost of food from a percentage-of-personal income: from 25% of personal income in the 1930s to less than 10% today. Plus, over that span of time, more food is grown in less acreage.
While acknowledging these ostensible success stories, students expressed their concerns over food quality, the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in Confined Animal Feeding Operations. The impact on human and farm animal health.
They also talked about food waste: Americans waste 40% of the food they buy. This waste ends up in landfills, rotting and creating methane, a dangerous global warming pollutant.
They ended up with a list of questions for the audience to ponder for a later discussion; e.g. ‘Can we feed 9 billion people in a couple decades?’
Next up, the “Farm” students. Their presentation covered the vast differences in farming practices over last century to now, including the cost of a new tractor: from $2,000 in 1960 to $100,000 in 2015. Also detailed was the increasing use of pesticides on crops, and how CAFOs impact the local environment with run-off that can create harmful algal blooms.
Again, a list of questions to think about, questions like ‘How has the land changed as farms have grown larger?’
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And now … for the Future
Two students Makayla Mobley and Rachel Brandenburg presented on the “Future” expressing their support sustainable farming, including crop rotation, no-till farming, the use of cover crops and the practice of bi-cropping. They also talked about the hydroponic set up and the need for alternative growing systems to meet the needs of the future.
A slide entitled ‘What threatens the future of farming?’ led to further slides detailing the impact of climate change on agriculture. In just twenty years, said Makayla, Indiana has seen the shift in its zone designation on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Maps: we’ve gone from a Zone 5 to a Zone 6.
Given overwhelming scientific consensus on human-created climate change, and the evidence in Indiana of its impacts, Jabin’s students sent a survey to 150 Indiana legislators
Of those responses, two-thirds responded, “yes” to the question: ‘Is climate change something Indiana citizens should be worried about?’ One-third said “no.”
In response to the question ‘Do you think climate change has harmful effects on the health of Indiana citizens? If not now, when?’ 46% said Hoosiers were being harmed now, while 2% said in ten years, 22% said in 50 years, 8% said in 100 years, and 22% said “never.”
Next, Rachel and Makayla introduced a video.
After reading Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, student Devin Good reached out to the author to invite him to the event. The Vermont-based McKibben (350.org, plus author of numerous books, e.g. The End of Nature) could not attend, but sent a five-minute video, detailing his deep concerns about climate change and the impact on farming, and thus our food supply.
The “Future” presentation ended with the slide: “We know how far we’ve come since our grandparents. Who knows what story we will tell our grandchildren. It’s up to us!”
Indeed it is. In a stroke of further brilliance, the students then dispersed the audience into small discussion groups to address their questions, and give feedback about the event.
Large group discussions are often unproductive, as the intimacy is robbed by the mob context. In smaller groups, the quiet ones can be involved; all voices can be heard.
In my pod, six adults and four students had a discussion mostly about the trajectory of farm practices over time — and the concomitant pressure upon the small farmer. We had a farmer in our group who had expanded his farm from 12 acres in his father’s day to 200 acres now. He is a small farmer, and we got learn from him how difficult it is to be a farmer on that scale in today’s agricultural sector.
One woman in our group suggested that eliminating animal agriculture was the way to go; our small farmer replied he needed animals to keep his farm going. It was a frank discussion; the students took notes the entire time for discussion in their subsequent classes with Jabin.
By and large our pod was geared toward sustainable farming. There were other breakout groups, I learned later, whose constituents included larger, more industrial-scale farmers. I wish now I had sat in those groups, to learn how this presentation had impacted them.
I know that “Food. Farm. Future.” impacted me dramatically, in terms of creating a model for how we can talk to each other across perceived areas of dispute.
Youth as educators
According to a story last month in the New Republic, “Avaaz, which helped organize the People’s Climate March in New York City last September, commissioned a poll from Ipsos on how 12-year-olds view climate change. Out of 1,002 eighth-grade students surveyed, 90 percent responded that climate change is real and it’s ‘significantly’ driven by human activity.”
North Manchester High School students would have been unsuccessful had they created an event overtly about climate change and agriculture. Instead they framed the gathering around something they love: family, neighborhood, community, space.
Since they are students in a school where they are studying consensus science, they are learning about climate change, what causes it and what can address it.
It turns out agriculture is both cause and solution, as sustainable farming practices can create healthy soil; and healthy soil is a powerful means of sequestering carbon.
Think about it from their perspective. You’re, say, 17 or 18. You know climate change is happening. You know your future is threatened by it. You know that the majority of rest of the world is not arguing about it. You know your parents and grandparents may not grasp the science; they may even think it’s trumped up science, perhaps even a hoax. You know your legislators are likely skeptical about it.
What would you do?
Would you decide to leave Indiana, take your college and university and adulthood dollars somewhere else?
Would you create discord in your family, your community?
Or would you gather everyone together to discuss, respectfully, even passionately, about a shared problem, and what has to be a shared solution.
Jabin’s students accomplished the latter. Sure, they were singing to this choir — me — but I believe their model signals the next step forward. And so I call upon teachers, principals and community partners to stage their own version of Food. Farm. Future. in their own communities.
Let’s give these kids a chance to educate our communities, and in the process, give them a shot at a future worth looking forward to.
Jim Poyser, former Managing Editor of NUVO, is now Executive Director at Earth Charter Indiana; you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.