I'm standing at the front of the farm with intern Hannah and almost twenty university students that have come as part of their environmental studies course. They haven't reached their unit on farm workers and food justice, but they will in a few weeks, and they're here to get some hands-on experience with farming. It will be almost laughably more pleasant than the everyday experience of most farm workers in this country. It's sunny but cool, it's already mid morning when they arrive, they'll be weeding garlic for just a couple hours, and I'm not putting any expectations on them about productivity. Unlike these students, many farm workers are in the fields from sunrise to sunset, are paid abysmally, lack access to good medical care and housing, and have no power to negotiate better working conditions. Doing some manual labor and learning about our programs may help them better understand the plight of the agricultural labor force in this country, but for the most part, I just hope they walk away with one more modicum of understanding of how food appears on their plates.
After brief introductions, I start to give them my usual orientation to our programs. This time, after giving three tours earlier in the week and at least a couple every week all season, I'm flailing. Is it just end-of-the-week brain? Am I distracted by my upcoming weekend plans? Maybe it's too much sun in my eyes. Excuses. In any case, after bumping and rambling along through our mission and some of our programs, Hannah jumps in to guide me: "Can anyone come to volunteer here? How does that work?" I refocus on opportunities these students might actually take advantage of, and wrap up my chatter to show them around the farm. It gets better, because there's always interesting things to talk about when we're actually looking around, and people chime in with questions along the way. After finishing the tour and setting everyone up on projects, I'm still stuck thinking about their blank stares and my disjointed explanations. I think it's time to revamp how I introduce people to the farm. Not everyone wants to hear about cover crops, and some people start to tune out if I get too deep into all the different programs FOOD for Lane County runs. I decide to start planning ahead a bit more and selecting a few key aspects of the farm to share, based on the group at hand.
For those of you who are still unfamiliar with the scope of the farm's programs, the following is the same basic overview that I usually share with groups-- probably less meandering and redundant than I can usually manage on the fly!
"Welcome! My name's Michaela, and I'm the field coordinator here at the Youth Farm. We're one of two gardens that FOOD for Lane County manages, and as part of that organization, our mission is to alleviate hunger by creating access to food. FOOD for Lane County partners with over a hundred local agencies that host meal sites and food pantries, where people can come up to eighteen times a year to get a three to five day supply of food for their families. Just over one in three Lane County residents is eligible for our services, which is an astounding number of people! That includes over half of all school kids who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, so we offer several programs targeted specifically for children, like free lunches in the parks in the summer. We also serve a lot of elderly residents by delivering groceries and meals to them, and we have a lot of other smaller programs aimed at making sure everyone in this area has access to the food they need at all times.
While providing food for people in need has been the main focus of food banks over the years, we've recognized that this won't solve the problem of food insecurity in the long run. We're starting new programs aimed at addressing the root causes of hunger, like lack of affordable medical care and housing, and we've been managing our gardens for over twenty years to this end. Here at the farm and at Grassroots Garden in Eugene, we grow food that goes out to people in need, we teach people how to grow food, and we help grow resiliency by working together with community members from all walks of life. So not only are we providing food, but we're trying to help people get more involved in their food's production to create better food security.
The Youth Farm grows over 100 thousand pounds of produce each year, and just over half of that goes out to food insecure people through the food bank. The remainder we sell to raise funds for our programs, involve more people in what we do as customers, and give our youth crew an opportunity to learn business skills. We run two farm stands from June through October: one on Thursday afternoons in front of the emergency room at Riverbend Hospital just down the road, and one here on Saturday mornings. We also have about 100 Community Supported Agriculture members, who pay a membership fee at the beginning of the year and receive a box of fresh seasonal produce each week during the growing season. [Here I might get into more details if people seem interested in taking part in any of those programs...]
I mentioned our youth crew, and many people wonder why we're called the Youth Farm. We hire about sixteen mostly low-income teenagers to be our main field crew over the summer, and it's our main educational program here because we do classes and workshops with them every week. It's a really fun program, and gives the teens a chance to make money, start their resume, feel part of a team, and build confidence to pursue their interests in life. We also host season-long interns who want to learn in depth about farming, and academic interns who join us for a term to compliment their studies. During the spring and fall when our youth crew isn't here, we especially rely on volunteers to keep the farm running at this scale, so we really appreciate groups coming out to contribute time and energy here!"
That's usually when I start to wonder if I've covered enough or too much, and soon suggest we start to walk around. During the tour, I'll dive more in to our agricultural styles and methods, try to pass around something to taste, and usually field a lot more questions from the group. There's an infinite number of topics and details I could cover with visitors, so it's always just a game of finding what pops out and building on whatever momentum and interest arises. I wonder, what questions do all you readers have that are still unanswered?