carrots

My farmer, my teacher


Earlier this fall I spent an afternoon in my farmers’ field digging up carrots. Yes, I am part of community supported agriculture (CSA) – this particular group is led by a couple whose farm is in the outskirts of Montreal. Every week, I enjoy deliveries of fresh, local, organic and DELICIOUS vegetables. However, this Sunday was different. Instead of bringing my canvas bags to the neighborhood drop-off point to pick up my veggies, I headed across the bridge to where the vegetables are actually grown.

I grew up when Tang (a favourite of astronauts) and Frosted Flakes (I just loved Tony the Tiger) was considered a nutritious breakfast. Much of my family’s food came in a box, a can or as a powder. But sometime after bell bottoms and before dippity do, my mother discovered brewer’s yeast and my father became a vegetarian. Suddenly, wheat germ became a staple in our cupboard and the Moosewood cookbook took up residence on the counter right next to the juicer and yoghurt maker.

Today, I am a vegetarian with 30 years of experience. I love all vegetables except green peppers and know how to turn Brussels sprouts, spinach and kohlrabi into dishes my children can’t resist. I know 50 ways to cook with tofu and can get even the most devoted carnivore to gobble up their vegetables (hint: add maple syrup!)

Some of my farmers' fall harvest lying out in the barnyard.
Some of my farmers’ fall harvest lying out in the barnyard.

This past Sunday, as I bent over the field of carrots, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a difference this CSA has made in my life. My farmers have taught me so much….beyond supplying me with the raw ingredients for a healthy lifestyle, they have taught me respect for nature and the hard work of farming. By watching them and hearing about their efforts at the farm, I have learned about the need for patience and ingenuity in the face of challenge. I have also come to appreciate what it means to be part of a collective – members pay for their shares up front, investing in the farm when the money is needed and bearing the risk together. We trust our farmers to do their best and they trust us to be satisfied with the results and to show up each week for our delivery. Some years the volume of tomatoes, corn, arugula, etc. is awe-inspiring and other years, it’s less. Whatever the harvest, I have learned to be thankful for each week’s bounty.

But this blog is about education…what is the connection to my farm? Overall, being part of a CSA has taught me what it means to be connected to something much larger than myself. I was a student for more than 20 years and NEVER identified with my peers, my teachers, my department or my institution as strongly as I do with my CSA. Sadly, I don’t think I learned as much either. I have always been a voracious reader with a great appetite for learning, and even so, formal education was often a frustrating and disappointing experience. So why is being part of a CSA so different?

First, it’s powerful to watch something grow….I do not need to be an expert in agriculture to enjoy observing the process and seeing the results, and that includes knowing when things go wrong. A bug infestation, unruly weeds, an unexpected disease – knowing about these events and seeing the outcomes helps me understand what a gift it is when things go right. I think professors could help students appreciate where ideas come from and how they grow — they could better cultivate our curiosity. What questions led to current understanding? Why do we learn some facts, opinions and theories, and not others? What research is happening today? What obstacles exist? If my teachers had helped me see where the ideas came from in the first place, I might have valued their existence so much more.

Second, once a year my farmer gives me the opportunity to get my hands dirty! By being a farmer for a few hours, I get to appreciate first-hand what the experience is like. How can more teachers open up their labs, their book collections and their questions to students, even just once a semester, to help them understand in a small way what it means to be a scholar? It think this could make a lasting difference and transform a student’s relationship with course content and the discipline.

Third, my farmers connect me to other people who love fresh, local vegetables. They don’t require that I like these people or have much in common with them beyond the vegetables, but that is enough. How can professors find out what is important to students and help them overcome the alienation that affects so many? How can professors better share their passion for their subject matter and help their students feel a bit of that glow? I know that just looking at our farmers can inspire immediate love of the farm they hold so dear. Teachers who are able to share their love of their subject matter with students make a lifelong impression.

Making links between the things we love is one way of figuring out how to do things better. Let’s work together to make sure higher education is a bit more grounded in the practices that make my CSA such a great learning experience and a true joy to be a part of. In the meantime, I have an abundance of beautiful carrots, tomatoes and Swiss chard to share.

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