Initial Publication Date: September 16, 2019

Sustainable Agriculture as an Integrating Context for Earth Education

Tara Laidlaw, Out to Learn

As a lens for learning, sustainable agriculture has the potential to connect students' experiences not only across grade levels and across academic disciplines, but with their communities, their environments (both natural and urban), and their homes and families. Sustainable food production practices also have enormous potential to address human and environmental health issues as well as local and regional economic concerns, while also serving as a platform for exploring and enacting social justice reform.

Because everyone needs to eat, food production offers a universally relevant hook to engage students in a wide variety of educational pursuits. With a bit of creativity, a school garden or a farm can become a classroom for virtually any subject at any level, either using standalone short activities or fully integrated long-term projects. Students might practice basic arithmetic while sorting seeds to plant, and they might use geometry and algebra to determine the surface area of a garden bed and how many plants would fit in that space. They might explore ecology by examining the movement of matter and energy through the garden ecosystem from the compost pile to the table, and they might apply their chemistry knowledge in assessing pH and other chemical characteristics of a garden's soil and water. Students might practice their writing skills using a farm as inspiration for cookbooks, stories, field notes, or poems, or create and share visual art, song, and dance influenced by a garden. They might also find rich intersections between academic fields: reading seed packets, extension agency fact sheets, or peer-reviewed scientific publications to make planting choices or to establish an experiment's parameters; crafting botanical field journals with sketches, samples, observations, and notes taken over the course of a year or more; or designing and testing solutions to address agricultural needs specific to their own schoolyard's microclimate and growing conditions. The opportunities for meaningful, relevant, and standards-aligned instruction are nearly limitless in an agricultural setting. And because a farm or garden is such a dynamic context, thoughtful curriculum can build from one year to the next without becoming stale or boring.

In addition to supporting academic needs, farm- and garden-based learning also introduces students to healthy eating — healthy for individuals (fresh, diverse, minimally processed) and healthy for the environment (seasonal, local, grown using integrated pest management and stewardship practices). Depending on the model used for the farm-school partnership, it can also highlight the ways that sustainable agriculture can improve the health of an entire community. Farms and adjacent services can offer paid jobs for community members: not only do farms need field workers, they need managers, washers and packers, delivery drivers, and marketers. In turn, these services need support in the form of suppliers, mechanics, researchers, veterinarians, policymakers, and more. Diversified farms can produce fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains for both sale to local consumers and donation to food pantries, and they can provide lifelong learning opportunities for all ages, from pre-K to adults. And farms can model sustainable practices in regenerative land use, water conservation, and soil stewardship, practices that are specialized for each region's climate and that are often replicable throughout the community in other contexts.

Food production can function far beyond an academic teaching tool, engaging entire communities and regions in change-making practices. As such, sustainable agriculture is a rich, dynamic, and universally meaningful integrating context for Earth Education for Sustainable Societies.

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