Unit 1 – Experience the uniqueness of organic farming

What is organic farming?

Organic farming is based on agro-ecological principles. This means that an organic farm is organized to mimic nature’s own ecological systems as much as possible. In practice, the animals have more access to the outdoors, to both grazing and free movement, than on a conventional farm. The use of medicines such as antibiotics is greatly reduced. The crops grown on the farm are more diversified, both in the number of plant species grown together in the field, but also in the rotation of different crops year after year. The enhancement of soil fertility is a main concern of the organic farmer who aims at providing a richer soil and better environment for the next generation than what they themselves inherited. 

Organic farmers strive to base their production on the resources of their own farm. This means imitating nature’s circulatory system: The domestic animals on the farm eat the grass, their manure enriches the soil, the soil (and sun) produces grass forage as well as grains, vegetables and fruits for both animals and people.  Organic agriculture eliminates the side effects of industrial pesticides, fungicides, growth hormones, genetically modified organisms and synthetic fertilizers. Organic farms operate on ecological principles that serve to enrich the environment. Research has shown that on organic farms biological diversity increases in the soil, in plant communities, and among insects and birds. The farmer on an organic farm is a conductor of a huge orchestra of living organisms. When the farmer finds the right balance between animals and plant crops for his/her farm, symbiotic harmony and interplay is enhanced.

In order to sale products certified as organic, the farmer must abide by strict rules and provide documentation that he/she has fulfilled the requirements for organic production. Certification agencies are found in all European countries. You can find an organic farm near your school or kindergarten by contacting the certification agency in your country. They might also know if the farms near you are willing to provide opportunities for students to learn on their farms.

Why do students need farm experience on organic farms?

Imagine for a moment how children and youth experience food in our modern society. Food is abundant, ubiquitous; it fills the refrigerator, the cupboards, the shelves at home and in the store. It is everywhere, if you have money to pay for it, but where does it come from? How does it get to the table, to the store?

Food is so essential, indisputably necessary for our daily lives, yet students know little of its origins. Hands-on visits to organic farms can give children and youth experience in where food comes from, how it is grown and how the animals live. This contributes to an understanding of one of the most basic factors in daily life and can give children a vital anchor in their relationship to a complex society.

Farm visits where children can taste products right from the field can also contribute to health. Considerations on health have led to a doubling of the number of school garden projects in American schools from 2006 to 2012. When children and youth have a chance to develop a relationship to the origin of food through active participation, both eating habits and physical fitness are influenced

Farm visits are local excursions in nature and a welcome change from learning in the classroom. With an appeal to all of the senses and bodily participation, learning makes long lasting impressions, an aspect of visits on organic farms that leads to the next question.

What is unique about organic farms as learning arenas?

The agro-ecological principals of organic farms create an arena where ecology can be taught and learned through direct observation and experience. For example, the carbon cycle, where carbon dioxide is taken up by the plants through photosynthesis, transported through the plant as carbohydrates and exuded into the soil as nourishment for bacteria and fungus, is especially important on organic farms for building soil health. In contrast to conventional farms that buy artificial fertilizer from industry, organic farms use green fertilizer with legumes, humus building through composting, and crop rotation to replenish soils. While artificial fertiliser uses enormous amounts of energy and releases corresponding amounts of CO2, organic farms bind carbon in the soil through biological processes, thus contributing significantly to the climate challenge. The connection between carbon, soil and climate becomes transparent and comprehensible. A biology teacher’s dream!

It is not only the sciences, such as ecology, biology, chemistry, math and physics that can be actualized in the context of an organic farm. Tracing the produce from the farm to the consumer illustrates principles of economics and societal organisation. Alternative marketing through farm shops, community supported projects, cooperatives and subscription on organic farms provides another learning arena. After a day of working on the farm, food prices and the value of food become topics of interest. Food waste is another  theme that can be covered by looking at what  is sold to wholesalers and what is 'graded out' because of size or shape.

Genetic variation is another important topic on organic farms. GMO crops are not used on organic farms. Use of GMO technology in conventional farming has not only increased the use of weed killers such as Round-up (glyphosate), but also given multinational companies copyrights to seeds. Farmer’s rights can be an important topic for further work at school.

Organic farms often have more ecological diversity than conventional farms. For school learners this means a wider spectrum of things to study. Mechanical tasks like lubricating a tractor according to the drawings in the manual, helping to feed the animals, preparing vegetables and fruits for markets, repairing fences, chopping wood, helping to cook a meal over the bonfire, are just a few of the opportunities that learners can engage with when visiting a farm.

How is learning promoted through experience on organic farms?

Perhaps more important than what can be learned at the farm, is how learning can be facilitated at the farm. If we as adults reflect on an important learning experience, we often see a situation where we were eager to do something we had observed, probably with a certain person we looked up to. A spark of interest, a connection was ignited, we were initiated into how something could be done and we got a chance to try it ourselves. Often, this type of learning can become a passion. As children, we found sources and learned all we could because we wanted to know more. This is quite different than the traditional school learning. Of course, the farmer must show and explain, but the opportunity for hands-on learning should be emphasised.  Motivated by the tasks in which they can participate, the learning process gets a pang start.

Tasks such as feeding the animals, taking in a harvest from the field or garden, cooking food from the products on the farm are often immediately meaningful. When students experience that they can contribute to a necessary task, this strengthens the learner’s feeling of mastery and capability. From our experience, if the tasks are meaningful and the learner can contribute, then the urge to learn and exceed also benefits the more theoretical work in the classroom.

Teachers are often amazed at how the students write and tell about their experiences after the farm visits. Where many pupils have difficulties finding something to write about in language assignments, the concrete events at the farm inspire them and give them a wealth of things they want to convey to others. 

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