Today’s youth will build the sustainable food systems of tomorrow. The Prairie Farm Corps helps lay the groundwork for a more resilient local food system by immersing youth in sustainable agriculture, providing mentoring, and reflecting on the collaboration between land and living systems. The Prairie Farm Corps implements these ideas into the daily work of a diverse group of youth, some from underserved communities, by providing an experiential paid work experience on the Prairie Crossing Farm. Participants gain job skills applicable to any career, the capability to grow and cook fresh vegetables, and a hands-on introduction to sustainable agriculture.
Natalie Sturm is a Prairie Farm Corps Alumni. Beginning in the 2015 season, Natalie applied to be a crew member with PFC and was hired due to her enthusiasm and overwhelming desire to learn more about organic faming. Natalie was hired again for the 2016 season as a Crew Leader, where she inspired students and colleagues alike. Crew members are asked to create a speech that reflects what they learned from their experiences in the program. She wrote her speech for the Celebration Dinner to encapsulate what the past summer had meant to her.
“Hi my name is Natalie Sturm, I’m 17 years old, and I’m a homeschooler.
When I first started this program, I had been learning about sustainable agriculture for years. I read everything I could about sustainable agriculture, watched movies and videos, learned anything I could about sustainable farmers, who were my heroes.
I remember on the second spring training Tuesday, Eric was leading our first ever end of the day meeting. And I remember he said, “Guess what you guys? You farmed today. You’re farmers.”
That moment stuck with me throughout the summer work season. As the season went on, I would think about what Eric said that day, and I realized that I was no longer just learning about sustainable farming. I was no longer on the outside looking in, dreaming of one day working with my hands to heal the land. I was actually doing it. With everyone else, my fellow crew members and our crew leaders, we were actually farming.
We were actually farming as we pulled weeds in the onion and garlic field in the pouring rain on the first summer work day. We were actually farming as we pruned, staked and tied tomatoes. We were actually farming as we weeded to save the beets. We were actually farming as we harvested kale and fennel and beans and wheat. We were actually farming as we weeded with the wheel hoes. Can you tell that farming is pretty much all about weeding?
Because of all this, because of all our hard work, we are farmers! And we’re also chefs and leaders and friends and volunteers and teammates. While probably a lot of us will go on to have to have other careers outside of farming or cooking, we will never outgrow all the experiences we’ve had and things we’ve learned. We will continue to support local farmers, buy organic produce, cook meals at home, encourage our family and friends to do the same. We will never outgrow this good farming and good food movement. Because if there’s one thing working on the Prairie Farm Corps has taught me, it’s that we are the movement. We are the change that is bringing fresh, local, healthy eating, and environmentally just farming to America.”
These fellowships also allow parents like Michelle and Marcelo Chiodi to see the impact first-hand. This is a letter written from the parent of a Prairie Farm Corps member.
Dear Eric and Prairie Farm Corps Staff,
Our daughter was fortunate to be in the Prairie Farm Corps program this summer. We were absolutely impressed by how she learned to respect a process, work hard, be patient and enjoy the fruits of her labor.
As Aldo Leopold said, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery store, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” This summer, our daughter really experienced where her breakfast comes from.
Our daughter learned about good food, making smart choices, taking risks with cooking, and trying new things. The program offered her the creativity and freedom to make meals from crops she helped plant and harvest. She tried different foods and learned that she loved them.
Our daughter also helped bring this knowledge to the outside community. Each week the kids worked with the Women, Infants, and Children program in providing produce to underprivileged women and children and teaching them about the vegetables and nutrition. Giving back to the communities was one of the most rewarding experiences our daughter got out of this job and that was very powerful. When young people are inspired by something or see a cause that they believe in, it is amazing what can grow.
The program had the kids selling at local farmers markets, learning how to interact with customers. She also learned the value of getting a paycheck. She opened up her first bank account and started managing her money.
Our daughter brought the knowledge she gained from Prairie Farm Corps to our home, our family, and her friends. She spoke about it often and found that getting up early every morning and working into the afternoon outside in all kinds of temperatures weathered her in a very special way and helped develop her spirit, her drive and her commitment to getting a job done even when it’s hard.
She gained constructive feedback with the weekly check-ins with her manager, too. This was an excellent opportunity for her to learn to seek out reactions, find out how she is contributing, understand if she is working well with others, leading, and listening. She developed valuable friendships with kids she may not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet, and they were united by the work and the opportunity to get to know each other through learning.
We were very fortunate to have had this opportunity for our daughter and would like to see more kids in the community and in the country have this opportunity. A national program like this would tie awareness and appreciation of the land to the youth through farming, cooking, hard work, giving back, and working together.
Thank you again for all you have done to make this program available and such a success.
Michelle and Marcelo Chiodi
Karina’s story, written By Eric Carlberg
“I don’t think I’ll get the job,” Karina told her high school counselor immediately after her interview with me for a Prairie Farm Corps crew position. “He probably doesn’t think I can work hard. I don’t look like an outdoor person.”
But Karina did in fact get the job. Although she dressed formally enough to go to a business conference, when I heard her talk lovingly about her grandfather’s farm in Mexico, I knew hard work was in her.. And it became obvious quite early that Karina Caballero is an outdoor person.
In her first full week on the job, we gathered at a windrow of municipal leaves and got ready to gather them up to mulch our recently transplanted pumpkin seedlings. As others stood around awaiting instructions, Karina rolled up her sleeves, got down on her knees, scooped heaps of leaves into a 50 pound garbage can, and loaded the can onto the back of the pickup truck like an old pro. “Everyone, copy Karina!” I exclaimed.
Throughout her first season with us, Karina regularly showed up early for work with the sun still low in the sky to walk by herself through the fields. During her speech at our Celebration Dinner, Karina spoke about her love of farming and being able “to feel the heartbeat of the land.” An outdoor person, indeed.
But Karina’s gifts extended beyond her emotional connection to the land and intuitive sense about physical work. She was a star in the kitchen. Already nimble with a knife and a cutting board from having cooked so much on her own, Karina pushed herself to learn as much she could from our kitchen instructors and guest chefs. She’d then take her favorite new recipes and try them out with her family. Above is a picture of Karina and family having made pizza completely from scratch.
She also was gifted around the table once the meal was served, striking up conversations with ease with whomever she found herself sitting with, from fellow crew members and supervisors to an array of lunch guests from the community who’d come to learn more about our program. She welcomed everyone with her warmth and genuine interest.
Karina’s interpersonal gifts extended to our outreach efforts as well. She connected naturally with mothers and children receiving Women, Infants and Children program benefits. She also used her facility in both English and Spanish to render our cooking presentations and recipe translations, which we distributed along with our produce and samples, in more accurate everyday Spanish.
During the winter between her first and second year with us, Karina continued to develop these gifts, practicing cooking techniques she’d learned at Prairie Farm Corps with her family and securing a position as an interpreter with the Lake County Health Department. When she returned the following spring as a supervisor with the Prairie Farm Corps, she led teams of high school students in the fields, in the kitchen, and in our outreach efforts with great skill and confidence. What a long way we’d come from the interview when she left thinking she wouldn’t get the job!
A couple weeks ago, we returned to Karina’s high school, where I’d interviewed her two years before. I set up a meeting with science department teachers to enlist their support in helping us promote the program and asked Karina to share her experiences. (Karina, of course, was dressed much more formally than I was.) I led off. I shared what I believed to be a compelling series of pictures, charts and quotes, but I noticed people nodding off. Understandable, I thought. It was only 7am. However, when Karina began speaking, the teachers suddenly awoke, smiled and hung on Karina’s every word. When she finished, the teachers began asking her, “When can you come and speak to my class?”
With all the attention on Karina, I fondly remembered back to what she’d said after her interview. I had no idea if Karina looks anymore like an “outdoor person” now than she did two years prior, but there in front of the science department and in so many other moments, nobody else could have fit the part better than Karina did.
Prairie Farm Corps hiring begins in late January for the upcoming spring and summer season. We seek energetic and diverse youth who want to work hard and have a positive impact on their community and the environment by growing food together. Successful candidates will be hard working team players with a positive attitude who are interested in organic agriculture.
We have developed recruiting partnerships at three high schools in central Lake County (Grayslake Central, Grayslake North, and Round Lake) and the College of Lake County.
Prairie Farm Corps participants acquire more than sustainable agriculture experience through this youth development program. Personal and professional development is incorporated into all components of our work. We utilize every program component to develop and empower participants to thrive in future pursuits while contributing to their communities. Participants are immersed in life and employment skills development as a result of their daily responsibilities.
The Prairie Farm Corps focuses on the following job skills:
Participant growth is measured through pre and post program surveys, to evaluate the impact of the experiential learning and active mentoring throughout the program. Education sessions are interspersed with real-world opportunities to practice these job skills.
The weekly Libertyville Farmers Market provides opportunities to work together as a team to prepare for the market, provide customer service to farmers market customers, and present sales ideas/vegetable preparation tips for specific vegetables. At the conclusion of each farmers market, each participant is given feedback using the Straight Talk method from the Boston Food Project.
Straight Talk is provided weekly for all participants, including crew leaders, to provide timely feedback. Crew leaders gain leadership skills as they learn to effectively provide constructive feedback to crew members, as well as receiving it themselves. Straight Talk is provided for all program components including field work, cooking, farmers market, and more.
In addition to learning how to grow fresh produce, Prairie Farm Corps participants also learn about nutrition and how to prepare fresh vegetables.
Each Prairie Farm Corps participant spends two weeks transforming produce fresh from the field into healthy lunches. Under the mentoring of a cooking crew leader, participants perform weekly field walks to assess what produce is available, develop a meal plan for the week, locate appropriate recipes using cookbooks and the internet, travel to a nearby grocery store to purchase necessary ingredients and prepare the meals.
“Amazing, inspirational and groundbreaking in the field of Food Education! Growing and cooking up future leaders – love it!” Lindsey Shifley, Ambassador, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.
The Prairie Farm Corps sells their certified organic produce at the Libertyville Farmers Market, and to under-resourced families in the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program and with our partner organizations in Waukegan.
Visit the Prairie Farm Corps at the Libertyville Farmers Market on Thursdays from 7:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. starting June 23 – October 20, 2016. Be sure to ask the participants what they are learning about growing and preparing healthy food in the Prairie Farm Corps!
Through a partnership with the Lake County Health Department, Prairie Farm Corps participants distribute vegetables and share the nutrition information they are learning with recipients of WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) fresh vegetable vouchers at their Round Lake facility. In 2015 this program was expanded to also include distribution in Waukegan. Click here for more information about the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) Distribution Project.
In 2014 the Prairie Farm Corps expanded their reach into under-served communities with a pilot project to also provide fresh vegetables to low-income Waukegan residents through a partnership with Beacon Place. Click here for more information about Prairie Farm Corps vegetable distribution site in Waukegan through the summer program at Beacon Place.