Noreen Thomas is changing the world one child at a time.
Thomas, an organic farmer near Moorhead, Minnesota, has designed an on-farm, hands-on learning program that connects children to the environment while teaching them life-long learning skills. The program educates and empowers anywhere from 250 to 650 children in a summer, many who have special needs or are from low-income households, while producing healthy food that sustains the environment and feeds people who would otherwise go hungry. At a time when concerns about nature deficit disorder are growing this one-woman bundle of energy and ideas is working tirelessly to instill a love of the outdoors in as many children as she can.
Every summer Thomas trains preteen and teen leaders who assist her in providing free tours and on-farm activities to various children’s and senior’s groups. These groups, including Head Start, public and private schools, 4H, Boy and Girl Scouts and religious organizations, visit the farm from a half to a full day and usually return at least once in the fall. These farm visits provide hands-on learning that includes activities like planting, weeding, harvesting and much more. The visitors learn about soil science, organic gardening, impacts of human activity on the environment, providing food for the impoverished, beneficial bugs, nutrition, Native American plantings as well as other cultural practices. The children also work with the animals on the farm, which include goats, chickens, cows, cats and dogs. And, the experience helps the children and teen leaders explore career options in the realms of environmental, soil science and horticulture – careers that many would never be exposed to otherwise.
The teen leaders who include high risk youth have been transformed by this experience. They develop a passion and desire for the garden and the outdoors. The experience is very rewarding and empowering for them. Louis Sand, age 16 and a previous teen leader said “It’s fun to explain and have the kids listen and appreciate what you tell them.” Evan Thomas, age 18 and son of Noreen, has spent every summer working in the garden and on the farm. He explained that one of the most rewarding aspects of the garden is “watching something develop that you helped make. You plant a seed and watch a plant grow. The hardest thing is waiting two weeks for the plants to germinate.”
Various experts are brought to the farm to train these leaders and children who are visiting the farm that day. These include professors from area universities, community educators and individuals working in the environmental realm. Educators from area American Indian reservations teach the kids Native American ways of planting a garden. The North Dakota State University Entomology Department provides classes and training that focus on beneficial bugs. NDSU professors also train them on the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Professors from the University of North Dakota and NASA come to the farm to educate the teens on satellite imagery and its use in looking at the land. The teens also complete a number of junior master gardener sessions during the summer. Then take all that they’ve learned and help share their knowledge with the visitors to the farm.
Numerous studies show that when children spend time outdoors for play or learning attention-deficit disorder symptoms are lessened significantly and children’s test scores rise. Nature-deficit disorder is a term that describes the many problems associated with children’s lack of time spent in nature, including obesity, shortened attention span, compromised health, greater stress and less creativity. Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder explains that “Nature-deficit disorder … describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” Thomas’s program intentionally attempts to counteract this.
Hands-on learning, a central feature of Thomas’s approach, has been shown to enhance a child’s ability to think critically. Environmental education also helps to promote critical thinking, create self-directed learners and engagement in real world issues. Students gain a better understanding of what they learn and they retain it better. Thomas explains “learning is really flat in text books. Here the kids plant the seeds, they weed, they water, they compost, they harvest – it is all action-oriented. The children who visit the farm are able to see and learn about many systems at work and sciences at the same time. It is so important for the kids to see more than one aspect of what they are learning and to see things in action.”
In Thomas’s opinion environmental curriculum in the schools is rare; and there are no other farms in this area of Minnesota that provide hands-on interactive learning on the farm that involve animals, children and gardens. The project teaches lifelong learning skills, such as gardening and shows kids where their food comes from. Chris Mcvay was a teen leader in 2006 and helped teach kids to use a GPS by setting up scavenger hunts on the farm. The children would use the GPS to find mapped out locations and would then have to identify insects or plants before heading to the next point in the game. The experience was his first exposure to using a GPS and to spending any significant time outdoors. “Mowing the lawn was the closest thing I had to farm work before.”
In 2005 a group of boy scouts came out to the farm to plant one thousand trees to help address riverbank erosion. Thomas and her husband, Lee had found that two to three tons of soil could be lost into the river in a year. After the planting, a scientist from NASA came out to show the scouts the effect of the trees on the erosion using satellite imaging. The results showed much less erosion where the trees had been planted. At the time of the planting the trees were the size of twigs. Now those trees are taller than the boys. Thomas said that the boys still talk about the experience and ask about the trees. Photos were taken before and after the plantings to show new visitors to the farm the substantial impact that the trees have made.
A wide variety of produce is grown in the garden, with a focus on heirloom plants, in part because as Thomas explains “it is more interesting to see purple beans instead of the usual green ones” in reference to the fact that heirloom produce often looks and tastes different than what most people have gotten used to eating. Heirloom plant varieties also need less chemical inputs to grow. At least a thousand pounds of vegetables and fruit are grown in the garden and distributed every summer. The fresh garden produce is donated to families in need, seniors living in assisted living facilities who have no access to fresh, organic foods and homeless shelters. Food is also sent home with the children who visit. In the fall all the children are given pumpkins to take home. And, the teen leaders are beginning to sell the produce at farmer’s markets in the area to help support the garden.
Thomas explains her philosophy behind the project and what she loves about it. “Our project acknowledges and celebrates other cultures and promotes self-esteem. Children learn about organic systems, that pesticides and herbicides are not necessary. There are no monocrops – diverse species, crops and people are all central to this project. The project combines low technology and old methods — gardening without chemicals and utilizing heirloom seeds with very high technology — GPS and satellite imagery. The children experience the interaction of wellness, nutrition and environmental issues. The results are almost immeasurable.”
Thomas and the teen leaders receive no financial reimbursement for their time and efforts in the garden. Their work is a labor of love. And it shows. Thomas sums up what he thinks of the garden. “It just kind of grows on you, no pun intended.”
Kristin Eggerling is a board member for Conservation Minnesota Voter Center, the mother of two, and a freelance writer in northwestern Minnesota.