Farm to Fork planting seeds for careers and growing agricultural stewardshipBy MELANIE PLENDA
Special to the Sunday News September 01. 2017 7:35PM
PETERBOROUGH - Squad goals for typical teenagers: take trips, get dates, share the latest whatever on Instasnapbook.
Squad goals for the Cornucopia Project's teen fellows: increase yield, improve product and keep the darn worms off the cantaloupe.
The Cornucopia Project is a Peterborough-based nonprofit dedicated to "planting the seeds of a lifetime of healthy eating," by growing organic food in the community, with the community, and for the community.
They've done this primarily by cultivating "garden scholars" among all ages from preschoolers to seniors, accomplished through three major education program areas: School, Community and Farm to Fork, said Hannah Bissex, Farm to Fork coordinator, at recent presentation about the project in Peterborough.
Farm to Fork is an agricultural and entrepreneurship program for students, Bissex said. As part of the program, Cornucopia officials hire and train so-called Farm to Fork Fellows to develop a business plan and manage a small year-round agricultural operation, she said.
The project provides students with the real business and technical skills that are needed in the workforce no matter what field they enter, skills that are scalable and transferable.
"This is a youth development program in growing the future's food leaders," Bissex said. "By giving these young people the opportunity to make a difference in their community in a safe and mentored environment, we are setting them up for success as they leave high school."
In its first year, 2016, four Fellows from ConVal Regional High School, were paid an hourly stipend to build a 30-by-96-foot hoop house across the road from their school. But the space was to be more than just a garden: It was to be a learning lab and production center where they would plan and plant a growing zone of 6,000 square feet, set up a small business to sell local produce within the community and cultivate organic produce through the winter and spring.
In fact, the Fellows developed a year-round production schedule, which includes them tending their crops every day after school, said Isabelle Rigrod, 16, of Hancock, a junior and second-year Fellow in the program. The food is then sold or given to a local restaurant, a food pantry and an assisted living center, among other places.
In addition, the Fellows were taught that in farming, as in any business, they must always be looking ahead, so they developed a growth plan to expand their business into a niche market that promotes healthy eating and engages local producers.
During the school year, the Fellows partnered with Farmer John's Plot, a nonprofit based in Dublin focused on adult farm education, to work with the new Sustainable Agriculture class offered at ConVal.
Eventually, Cornucopia officials said, there will be an opportunity to collaborate with mentors from Monadnock Art X Tech Makerspace in Peterborough, as well as with entrepreneurs from across the community to learn how a successful business functions and apply Lean Manufacturing Principles to the business of farming.
Fellows begin their work with the program as sophomores and make a three-year commitment, with each new year bringing additional responsibilities and leadership roles as they train another group of sophomores to carry the program forward.
"When it was my turn to teach what I had learned, I remember feeling a sense of ownership and confidence at being able to take my knowledge and become a leader," Rigrod said at the Peterborough presentation.
This year, they also have an opportunity that few high schoolers get. The team was asked to work with two other organizations - Analog Devices, Inc. and ripe.io - to gather empirical data on whether local tomatoes tasted as good, better or worse than commercial tomatoes. As part of the project, called alternately "The Tomato Project" and the "Internet of Tomatoes," the Fellows will test out sensors developed by Analog Devices perched on tall poles at the hoop house to gather information on temperature, humidity, soil composition and the like. Meanwhile, students are testing each tomato with handheld sensors to scan for the sweetness, ripeness, salinity and acidity, among other properties.
ConVal junior and second-year Fellow Daisy Young, 16, of Hancock said the Fellows are using that data to manage and run a comparative study between imported and local tomatoes and their ripening process after they are purchased or picked from the vine. During the school year, ConVal's sustainable agriculture class will help with the data collection and analysis.
Ultimately, the goal is to improve quality, yields and profitability in a sustainable way that also boosts local farm markets.