Heart of the Heartland digs in for summer farming seminar

10 July 2017

The summer after her freshman year, Sarah Goldman ’17 and a friend from Carleton decided to ride their bikes from Connecticut to Nova Scotia. Along the way, they stopped at random farming communities and volunteered to help with chores in exchange for a place to sleep.

Goldman didn’t grow up on a farm, but being outdoors and knowing where her food came from sparked an early interest in agricultural issues. By the time she arrived at Carleton, Goldman had already worked on 10 different farms.

“You have to pair learning with doing. I truly believe that,” says Goldman, who graduated in June as an environmental studies major on the agricultural track. “It’s one thing to be in the classroom learning about agricultural issues, but it’s another beast to be in the field pulling weeds all day or talking to farmers and really thinking about solutions.”

Goldman added to her experience by serving as a food fellow with the Center for Community and Civic Engagement and living on the student-run Carleton Farm. As sophomores, she and fellow grad Robert Harris III ’17 also began sowing the seeds for an ag-centered nonprofit called Heart of the Heartland. The launch of their passion project in late June—the five-week Young Farmer Summer Seminar—is the culmination of a lot of love, labor, and desire for hands-in-the-dirt learning.

Heart of the Heartland grew out of conversations Goldman and Harris III had with early supporter David Bly, a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Pursuing greater connectivity between local college students and farms prompted the duo to lead a group pitch at Carleton’s first Start-Up Fellowship Competition in 2016. While their team didn’t win the $10,000 top prize, Heart of the Heartland gained another important advocate, competition mentor Eric Carlson ’66. The Carleton alumnus pledged his own funds to continue their venture.

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Heart of the Heartland’s summer seminar matches six Minnesota college students—four from Carleton, and one each from St. Olaf and Macalester—with Northfield-area farms to learn about food sourcing, environmental impacts, and policy ramifications from the people who do the labor. Each week features a different theme—water, soils, farm technology, farm business, and food systems/food justice. Students spend three days working in the field and learning directly from farmers at eight different locations. The other two days are centered on workshops with partners like the Hmong American Farmers Association or seminars from experts, for instance, Bly on agriculture policy and Carleton geology professor Mary Savina on soil. The overall mission: “Develop the next generation of agricultural leaders,” Harris III says.

“With liberal arts students, it can be hard for them to get out of the theoretical realm. But in order for any society to thrive, there needs to be a combination of the theoretical with actual practice,” says Harris III, a Chicago native who also graduated with an environmental studies major.

“That’s why it was really important for the farmers to be educators, too,” Goldman adds. “Every farm that is involved in the program also teaches a couple of hours. So not only are students seeing what the issues are in agriculture, but they also get perspective from the people doing the work.”

All six students are attending the summer seminar at Carleton free of charge thanks to Carlson’s donation, along with financial support from Project Pericles (a civic engagement nonprofit for higher education circles) and crowdfunding sources. Summer curriculum was shaped with extensive input from area farmers after CCCE connected Goldman and Harris III with Spring Wind Farm in Northfield. From there, the two built more connections and trust with area farmers—“It’s a tight-knit farming community in Northfield,” Goldman says—to produce the best possible learning experience in a five-week window.

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As recent graduates, Goldman and Harris III are hopeful that Heart of the Heartland will continue beyond their academic careers. Maya Margolis ’19 and Jenni Rogan ’19 pitched in with behind the scenes work during the school year, and there’s always the possibility that younger students (or even participants in this year’s seminar) could have a desire to run future installments. Harris III would love to make the program a full-time operation, while Goldman—who begins a fellowship through the Congressional Hunger Center in August—says she’d be thrilled to stay on as an adviser. This was their baby. They created the application, recruited on campuses, screened students, networked with farmers, set up schedules and feedback forums—all of it. Wherever Heart of the Heartland ends up beyond this summer, both are glad to have turned their agricultural interests into a tangible community building enterprise.

“I remember driving to Carleton for the first time and seeing all the cornfields on the way in. I just thought, ‘This is incredible. Everywhere I turn, there is going to be a learning opportunity.’ That’s always been a source of motivation,” Goldman says.

“Engaging with agriculture, to me, is the ultimate liberal arts experience,” Harris III adds. “You need to understand a lot of different fields to get the full scope of food issues and food systems. And even if you don’t go into an agriculture career, it’s still the base of the U.S. and international economy. It’s health. It’s your body. Food allows you to have a deeper understanding of yourself and how the world works.”