KALKASKA—Sporting a cap that said “Born to Farm,” Tom Cooper nursed a cup of coffee as 26 fourth graders from nearby Central Lake Elementary School hopped off their buses and scrambled into the pole building where his family turns cherries into specialty jams, salsas, and fruit butters.
They were on a mission to see Mr. Cooper’s cherry orchards and get the inside scoop on his Rocky Top Farms delicacies. Because instead of selling candy or magazine subscriptions to raise dollars to fund a history field trip, these kids sell local farm products—jams, maple syrup, fresh apples, bottled milk, even frozen chickens.
This tasty endeavor is among a handful of efforts across the country that are turning school fund-raising—now a multi-billion dollar business—into an opportunity to link kids to fresh, healthy farm foods, teach them how food is grown, and give them first-hand experience investing in their own local economies.
When the Great Lakes News Bulletin told the director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Mitch Irwin, about the program, he vowed to invite the project’s organizer to help state agriculture and education officials consider how and whether they can help spread the program to schools across the state. He thinks such efforts can provide markets for farmers, expose young people to “entrepreneurial values,” attract a much-needed generation of new farmers, and tackle childhood obesity by encouraging healthier food choices.
“We couldn’t be more excited in the Department of Agriculture to showcase, promote, and nurture better nutrition and wellness; as well as supporting the local economy,” said Mr. Irwin.
Better than Candy
The farm fund-raising idea is the brainchild of Pepper Bromelmeier, a parent who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides services to farmers. One day, she received a survey from the school that asked her what she thought of the kids’ traditional candy sale.
“I hated the candy sale,” she said. “It’s encouraging them to eat candy. It’s not local. And the profits go out of the area.”
But Ms. Bromelmeier also hates complaining without offering a solution. So she called farmers she knows from her work for the federal government to float the idea of what she calls farm-to-community fundraisers, and they loved the idea.
As Mr. Cooper says, “farms can use help.” Bulk commodity prices paid to family farms here and nationwide are often so low that farmers are looking for other ways—such as tapping into local markets or creating specialty products—to stay in business. And here in northwest Michigan, farms like Mr. Cooper’s often command scenic views of Lake Michigan and its bays and can fetch high dollars from developers. In all, 35 percent of medium size farms here were lost in recent years.
Now, Central Lake’s fourth grade kids visit three or four of the dozen or so farms whose products they sell; learn math and business skills by figuring a mark-up for their profit over the farmers’ wholesale price; and practice English skills by writing thank you letters to the farmers and sending sales pitch letters to moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and neighbors.
Linking the farm fundraiser to the required academic curriculum is key to persuading busy teachers to spend precious class time on local agriculture. Mr. Irwin believes that a partnership between the state’s agriculture and education departments could produce clear, effective models for weaving agricultural knowledge into traditional academic subjects.
“Farmraisers” Make Cents
Central Lake's fourth graders sell about $4,000 worth of products each year in a two-week period and net about $1,400 in profit. The $3,600 in gross revenue that goes to the farms (before farm expenses are taken out) isn’t enough to preserve the local farm economy by itself, Ms. Bromelmeier said.
But Mr. Cooper, at Rocky Top, believes it could help if every school in the region took up the idea. And he views it as good advertising in any case, because it introduces families to his farm who otherwise might not have known it existed.
Indeed, if even a fraction of student fundraising were linked to farms, it could funnel millions of dollars to local farm economies.
Nationwide, schools, churches, and other nonprofit groups earn about $1.7 billion a year selling products ranging from candy, cookie dough, and submarine sandwiches to wrapping paper and magazine subscriptions, according to the industry trade group Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers. Schools represent about 83 percent of that total.
The fund-raising companies that provide the products—along with services such as promotional letters and sales record-keeping in this era of fewer parent volunteers—earn another $2.1 billion. (On average, schools keep 45 percent of the proceeds and the companies get the other 55 percent.)
And then there’s the profit to the suppliers of the products themselves, such as candy companies like Hershey or national magazines like Newsweek. The fundraising trade group is barred by confidentiality agreements from releasing those profit figures.
As another measure of how far-reaching school fund-raisers are, research conducted by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in 2000 revealed that 91 percent of schools nationwide raise funds to supplement shrinking budgets. They held book fairs and school carnivals as well as product sales, buying everything from classroom supplies to playground equipment, library books, and field trips. Eighty-one percent of them sold products like cookie dough and greeting cards.
And research by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2000 showed that in 82.4 percent of schools nationwide, organizations such as student clubs, sports teams, or PTOs sold food at school or in the community to raise money – and 76.4 percent of them sold chocolate candy, followed close behind by high-fat baked goods and other types of candy.
Raise Farms and Funds, Not Fat
Now, though, with soaring childhood obesity rates a national concern, health officials are encouraging school groups to consider fund-raisers that promote healthy foods, non-food items like wrapping paper, services like car washes, or physical fitness like walk-a-thons. By law, all schools nationwide are required by fall 2006 to have school “wellness policies” in place; and national and state nonprofit coalitions called Action for Healthy Kids (which includes health and education agencies) have prepared “toolkits” to help schools promote health and fitness in everything from cafeteria offerings to vending machines and fund-raising activities.
Ms. Bromelmeier’s farm-to-community idea made it to the list of good ideas in Michigan’s toolkit. And it’s not the only project of its kind.
• In Oak Park and Chicago, Ill., a nonprofit group called Seven Generations Ahead has linked with another organization, Growing Power, and its Rainbow Farmers Cooperative of Wisconsin and Illinois farmers to promote the “Market Basket” program, in which PTO groups sell weekly deliveries of mixed boxes of farm fresh fruits and vegetables, which can be picked up by families at the schools. The PTO typically gets a $1 to $3 profit on each box sold.
• In New Brunswick, Canada’s potato country, kids sell 50-pound boxes of freshly washed spuds that are generally available only to local restaurants.
• And in another northwest Michigan community, Leelanau County farmer Stan Silverman promotes his u-pick apple farm to schools, Girl Scouts, and church groups. Kids visit a working farm, pick apples at a discount, and reap the profits when they sell the fruit.
As Pepper Bromelmeir’s bus toured farms, the children saw hills blanketed with cherry and apple orchards change to flatter lands of corn and potato fields, pasture, and cows. The tour through Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula revealed another facet of Michigan’s rich agricultural heritage at every bend in the road. The state is second only to California in the diversity of the products farmers grow and that local consumers, if they seek them out, can eat.
The kids looked eye-to-eye with the cows at the Shetler family’s Amazing Graze Farm. They let out a chorus of “that’s so cool!” as they watched how the milk from those cows is bottled in old-fashioned glass bottles on a conveyor belt in the farm’s processing building.
They picked up a sales pitch without even knowing it from farmer Jen Lewis at the Wagbo Peace Center farm, which produces pasture-raised chickens for eggs and meat. Ms. Lewis pulled a frozen chicken from the deep freeze as the fourth graders watched her intently.
“The chickens you are going to be selling weigh five pounds,” she told them, and then she raised the frozen bird up to the top of her shoulder. ‘Here it is, so you know what it looks like. It’s about as big as your head.”
In the orchard at Rocky Top Farms, the kids learned that bees are important for pollinating the cherry trees. And they learned that farming can be a rewarding profession. Mr. Cooper’s son, Mike, plans to carry on the tradition.
“This farm will be passed on,” Mr. Cooper told the kids. “This farm will not be sold for development. I plan to leave a heritage.”
Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at Groundwork. Contact her at email@example.com.
An excerpt of this story from August 8, 2006, appears in our September 2017 Farm to School report, “Healthy Kids, Thriving Farms”, which celebrates Groundwork’s 15 years of catalyzing the farm to school movement in northern Michigan.