Teaching ag to next generation through Community Gardens

WinField United researchers become teachers through volunteerism at Community Gardens

A WinField United Answer Plot Community Garden

As a child, Matt Herberling always wanted to be a teacher. Matt, now a WinField United master research specialist, grew up on a family farm in Taylorville, Illinois, growing corn and beans and raising livestock. And when he went to college, he started out as an agriculture education major. Matt quickly realized there were a lot of opportunities in agronomy research and changed professional paths.

But that passion for teaching followed him to WinField United and his work with the Answer Plot® Community Gardens. The Answer Plot® Community Gardens program, supported by the Land O'Lakes Foundation, grows food for people in need, mostly in rural communities.

“I think a lot of my work with the community garden ties back to this idea that I wanted to be an ag teacher. The interaction here with the kids, for me, is what I always wanted to do,” says Matt, who oversees the Illinois community gardens.

Behind the scenes, across the nation, from California to the East Coast and in between, Matt and many other passionate WinField United employees—master researchers, researchers and agronomists—are making sure that the Community Gardens program continues and grows. These WinField United researchers may not be front and center, but the value they add to growing this program is vital.

“It’s really empowering and motivating to see all the hard work that’s going into this,” says Nathan Pohlen, a research specialist who oversees two Community Gardens in Iowa. “I like giving back to the community, and this is a great opportunity to do just that.”

Back to the roots

Each Community Garden is run through a partnership with a Winfield specialist, a local FFA chapter and a local co-op. Each spring, the plots are planted with vegetables and, when harvested, the food is donated to local food pantries. And this is a meaningful donation because many of these rural food shelves don’t have regular access to fresh produce.

The program started in 2011 and has been growing steadily over the years. In the first year, there were five Answer Plot® Community Gardens. This year, there are 22 gardens across the U.S.

For many of the WinField United researchers, this is a chance to get back to the roots of their own experience in agriculture. Many were involved in programs such as FFA or 4-H when they were young.

“I was in FFA my senior year of high school, so it’s great to be part of this,” says Adam Deutz, a WinField United research specialist who oversees the North Dakota gardens. “Most kids in FFA may already be interested in agriculture, but with the community gardens and Answer Plots working closely with each other, it gives the kids a chance to see the research side in agriculture and another possible route they can take if it is something they enjoy.”

The WinField United crew who work on the community gardens volunteer their time. They typically work with the FFA advisor and kids in the winter to determine what crops should be planted and how the garden will be laid out. They then supply the land, the seeds and the tools for the kids to use in the spring and summer. They can offer insights on best growing practices from their real-life experiences throughout the entire process, from planting through harvest.

“This actually gets back to the roots of what Land O’Lakes is as a company. We’re going back to local communities, to rural areas to give back. Some of these kids don’t know what WinField United is and may not know Land O’Lakes beyond butter so it really opens them up to all of what agriculture can be,” says Matt.

A learning process

The Community Gardens can be a great learning experience for students. The FFA groups change each year, with students moving on from high school, but this brings fresh ideas and new eyes to what they can do with the garden.

For Nate Zuk, a research specialist who oversees the gardens in Wisconsin, it’s also a way to engage with students about things like sustainability and how this relates to crops. Nate’s degree from the University of Minnesota-Duluth is in Environmental Sustainability, so he’s able to use his passion and expertise in a new way.

“With Rick, our FFA advisor, we’re trying to start up a hydroponic system, a system that grows plants without soil, for the garden in West Salem,” says Nate Zuk. “Long-term we want to build a greenhouse big enough to house starter plants in the spring.” The nutrients for a hydroponic system can come from different sources, but in this case, are coming from the waste produced by about 50 tilapia, which swim in a tank underneath the trays of plants in an aquaponics system to provide a natural fertilizer.

Growing community gardens is also a learning experience for our WinField United crew.

“One year we had kohlrabi, a root vegetable in our garden, but it wasn’t doing well on the food shelves. Then we started adding recipes to the vegetables to put up in the food pantry, because we do have some things where people may not know what it is or how to cook it,” says Nathan. “We’ve made changes to the garden each year based on what the community needs.”

Growing a giving tradition

More than 1,196,591 servings of fresh produce have been donated to local food shelves through our Community Gardens program since 2014. It’s clear to see that these gardens are having a real impact on communities.

And although research specialists like Matt, Adam, Nate and Nathan will never want recognition for the hard work they do, they can admit they’re proud of how well the program is doing.

“It’s amazing how much food is actually being brought in to the food shelves and how big of an impact it’s making out in our communities,” says Adam. “The credit has to go to the kids and their FFA advisors – all we do is help these kids to be successful.”