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Marin Agricultural Institute for Teachers

No matter how connected you are to the people who grow your food or the land from where it came, chances are you have a story to tell about the first time you made the connection.  My "ah-ha" moment unfortunately didn’t happen until I was 20 years-old when I visited a petting zoo and met a goat for the first time.  But for many across the county, they are learning at a much earlier age about farming, thanks to the interest and awareness of our teachers and organizations like the Agricultural Institute for Teachers in Marin County.

grass lecture

Marin Agriculture and Education Alliance (MAEA) hosted its first Agricultural Institute for Teachers (AIT) in 1998.  One teacher, who lived her entire life in Marin County and had been teaching in Marin for decades, stepped out onto the soil at Star Route Farms and was astonished.  She was surprised that she never knew there were farms in Marin County!  A lot has changed since then, but creating more opportunities for teachers and our next generation to make the connection to local farming is still vitally important.

“Teaching children about food, teaches them about our interconnection to the planet.  That we aren’t separate from the water, the trees, the food, we are living within a system and every action we take affects it,” says Constance Washburn, coordinator of our local Ag Institute for Teachers.  She thinks that food is the perfect avenue for teachers to help students think about sustainability, adding “we eat three times a day, this is how we relate to the natural system in which we are embedded.”

hay lecture
The Marin Agriculture and Education Alliance is tasked with promoting agricultural literacy for a sustainable food system.  In order to create an agriculturally literate culture, MAEA came up with the Ag Institute for Teachers as the answer.  It was the most efficient way to reach students.  The AIT has been operating every few years since it began. The current 2013 class is comprised of 25 teachers who vary from a director of an afterschool care program, to a high school and college prep English teacher, to a middle school science teacher, to teachers of 1st grade, as well as, one with a special education focus. One of the biggest shifts in culture the organizers have seen is that it is no longer a novelty to know about farms, it is that they already have an interest in and care about local farms, and they want to know more. They want to deepen their own connection and understanding with tools to bring it to their students. AIT is showing these teachers how agricultural lessons are multidisciplinary and are a wonderful way to meet today’s curriculum standards of "systems thinking."

The 2013 Institute has been great for many reasons...not only have we gotten to visit and learn about several teaching farms in Marin, but I have also been able to plan for a year of teaching agriculture in the classroom.  [Now] I have the tools to add agriculture in the classroom. Our field trips have given me the opportunity to decide which field trips would be best for Kindergarten, and also to recommend ag field trips to the rest of our K-8 school to enhance our garden and nutrition program.”   - Kelly Browning, AIT 2013
goat smile

This year’s group is three quarters of their way through the program, earning 2 continuing education credits from Dominican College upon completion.  Their first class took place at the Marin County Office of Education where the concept of ag in the classroom was introduced and teachers were broken up into their class and focus areas. They have also walked through specific curricula – like “Pass the Peach”  a learning activity to experience the costs of distributing agricultural products.  Literally, a peach is passed and money collected from each of the points of contact giving students the chance to talk about and think about what it takes to buy a peach from the grocery store or direct from a farmer.  

The second session was in June.  Teachers started their day at the Civic Center Farmer’s Market for a tour of the market and afterwards caravanned to four farms in West Marin.  They tasted cheese at the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, met dairy cows at the LaFranchi Dairy, had lunch and a cultural history lesson of ag in Marin County with Kitty Dolcini of Dolcini Ranch, and finished up at Windrush Farm with Mimi Luebberman teaching everyone about wool and fiber.  All of the sites were accompanied with potential topic areas for the classroom as well as specific ideas for on-farm lessons.  

"I [have] loved meeting everyone and sharing ideas while visiting the variety of locations.  It's made me more ambitious to meet other teachers making things happen in their own classrooms.  The sheer number of places we visited has been helpful, but also having the time to reflect."   - Denise Suto, AIT 2013

Just a few weeks ago, the third session occurred in the Southern half of West Marin – with gleaning at Green Gulch with the Farm Field Studies Program, hands on lessons and lunch at Slide Ranch – including milking a goat, a visit with Sandy and Dennis Dierks at Paradise Valley Farms and a wrap up with a homework assignment: planning agricultural curriculum into this year’s academic calendar. 

Inspiration is high and we are all looking forward to seeing what these extremely creative teachers will come up with.  Our final lesson will be at the end of October – a place for teachers to swap ideas, build excitement, troubleshoot, and be supported.  If you are interested in the tools, including curriculm, shared during this year’s AIT go to Resources for Educators hosted  on the UC Cooperative Extension Grown in Marin website, or download this interactive PDF for a summary of resources.

"The Ag Institute for teachers is well organized and offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of farms.  I particularly enjoyed the day at Paradise Valley Ranch, getting to know Dennis and Sandy, and picking and comparing apples from their ancient trees.  The Land has been generous to us in Marin.  Learning to protect her and work with her to grow good food is both rewarding and an opportunity for the next generation."   - Elizabeth DeRuff, AIT 2013

Marin County is a thriving place for farm education:

  • Slide Ranch (slideranch.org) - was founded in 1970 as a non-profit teaching farm located at a historical coastal dairy in the Marin Headlands.  Slide Ranch was instrumental in forming MAEA and had already reached capacity in 1998.
  • The Agricultural Institute of Marin (agriculturalinstitute.org/market-tours/) - hosts market tours for students and the public.  
  • Marin Organic is the proud new facilitator of the Farm Field Studies Program (marinorganic.org/farmfieldstudies.php) - a program that began in 2002 and connects students to organic farms, food, and the natural world. 
  • In addition, Marin County hosts about ten local 4-H Clubs, Windrush Farm, Devil’s Gulch Ranch, Indian Valley Organic Farm & Garden, Walker Creek Ranch, local school gardens, and so many more opportunities for students and teachers to learn through the lens of food.  In fact, many farmers are even starting up their own farm tour program - which is another huge culture shift MAEA has seen in the last fifteen years.


Agricultural Institute for Teachers is a collaboration between Agricultural Institute of Marin, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin County Farm Bureau, Marin County Office of Education, Marin Organic, Slide Ranch & University of California Cooperative Extension