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Garden Activity #1: Market Research
Marketing research is very much a part of answering "Who are we?" It asks us about what we are willing to spend our money on and is an indicator of what we value and how much we value it. In Module 1, you developed a list of crops that you could physically grow in your environment. In this activity you will explore crops you should grow.

In addition to identifying the physical properties of their land and finding crops that grow well, farmers must also determine what crops they can produce to make money. A farmer can have a beautiful product with high harvest rates, but it is not a successful crop if there is no one to buy it. Make sure students understand that in order to make a profit and have money to live off of, a farmer's income from sales of the crop (gross profit) must be more than the amount it costs to produce the crop (expenses). The gross profit minus expenses is called the net profit.

How do farmers identify marketable crops? One way they identify good crops is by talking to customers and finding out what they want to buy. They also rely heavily on talking to other farmers and agricultural specialists to find out what is selling well. Each state has a special university that dedicates resources to agricultural research called a Land Grant University. Cornell is the Land Grant University in New York. At these universities, researchers identify agricultural trends, interview consumers and also work to discover the most efficient way to grow these crops and create recommendations of the best practices for farmers to use.

In order to connect with farmers and community members, each Land Grant University also created a special agency known as the Extension Service. In addition to the specialists based at the university itself, the Extension Service has offices in counties and regions throughout the state to help spread the educational materials to all state residents. To find out more, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension Office: http://www.cce.cornell.edu/countyMap.php

In addition to the research, sometimes farmers experiment. They may try growing a new crop they think will do well and then track its success. Many times they will only dedicate a small portion of their land to experimental crops. When a farmer finds a new crop that fulfills a local need, but is not grown on a large scale it is sometimes called a "niche" crop. For more information on "niche" and alternative crops, visit: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3869/is_200310/ai_n9309020 to read an article from the American Vegetable Grower.

To make sure they "do not place all their eggs in one basket," farmers may grow a couple of different crops so if one crop experiences problems with disease, insects or uncooperative weather, or if it does not sell well, then they will have other crops to sell. They usually do not produce too many different crops though, because each additional crop adds planning time, maintenance time and additional costs. Your class may want to plan on two or three crops rather than just one to ensure success with their school farm venture.

As a class, make a list of all the plants you discovered you could grow in Module 1. Brainstorm all the products you could sell from the harvest of these plants. For instance if you found you could grow flowers then you could sell cut flower bouquets, pressed flowers, dried flowers or maybe potpourri. If you found you could grow salad greens you could sell the greens, sell seedlings or host a salad party.

Use the Market Research Brainstorming Worksheet to create a chart of your product ideas by answering the following questions for each (you may not have exact answers, but provide an approximation):

  • What supplies would we need to create this product?
  • How much time would it take to make this product?
  • How much money would it cost to make this product?
  • Who would buy this product?
  • How much do you think they would be willing to spend on this product?

After answering these questions about each brainstormed product, ask students to narrow the list to five options by voting on the different choices. At this point you may also eliminate any options you do not think are feasible or you feel are inappropriate. Once they create a smaller list, ask them to take the Market Research Survey Worksheet home and collect feedback from friends and family.

Compile the results from the surveys and then decide which plants you want to grow and products you want to produce. Have the students develop a presentation and formal proposal document based on this activity to present to your garden planning team or school administrators.

Garden Activity #2: Exploring the Garden Ecosystem
Gardens and farms are a cultivated form of nature. They are not natural environments, but rather created by human design. Based on their design, gardens and farms have their own ecosystem.

When you talk about an ecosystem you are referring to the living and nonliving factors in a community interacting with each other and their environment to function together as a whole. Every part of an ecosystem has an effect on the others. Some factors have a greater impact than others, but all are important.

The concept of an ecosystem is abstract for many youth. To help visualize the concept, play the Web of Life game.

Web of Life Game: To play this game you will need a 3" x 5" note card for each of your students and a ball of string or yarn. Begin by asking students to sit in a circle. Next make a list of all the living and nonliving things you might find in a garden giving each student a chance to name one thing. Write their item down on a note card in large letters and hand it to them. This game works best if everyone identifies a different component. If a student has trouble thinking of an item, you may want to prompt them with the examples listed below. An alternative to using notecards is to ask students to wear a t-shirt with ecosystem components to school that day or cut out pictures from magazines for everyone.

Once everyone has a note card, ask them to hold up their cards so everyone can read them. Next tell the students you are going to identify how the items on the cards are related. Begin by handing the end of the yarn or string to a child who has chosen a large element like the sun. Next ask the class if the sun is important to any of the other components. For instance point out that plants need the sun to make food and so roll the string out to the student holding the plant card and ask him/her to hold the string too (the first student continues to hold onto the end of the string). Next link it to the student who said soil and point out that plants need soil to grow in (roll out the string to that student and ask them to hold onto the string) then you can link to the person who said earthworms because they live in the soil and work to break down decaying organic matter, then link it to the person who said water, because earthworms need moisture to live...and continue on until every student is holding a piece of the string.

Ask the students to look at the string and tell you what it looks like. It should look like a web. Next ask the students what happens if one of the pieces of a web is damaged.

To demonstrate the effects of damage to one member of the ecosystem and how it impacts the others, create a scenario such as someone dumps oil in the local stream and the water is contaminated. Ask the person who is water to drop their piece of the sting. Next ask if anyone else's string feels loose and describe how those two items were now affected and then ask them to drop their strings and continue until everyone has been affected by the damage and all the string is on the floor.

Linking all the items takes a bit of creativity, but the students will catch on fast. To really drive home the message, play the game two or three times. Each time the students will expand in their understanding of the components of an ecosystem (coming up with great ideas that you may not have thought about) and it will emphasize how all things are connected.

Some examples of living and nonliving items and important environmental influences in the garden ecosystem include (with short descriptions of some of relationships):

  • Sun — Provides energy for plants.
  • Soil — Home of many decomposing microorganisms and insects. Anchor, nutrient and water source for plant roots.
  • Water — Needed by all living organisms.
  • Trees — Provide homes for many insects and animals, oxygen for our air and shade for our environment.
  • Flowers — Provide food for many insects and animals (including us) through nectar, pollen, fruit and seeds.
  • Insects — Important for pollination. Some insects are beneficial and others harmful to crop production (many of the beneficial insects eat the harmful insects).
  • Birds — Help with seed dispersal and insect control.
  • Rocks — Provide shade and home for insects. Over time (a lot of time) erode into soil.
  • Earthworms — Important decomposers in the soil. Break down decaying organic matter and turn into nutrient filled humus.
  • Frogs — Insect control.
  • Snakes — Rodent control.

After playing the Web of Life activity, ask students about the role of humans in the ecosystem. Through their actions such as the creation of gardens and farms, humans make many changes in the natural environment creating new ecosystems or relationships. Discuss positive and negative ways that humans impact the living and nonliving components in our environment.

To further expand students' understanding of ecosystems, explore the kid-focused educational website on ecosystems from the Missouri Botanical Garden at: http://mbgnet.mobot.org/. For related resources, check out the Project WILD Web site at: http://www.projectwild.org/.

Garden Activity #3: Create a Growing Schedule
Once you identify a crop or crops, you need to create a detailed growing schedule to guide you through production.

You can buy already established plants for your project and transplant them in your indoor or outdoor garden (available at local garden centers) or you can start new plants either from seed or asexual propagation from cuttings or divisions. For detailed information on plant propagation, read the NGA's April 2005 Kids Garden News at: http://www.kidsgardening.com/2005.kids.garden.news/april/pg1.html.

Students can use seed catalogs, garden reference books and the Internet to create a growing schedule for their crop (the same resources used to identify the list of potential crops in Module 1 Activity #3 can help with this activity). They need to locate information on planting time, growing condition needed, water requirements, fertilizer needs, and an estimated harvest time. Use the Growing Schedule Worksheets to help guide the research process.