Michigan Scout Council Launches Innovative Sustainable Farming Program

In 1921, when Rota Kiwan Scout Reservation opened near Kalamazoo, Mich., Boy Scouting offered merit badges in agriculture, beekeeping, botany, dairying, gardening, and poultry keeping. For many Scouts of the era, a trip to summer camp offered a welcome break from chores on the family farm. (In 1920, America had three times as many farms as it does today and a third as many residents.)

Today, of course, kids are more likely to play FarmVille on their iPhones than to live on a farm. So it’s no surprise that many aren’t sure where their food comes from and don’t know the sheer joy of tasting a fresh-picked tomato or a peach that didn’t travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach them.

To help connect today’s Scouts to the soil, the Boy Scouts of America’s Michigan Crossroads Council launched a pilot program called Seed to Life at Rota Kiwan Scout Reservation in the summer of 2016. An acre of the 199-acre camp was turned into a demonstration farm, complete with a 20′ x 48′ hoop house for growing green beans, bok choy, and a variety of greens and an 8′ by 9′ chicken coop that houses eight chickens.

Day-camp participants make two 90-minute visits to the farm during their week, while Cub Scout and Webelos Scout resident-camp participants spend an hour there one time. During the visits, kids tour the facility, help to weed or plant, and feed the chickens. They also learn about nutrition, sustainability, and food miles (a measure of how far food travels from producer to consumer).

Not surprisingly, the chickens are the stars of the show. “Their favorite part is the chickens; they just freak out over the chickens,” says Megan Yankee, the council’s marketing innovations manager.

Yankee dreamed up Seed to Life in 2015 as a way to make Scouting more appealing to today’s young families, who often—especially in the Kalamazoo area—like to buy local food and eat at farm-to-table restaurants. To create the program, she formed a board that includes representatives from groups like Sprout Urban Farms, the People’s Food Co-Op, and the Kalamazoo Farmers Market. The board members created a curriculum that includes food-related games and activities to help Scouts learn about both farming and healthy eating.

Besides teaching kids about farming, the camp is also sourcing 25 percent of its cafeteria food from local farms (defined as farms within a 100-mile radius). And food waste from the cafeteria goes to a composting area for future use as fertilizer. Eventually, Yankee says, food could be grown onsite and served onsite, with food waste being used, in the form of compost, to enrich the garden.

Yankee and farm manager Brad Piekarski are already dreaming of expansion. Piekarski’s next project is to create a series of raised planting beds, but he would also like to add an orchard and teach Scouts organic-gardening techniques they can use at home. Yankee, meanwhile, has been invited to Pennsylvania to help a Scout council there pitch a similar project to potential donors.

Yankee acknowledges that many young families don’t understand what Scouting is about and don’t see how it aligns with values they espouse, like supporting local food culture. She says the Seed to Life program sends a simple message: “We care about that too, and this is a great place for your kid to learn about that.”