ATLANTA, Ill. — A group of 10 students from Israel visited PrairiErth Farm to learn more about organic food production during their two-week trip to Illinois.
The Arab and Jewish students traveled to the Bloomington-Normal area with the Friends Forever International program. The mission of this group, which has been coming to Illinois each summer since 2013, is to empower youth leaders to connect, strengthen and serve communities around the world.
“Our goal today is for the kids to see where food comes from because a big part of the program is healthy living,” said Meagan Maher, program coordinator for Friends Forever International. “And we want them to see that healthy eating can be fun.”
In addition to the students from Israel, a group of kids from the Bloomington Boys and Girls Club also visited the family farm owned by Dave Bishop.
“The two groups of students will be using vegetables from the farm to cook a meal together tonight,” Maher said. “They have already spent some time with the kids from the club dancing, playing basketball and other activities in the gym.”
“I am very happy to host the students,” said Bishop, who welcomes visitors to his farm. “We have about 2,000 people visit the farm each year with about half of them students and rest people who want to see what organic is all about and then a lot of those people become customers.”
PrairiErth Farm has been certified organic since 2004. However, Bishop started transitioning to organic production in the late ‘80s.
“We were trying to figure out how not to become a victim of the weather and 1988 was the drought,” he explained.
“We started diversifying and laying the groundwork and in 2004 corn was $2.25 per bushel and organic corn was $4.35 per bushel and we had $100 per acre less expenses,” he said. “That pushed us to organic, and we never looked back.”
During the tour, Bishop talked about his 480-acre farm that includes 35 acres of vegetable crops.
“We start planting crops in February and keep planting until the middle of October,” he said. “We start growing in the hoop houses, and every couple of weeks, we are planting something.”
About 40 different kinds of vegetables are grown on the Logan county farm. The vegetables are sold in many locations, including farmers markets, through a CSA, in grocery stores and to restaurants.
“Local food systems are about keeping the value of what you do in your community,” Bishop stressed.
Since they were visiting an organic farm, Bishop told the students they would see weeds.
“People hate weeds, but weeds provide services, too, as long as you don’t let them take out a crop you want to eat,” he said.
“Weeds actually do some good things for us for example — some weeds are really good at bringing nutrients up from deep underground,” Bishop explained.
“You can tell a lot about your soil by looking at unintended plants or weeds because you can correlate a particular weed with a deficiency in the soil.”
Along with vegetables, corn, soybeans and wheat are grown at PrairiErth Farm.
“Our wheat is harvested and shipped to a farmer about one hour away, and he mills it and sells the flour,” Bishop said. “So, even our grains are raised and sold locally.”
While in the United States, the teens have a jam-packed schedule.
“Yesterday, they did a speech at Normal’s town council and at the Rotary Club,” Maher said. “And they have done some rock climbing and hiking, so we try to round out their experience.”
Hod, one of the students on the trip, is a volunteer coordinator in her home town for a youth movement with kids of special needs. She learned about the Friends Forever International program from her English teacher.
“He said he was going on this program, and he wanted me to come with him,” she said.
This is the first time Hod has traveled to the United States.
“I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to understand people,” said the student who in addition to English also speaks Hebrew and Spanish.
After the first week of the trip, Hod said, some of her favorite activities including dancing with the kids from the Boys and Girls club and delivering speeches at the Rotary Club and the city council.
“We have met some really nice people, and the food is amazing,” she added. “I also enjoy cooking together, and I’m waiting for that tonight.”
Romi became interested in the program to improve her public speaking skills.
“I have bad stage fright, so I thought this would be a really good thing for me to try to get rid of this fear,” she said.
“We went to the movies and the smallest size of cup here is an extra large in Israel,” Romi said. “Everything here is double in size — it’s very funny.”
For more information about Friends Forever International, go to www.ff.international.