By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
Jeff and Leah Schilling were recently named the Morrison County Farm Family of the Year. They learned the Extension Committee had chosen them in June.
“We didn’t think we qualified for the honor,” said Jeff, who thought there were more deserving farm families in the county. “But, it was explained to us that it’s not just about the high tunnel we erected in the fall of 2010, but about the farm to school program we have implemented.”
The Extension Committee’s goal is to highlight different types of farms each year.
The Schillings’ 30-foot by 72-foot high tunnel, next to a 17-foot by 25-foot tunnel, was erected with a four-year grant from the High Tower Project through the United States Department of Agriculture.
“We took a class from Farm Beginnings for beginning farmers. Our goal was to learn about raising chickens, but when we heard about high tunnels, we were instantly interested. When we heard there was a grant available, we applied and were chosen,” said Leah.
This is the third year of production from the high tunnel for the Schillings. They have embraced the idea of teaching the next generation about where food comes from.
Fourth and seventh grade students from Mary of Lourdes Schools come to the Schillings’ Ripley Esker Farms in the spring and the fall on field trips. They harvest what food is ready and bring it back to the school to be consumed the following day.
“We are able to handle the smaller class sizes,” said Leah. “We teach them how to pick the food so the plant is not destroyed. The tour gives them an idea of where their food comes from.”
The Schillings also talk to the students about the benefits of buying local food and how much better fresh food tastes than the food that is shipped from across the country. They encourage the kids to talk to their parents about frequenting farmers markets.
Their next step may be to have the students actually plant the seeds, then return to harvest what they sowed.
“This is how we give back to the community; we teach the kids,” said Jeff, who said the students are excited to pick the food and have lots of fun doing it.
Leah said that one year she had red, yellow and green tomatoes for the school children to pick, but the students just picked the red ones. She wondered why until she was told that the kids didn’t think they were ripe yet, so they left them alone.
“This is a learning experience for us too,” she said. “We should have told them the yellow and green tomatoes could be picked.”
While the Schillings said there are much easier ways to make a living, farming is in their blood.
“We were dairy farmers when we first got married, until Jeff’s eyesight started to fail,” said Leah. “We wanted to get back into farming and this is something we both can do.”
Jeff said that Leah is a little scientist and is always trying new things. Because of her experiments, they learned that lettuce can go dormant over the winter, when covered in the high tower. It starts growing again in March.
When a vegetable is done for the season, such as peas are now, the Schillings replant with another vegetable such as cucumbers, onions or lettuce. Those will then be ready to harvest in the fall.
The Schillings continue to evolve with farming in the high tunnel and look forward to future years with the students.