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Merry Lea field trip aims to educate youths interested in sustainable agriculture

Jon Zirkle wants kids to know there’s more to farm work than driving tractors and digging in the dirt. 

Zirkle, a farm manager and agroecology instructor at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, is organizing a field trip geared toward middle and high school students in the hopes of showing them how multifaceted his job can be. The tour will begin at Goshen College at 8 a.m. on Oct. 11 and return at 2:45 p.m. that afternoon.

“I’m hoping the youth see that small scale sustainable farming utilizes a lot of different skills and creates a working life that’s really diverse in terms of what you do everyday,” Zirkle said. 

There’s still plenty of hard labor required to run your own farm, Zirkle noted, but he also pointed out that modern farmers have to utilize all sorts of business and communication skills, from deciding where to sell their freshly grown produce to setting up a farm website.

Zirkle plans to begin the trip at the Goshen Farmer’s Market, where students will be encouraged to find a vendor who interests them and ask about their branch of agriculture.

The tour will then meet with student representatives from Goshen College community gardens and take part in hands-on activities at Plough & Stars Farm in Whitley County and Merry Lea Sustainable Farm, which is associated with Goshen College.

After a lunch made from local ingredients, the group will visit Old Loon Farm, which produces baked goods, jam and honey in addition to fruits and vegetables.

The tour, which is completely free of charge, is aimed at young people between the ages of 13 and 20, but “we’re open to anyone who’s interested in agriculture who considers themself a ’youth,’” Zirkle said. He said he hopes 15 to 20 young people and a few parent chaperones sign up for the trip.

Zirkle said the tour would appeal to young people who want to learn more about where their food comes from or have yet to find a traditional classroom subject that excites them.

“I think one group [that might be interested] is urban kids who haven’t gotten to see farms, who have been more disconnected from growing their own food. I think that’s a subset of young folks and households where that option has never been presented to them,” Zirkle said. “For some of the young folks who are exposed to agriculture through 4-H, this may expose them to new types of agriculture – small scale, diversified, labor intensive. Maybe they’ve been exposed to larger-scale animal production.”

Interested students can register by contacting Jon Zirkle at or 269-858-9527. Registration will remain open until the group leaves the meeting spot at Physical Plant, which is located at Ninth Street and College Avenue in Goshen.

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