Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Food For Thought: Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability


The course instructor identified a number of growers and made telephone calls to them explaining the goals of the course, the project, and what would be expected of them and the students.  The grower was asked to give a brief walking tour of their farm and an interview by one group of two to three students.  With their consent, they were told that the student group would call to make an appointment, would travel to their farm for the visit, and would ask them questions about what they produce, how they produce it, and how their views about sustainability.  Of the farmers asked, all indicated willingness to participate.  A wide variety of farm types were identified, including large and organic vegetable, industrial and family dairy, organic and conventional orchard, and grain production.  Each farm was located within a thirty mile radius of the college.  A couple of growers indicated their desire to keep interviews short.  In the end, however, discussions typically lasted significantly longer.

Classroom time was devoted to developing the concept of sustainability and providing a primer on interviewing skills in preparation for on-farm visits by student groups.  Sustainability has been broadly defined as a concept in which three goals must be satisfied simultaneously:  environmental, economic, and social.  No action, process, movement, or business can be truly sustainable unless it satisfies all three areas.  For example, a business that meets environmental and social obligations while not be economically sound is unsustainable. 

Behaviors and attitudes associated with successful interviews were presented in class to help student groups plan roles and responsibilities during the interview.  A common set of questions was developed for each interview that began with a series of informational or fact-finding questions and transitioned to a series of feeling-finding questions focused on understanding farmer thinking about why they conduct operations as they do.  Sample interview questions follow:

  1. Describe your food production operation.  How long have you operated?  What do you produce?
  2. How has your operation changed over time?
  3. What are some features you like, and don’t like, about farming?
  4. What are your major business risks?
  5. How does your product the health of consumers?  The environment?
  6. How is the way you produce food sustainable?  How is it not?
  7. What have changed to become more sustainable?
  8. What does the Calvin College community need to know about your business?  How might Calvin support your business?

Interviews were to be tape-recorded if allowed by the farmer.  Groups positioned themselves to have one or two students to be the primary point of discussion and one to be a scribe.  Each group was challenged to discuss the questions before the interview and to try to anticipate how the interviewee might respond to the various questions so that seamless dialogue might more naturally occur during the interview.

Student groups were provided with a tape recorder and tape, grower name and address, and a telephone number.  They were instructed to contact the grower, set up an appointment, visit the farm and conduct the interview in a period of two weeks.  Post-interview, they were to develop a 5-7 minute classroom group presentation to share the interview results.  

After the interview, each group was challenged to assess and defend their perception of the sustainability of the farm they visited.  Classroom presentations included a description of the farm; key lessons learned from the interview about that operation, the group’s sustainability ratings (on a 1-5 scale, where 1 represents “fully sustainable”) for each dimension of sustainability, from an environmental, economic, and social perspective.  After the presentation, each class member was asked to come up with their own overall sustainability rating for the operation.  A brief discussion followed that focused on individuals sharing why they rated as they did and what if anything could or should be done to improve sustainability if they were in charge of that operation.  Finally, each individual was to write a 3-5 page paper in which to report and rationalize personal and class observations for their farm visit, concluding with a reflection about what they learned from their farm visit and from their exposure to farm visits as reported by their peers.


Next: Farm Visit Learnings