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The Learning Farm at Hofgut Oberfeld: Education for Sustainable Development

“Where does our food come from?” and “What does animal welfare mean?”: At Hofgut Oberfeld in Darmstadt, these and other questions are answered with head, heart, and hands, following the motto of the Lernort Bauernhof, which since 2006 has been inviting individuals of all ages to experience biodynamic agriculture firsthand. Johannes Rehmann, who holds an M.A. in Inclusive Education, is the director of education on the farm. In this interview, he talks about his team’s motivation, participatory and hands-on educational programs, and inclusivity on the farm.

Mr. Rehmann, how did you end up on a farm, among the chickens, sheep and cows?
My mother grew up on a farm, which surely influenced me. Even as a young boy, I was constantly out in the fresh air and always surrounded by animals. In school, biology was one of my favorite subjects. Through practical experience that I gained during as a volunteer on a non-profit project in South Africa, I discovered a passion for gardening. This led, over the course of my studies, to Oberfeld, where I gardened on an allotment in the seasonal gardens together with friends. That was really great. A few years later, as I was shopping in the farm store, I happened to meet my predecessor. We got to talking, she was moving back to her hometown and was looking for a successor. So, in a certain sense I landed here by chance.

Why are children and farms such a natural fit?
Children experience everything through their senses: they see, smell, hear, taste, and feel on the farm, in diverse ways. A direct connection to personal action and unmediated experience are what make the difference. In contrast to simply learning from books or classroom lectures, children here can actively participate, they can produce food like bread or cheese, and of course they can taste everything. In doing so, they come to understand the origins of our food.

But adults like to come here, as well. What do they experience at Hofgut Oberfeld?
With adults and with older children and teens, we often have lively discussions about different animal agriculture and growing methods. For that, it is naturally important to learn about various differences and to learn about different systems. At Hofgut Oberfeld, we use biodynamic methods, meaning the highest environmental perspective. This means that on our farm, calves remain with their mothers after birth, the chickens run around freely on the lawn, and we intentionally refrain from any chemicals or pesticides on fruit or vegetables. In our educational work, it is always an intention of ours to accompany adolescents who are becoming mature, critical consumers. But not with a raised index finger, but on the basis of their own emotional experiences, as this is the only way that a firm, values-based stance can develop.

How have the program and clientele changed since the founding of the Lernort Bauernhof?
Since it was founded in 2006, the Lernort Bauernhof has grown considerably. Each year, our programs now reach around 7,000 people of all ages. In addition to workshops for groups and open programs, we also have children’s birthdays and teacher trainings, team events, and holiday games. Our goal is, and has been since the beginning, that every child in the area can experience a farm firsthand at least once. But often, it doesn’t stop there: we have an established relationship with many of the educational institutions from the city and region, often since many years. Hence the number who come repeatedly is quite large. In particular, the third to sixth classes are here regularly as guests.

Providing consistently high quality and a reliable structure in the programming is more important than ever. This allows the teachers to optimally prepare and follow-up their visits to the Lernort Baunerhof. In addition, this way they know in advance what they and the group can expect. This shows the increasing professionalization that has taken place here at the farm in the last 14 years. Our themes, however, have remained the same. Today as in the past, at the heart of the program are the milk cows, laying hens, sheep, and grain, fruit, and vegetable agriculture in general.

It has always been a central concern of ours to spread enthusiasm for farming with all kinds of people. A low barrier to entry means that every individual, independent of their personal budget or other possible limitations, can participate. This is how we preserve the character of an inclusive location for learning and education for sustainable development. Naturally, we always rely on donations and support from partners, who include in particular the Bürgerstiftung Darmstadt, the Dotter Foundation, Karl Mergele Foundation and the Software AG – Foundation.

What most impresses the small and large visitors to the farm?
What is always wonderful is the moment when the children, teens or even adults understand where straw gets its name. Most people know these plastic drinking straws. In the workshop “From Bread to Grain,” we take a piece of dried wheat straw, stick it in a glass, blow through it, and drink out of it, then suddenly the lightbulb goes on – often with a dropped jaw and wide eyes: hey, that’s a real straw!

What does the Lernort Bauernhof need for the future?
People with a lot of energy and creativity who provide new ideas and energy are always needed at a place like Hofgut Oberfeld. Even though we have developed enormously, I am sure that there is still enormous development potential, just as before. For the future of the Lernort Bauernhof, my wish would be that we could find additional projects where students could participate even more intensively and leave behind their own personal mark. Not just once for three hours, but over the course of an entire school year, for example. So they could experience the cycle of the seasons, which plays an essential role in agriculture. The seasonal garden, for example, would be a good opportunity. The 80 square metre plots of land could be gardened by a class of students and plowed in regular rhythm. Or in the case of grains or potatoes, it is also imaginable that the students could spend an entire year, first setting or sowing, following the growth of the plants on the farm, and finally harvesting, preparing, and then tasting. That would make the learning processive even more impressive and thus more sustainable. 

In the East of Darmstadt is Hofgut Oberfeld – nestled between meadows and fields, the historical Rosenhöhe park, and the neighboring Oberwald forest. The former ducal farm and later state property is the last remaining farm in the South Hessen city of Darmstadt. For city residents it is a beloved destination and meeting place. The Software AG  Foundation purchased the historically listed building complex, consisting of the farm building and five workers’ houses, from the state of Hessen in 2006, and transferred it to the newly founded Hofgut Oberfeld Foundation. Since then, this foundation has networked and supported the various partners of the farm. This includes the Lernort Bauernhof, Initiative Domäne Oberfeld e. V. and Lebensweg e. V. in cooperation with the organization Heydenmühle e. V. and the Hofgut Oberfeld Landwirtschaft AG. Together, these organizations – relying on considerable civic engagement – provide a diverse program of cultural, educational, and social-therapeutic programs for individuals with and without disabilities.