2010-06-03 / Front Page

Love of learning – and teaching – fuels islander’s travels

By Holly Benton

Islander Melissa Minto, who grew up on Watson Farm, recently took her love of agriculture and education to southern Mexico, where she worked on a Master’s thesis project on the importance of gardens in schools. Photo courtesy of Melissa Minto Islander Melissa Minto, who grew up on Watson Farm, recently took her love of agriculture and education to southern Mexico, where she worked on a Master’s thesis project on the importance of gardens in schools. Photo courtesy of Melissa Minto Melissa Minto has learned a lot during her years on Watson Farm. Now, she hopes to pass that learning on to others.

Born and raised on the 265- acre farm, she believes strongly in the lessons that it teaches about the importance of agriculture. Watson Farm is owned by Historic New England, a nonprofi t preservation organization based in Boston, and Minto said the farm is preserved so that people can see and appreciate agriculture.

“It’s my life and my passion – I love it here,” she said.

Minto earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut in environmental studies in 2003. Now, she is working on finishing her master’s in international agriculture and rural development at Cornell University.

After finishing her coursework at Cornell this past December, Minto embarked on a four-and-ahalf month trip to San Cristobal de Las Casas in southern Mexico, where she was documenting research for her Master’s thesis project on the importance of gardens in schools.

She worked with a group of researchers, school administrators and teachers to build school gardens with the hope that it would help children improve their patterns of consumption.

In a pilot school garden proj- ect funded by several Mexican organizations, Minto collaborated with the University of California Santa Cruz to bring the UCSC “Life Labs” project to rural Mexico.

In Mexico, Minto participated in teacher workshops and student surveys.

“They’re very poor in these areas and we’re trying to increase their knowledge about agriculture and to reincorporate that into their daily lives through the school,” she said.

Encouraging environmental education through farm and agriculture, Minto also helped the teachers develop ways to teach about food, nutrition and their everyday subjects using agriculture and gardens as a tool – while staying in line with Mexico’s curriculum standards, she said.

“Natural science education is really low, and the teachers said that they needed help,” she said. “So, we’re trying to come up with a way for the teachers to use a school garden to improve their education in the natural sciences, like environmental education, agriculture, nutrition. At the same time, they can use it to do their math problems, problem solving, ecology – anything like that.”

Minto spoke about the high level of poverty in rural communities and schools versus urban schools, saying there’s a big difference in the children’s attitudes and their mentalities towards agriculture.

“You’re not worrying about how much the teachers are making, it’s more like, what the kids are bringing to school for food, if they have shoes to wear to school,” she said. “Do they have water, are they healthy enough to come to school…some of these kids live two hours away from school and they have to walk every day, so attendance is low.”

Minto said she plans to return to Mexico in October for two months to work on the end of her thesis project and complete an evaluation to see if the gardens have benefited the students educationally.

“I really like that aspect of environmental education,” she said. “I think that farming and agriculture and gardens are a really great way to get kids into nature because there’s a huge issue with students not having enough time outside, getting dirty, scraping their knees, climbing trees – the stuff I did growing up that I feel students aren’t able to do anymore. That’s kind of what drove me to my degree in environmental education, agriculture education.”

In addition to working in Mexico, Minto has also traveled to Nicaragua 14 times with different groups of high school and college students, most recently to work on a sustainable agriculture project.

Minto said she worked on projects involving irrigation, growing food and planting gardens and fruit trees that would hopefully teach different communities to help themselves. Implementing different projects to teach people in the communities that agriculture is something to value and maintain, Minto has been dedicated to educating the population on issues of rural poverty and rural development, as well as her much-loved life in Jamestown.

Having left the Jamestown Teen Center two years ago, Minto said she thoroughly enjoyed her work there, planning activities, events and trips for the kids.

“I saw quickly there was a demand for a place for kids to just hang out and so that began our search for a place, and that’s how it settled as a recreation center,” she said. “It was really hard to leave, but I see communities in need and I really like working with rural communities, where they are very impoverished and they have absolutely nothing.”

In addition to Mexico and Nicaragua, Minto also studied Spanish in Costa Rica in 2001 and hopes to travel to the Swiss Alps to work on a dairy farm this summer.

“I just love to travel and taking opportunities when they come to me. As long as I enjoy it, I do it,” she said. “I don’t like to just go for a few days, and see what’s there, it’s best to be there for a long time. Agriculture isn’t a quick project, you need to be there for several months or years for anything to really be fruitful.”

With a passion for travel, as well as for Jamestown and Watson Farm, Minto is undecided about exactly where her life’s work will lead. She’s comfortable, however, with saying that education will most likely continue to be a part of it.

“Part of me wants to continue traveling around the world and part of me wants to stay here at Watson Farm and work here,” she said. “But I really think education is going to be in my life somehow. I have a passion for doing it, whether it’s here or there…I don’t care where, it’s needed everywhere.”

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