Once an occasional, informal seasonal happening, farmers markets have become big business. These days, towns without them are trying to get them started, while towns with them are looking for ways to expand or enhance them. Indeed, the markets in many communities have grown beyond their humble pickup-truck-and-bushel-basket roots to include craft vendors, coffee purveyors and live entertainment, in the process becoming as much social meeting places as markets.

Even amid this bumper crop of farmers markets, however, the monthly gathering of growers in Lowell stands apart. Because as it turns out, Lowell High School wasn’t only a convenient gathering place for the various vendors—it was also a great place to find the young marketing minds to help build and grow the market itself as a civic institution. Thanks to the combined efforts of Superintendent Dr. Debra Howe and marketing teacher Brad Docter, the Lowell farmers market is now an ambitious hands-on project for a group of innovative Lowell students.

Skills in Action

“This felt like a great fit with our project-based learning environment,” says Dr. Howe, who discussed the idea with several of her fellow members on the Lowell Chamber of Commerce before presenting it to Docter. “It seemed like a perfect way to engage our students.”

Docter agreed that the concepts behind building and selling a collaborative effort like a community farmers market would dovetail nicely with the curriculum he was presenting to his marketing students, requiring them to put skills such as written and verbal communication, time management, teamwork and more into action. The students are responsible for everything from preparing the market layout to researching and establishing vendor fees to approaching potential participants.

“Since many of our classes are project-based, this idea fit with not only our marketing class, but our graphic design class and horticulture classes as well,” Docter says. “The students bought into the idea immediately, mostly because they saw it as something different and very much based in the real world.”

Fruits of Labor

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Both Howe and Docter have been impressed by the early results they’ve seen as the partnership has evolved. Not only has the farmers market doubled its number of vendors from last summer to this year, but Docter says the program has benefited the students, the school and the community in equal measure.

“This program has been a success on several fronts,” Docter explains. “For the students, they’ve been able to learn many different facets of marketing and graphic design by using real-world situations, which has been much more effective than just classroom learning. For the school, the money raised from the farmers market goes directly to our marketing, digital design and horticulture programs, which is helpful during a time of tight budgets. Finally, we’ve been able to help out local and home-based businesses in Lowell, which has helped teach our students the importance of small businesses in our economy and showed them the many opportunities that are available.”

Community Engagement

Dr. Howe says that participation in the farmers market is just one of the many opportunities Lowell students have found to get more involved in their community, including volunteer activities with local seniors and special needs students. She believes these types of beyond-the-school-walls efforts not only help to deepen the connection between the school and the community, but also get the students more excited about the things they’re learning every day in the classroom.

“The students are just so engaged by working on a project like this,” she says. “They’re amazed by the difference they’re making in the community through a school project, and you can feel the excitement of putting what they’ve learned into action.”

Docter agrees that the farmers market project has been a great way to “activate” the concepts that he’s been teaching in the classroom, and he believes that—just like the crops being sold on those market Saturdays—the real-world lessons and connections to the community among his students will only continue to sprout and grow.

“The students have really been able to see all of the different things that go into creating, planning and running a real-world business event,” he says. “They’ve learned the importance of ‘follow-up’ when selling, such as how thank-you notes and surveys can help make the event better, which is a concept that might get overlooked in a classroom lesson. I like that we’re helping to connect the students to the community that they live in to have a positive impact, and I know they’ve appreciated the change from ‘regular’ classroom learning.”