Flourishing in the Fields
Written onFebruary 21 , 2014
Tucked into a scenic hillside just off of Route 5 in Westminster is Kurn Hattin Homes for Children. Founded 120 years ago, Kurn Hattin is a charitable year-round home for boys and girls from around the Northeast whose families—for whatever reason—are unable to care for them.
And tucked into Kurn Hattin’s 280-acre campus is a working farm, which functions both as a therapeutic venue and an outdoor classroom where hands-on learning builds practical skills and relates to everyday life. Throughout the year, children have the opportunity to experience raising pigs, caring for and riding horses, planting, tending, and harvesting organic veggies, cultivating apples and pressing cider, and maple sugaring.
Children who come to Kurn Hattin may be victims of tragedy, poverty, homelessness, abuse, or neglect. As the school’s co-executive director, Connie Sanderson, says, “There are 105 children here and 105 reasons why they’re here.” For many of these children, especially those who come from urban areas, Kurn Hattin is a whole new world. And for most of these kids, it offers their first exposure to agricultural pursuits.
Kurn Hattin’s farm manager, Pat Barry (affectionately known by students as “Mr. Pat”), oversees operations on the 123-acre farm. He says students gain an in-depth understanding of the full cycle of food production when they take part in every aspect of the growing process from seed to table.
“It’s a real eye-opener for a lot of these kids,” he says, “to learn about where their food really comes from, as opposed to thinking of it as something that comes from a supermarket.”
Last year, Kurn Hattin students helped turn out 80 gallons of maple syrup, 150 gallons of cider, numerous varieties of herbs and wildflowers, and a wide array of vegetables, including tomatoes, potatoes, radishes, peppers, garlic, onions, and several varieties of squash and greens, not to mention six pigs. Roughly 90 percent of the produce from the farm is consumed by students and staff, either in the residential cottages where students live, or in the school’s cafeteria, where waste is composted or saved for the pigs. The remainder is given away as gifts to friends and donors who support the school, or donated to the Our Place food pantry in Bellows Falls.
Food service manager Richard Johnson says that roughly a quarter of the produce used by the cafeteria comes from the Kurn Hattin farm, with a good portion of the rest coming from local farms such as Johnson Farm in Westminster and Pete’s Stand in Walpole, NH.
But for the students at Kurn Hattin, the farm is about much more than just growing food. Being able to see, taste, and share the fruits of their labor gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride that many of them have never felt. For those from urban backgrounds, just getting outdoors and connecting to nature may be a novel experience, one that is especially important in the age of so-called “nature deficit disorder.” In addition, giving kids the responsibility to work independently on jobs around the farm goes a long way toward empowering them and helping them feel competent and confident.
Eighth-grader Jesse Waite says that when she and her fellow residents are on the farm, “We have to listen and follow instructions carefully, so we can do things right and be safe. When Mr. Pat gives us a job, he trusts us to do it ourselves.”
“Mr. Pat” collaborates with science and math faculty on the curriculum for the school’s farm science program, which combines classroom learning with experiences out on the farm. The goal is to help students connect and apply what they’re learning in the classroom to the real world, and to give them a sense of responsibility and stewardship for the natural resources around them. Students learn about chemical compounds and reactions, explore simple machines, measure plant height and rate of growth, analyze the number of pounds of garbage saved through composting, explore ratios, fractions, and units of measurement, and more. “There are so many more ways to integrate the farm into academics than we have time for in a year,” Pat says.
Chris Deitz, a seventh-grader from Westminster West, started as a day student at Kurn Hattin last fall and has quickly become one of the farm’s superstars. Asked what he thinks about working on the farm, Chris says, “It’s hard work, but it’s fun.”
“Chris has really flourished in this environment,” says Principal Scott Tabachnick. “Many of our students respond better to a more hands-on approach to learning. We’ve found that, often, combining classroom time with time out on the farm during the day, where students can get outdoors, get moving, and apply what they have been studying in class in a very practical way, can really help them put things together and can be really motivating.”
Another integral part of the Kurn Hattin farm is its therapeutic horsemanship program. Developed by riding instructor Sara Stine, the program is designed to help students build empathy, compassion, and leadership skills. Sara says the process of bonding with the horses helps some children break through defensive barriers and be able to build positive connections with people.
“They need to watch, listen, understand, and be present with the horses,” she says. “They have to be patient and learn to work with the animal.” The experience helps students develop essential interpersonal skills that help them interact successfully with others.
Jesse Waite also takes part in the horsemanship program and shares Chris Deitz’s sentiments. “Taking care of the horses is really hard work, but I love it because it’s fun.”
Pat Barry says the children help remind him to focus on the “fun” aspects of his work too. “Farming’s not the easiest line of work, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it, but like everybody, you might get tired or take things for granted sometimes. When I’m out here with the kids, and I see them get so excited and they tell me how much they love doing this or they want to keep doing it in the future, it’s a good reminder to me of how great this work is.”