Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

Kids at farm camp

Written By

Lisa Holderness

Written on

June 01 , 2008

As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

Fifteen years ago, long before Jerry and I started Farm Camp at our Guilford farm, I pulled off this exit to teach environmental science and biology at The Putney School on Elm Lea Farm. I watched students rise to the challenge of the morning barn requirements before long days of intense classes. We had family-style meals at big round tables, talking as we ate the meat raised on Putney pastures. The farm was an extension of my classroom.

Soon I met Jerry Smith, an organic farmer, and a few years later I traded full-time science teaching for mothering and farming. Our son, Stuart, began teaching me more about the growth opportunities that farm life can provide for children. He loves to be of use around the farm and to cook foods he’s harvested with us. He thinks in terms of relationships and cause and effect. He knows dozens of plants, and prides himself on his mental map of our fields, our sugarbush, and the local farmers’ market. From an early age, Stuart varied his routines and diet according to the position of the sun and seasons. As he grew, so did my conviction that a children’s farm camp had a role to play in our farm mission to promote a more joyous and sustainable community.

Farm Camp at Deer Ridge Farm is now in its fourth year, serving campers age 4–15, and every day dawns full of possibility and wonder during the week-long camps. Every activity reminds the children and the adults that the earth provides, and that we have the knowledge, tools, and strength to get a job done. Children share responsibility for the animals, for creating harvest meals, and for looking after each other’s well-being. Sometimes gratification is as immediate as a weed-free row, a pint of red berries, or a batch of homemade maple ice cream. Other times success is deferred, and we work through disappointment to return again to promise and possibility.

On day one, campers learn safety considerations and use a treasure hunt or challenge course to learn their way around the farm. (Repeat campers learn that the farm’s crops rotate from year to year!) And they make their own list of farm, craft, building, and cooking goals, which they refer to throughout the week to make choices about their activities. This method of having children make choices mirrors the role of the independent farmer—observing, weighing choices, making decisions.

We begin each day with greetings around our small circle, a song, and announcements of what’s happening on the farm that day. Early in the week, every group does short farm rotations—harvesting, preparing and storing farm foods, planting and weeding, and animal chores such as feeding, watering, collecting eggs, and moving fences. From then on, children follow their interests with the help of a staff-child ratio of 1:4. Children harvest their own snacks, build structures, go hiking to pick blueberries, and process raw wool. They love setting up their own farm stand at the farm and at the Wednesday Brattleboro Farmers’ Market—making signs, using a cash box, creating flower bouquets, washing veggies for sale, and setting up their own herbal salves and felted projects. In our Farm Photo camp, campers age 9–15 visit local farms and edit their own photo documentaries on farm life. Some campers stay for a campfire dinner and an overnight, experiencing the farm beyond the hours of 9 to 4. Throughout the week, each child is celebrated, and shared meals and work build friendships.

There are other time-honored elements of Vermont farm life that we incorporate into Farm Camp. Campers let loose with games from the leader’s bag of tricks, and invent their own games. (The chicken house once became the “jail” in a camper-initiated game of tag!) We get sweaty and dirty and then cool off, often by sliding down the slip n’ slide on the side of one of our hills (we always have a lifeguard on staff). Before lunch, we give thanks to the sun, soil, plants, and animals—and the farmers and cooks, too—who made our meal possible. Finally, we take time for solo sits with our journals, so we can all enjoy the farm as if we were alone for a few minutes in the midst of our gregarious work and play.

Our model of Farm Camp is probably unique for its incorporation of educational philosophy, farmer personalities, and site specifics. I was a teacher and curriculum consultant before I became a farmer, and Jerry has 30 years of organic farming under his belt and an incredible way with children. We own our farm, live and work organically in intimate relation with the soil and our community, and make our living from what we raise and harvest. By offering scholarships and transportation help, we make a special effort to reach out to children who might not otherwise get the opportunity to attend Farm Camp.

There are a variety of other farm camp opportunities in Vermont. Farm & Wilderness Camp in Plymouth is well known for its overnight camps built on Quaker values, with an emphasis on farm life, self-sufficiency, and the development of character and responsibility. They also offer day camps. Shelburne Farms offers day camps in a gorgeous farm environment on the shores of Lake Champlain. And Food Works at Two Rivers Center in Montpelier offers a unique hands-on Herb Camp, at which children learn to make herbal salves, balms, and teas. The Farm-Based Education Association has information on these and many other programs (www.farmbasededucation.org).

Farms cultivate a problem-solving approach to life’s challenges and surprises. They provide ample opportunity for reflection, balance of work and play, immersion in beauty, and awareness of self and place. Children want to have responsibility for other creatures and to be needed, to interact in community, to be challenged, and to experience their own physical strength—just as adults do.

Sometimes I wonder: am I perpetuating an agrarian myth, like all those farm animal picture books and cutesy animated movies? No—my family and I are real, part of a “new agrarian economy” based on relationships and sustainability. The lesson of Farm Camp is real and universal: to feed, to plant, and to harvest is to be more confident, more powerful, more satisfied, and more deeply engaged in life’s web—in short, to be more human.

For more on Farm Camp at Deer Ridge Farm, go to deerridgefarmvt.net. Deer Ridge Farm in Guilford produces maple syrup, berries, cut flowers, and vegetables for the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, their roadside stand, weddings, and their new winter CSA.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Holderness

About the Author

Lisa Holderness

Lisa Holderness

Lisa Holderness has an MS in environmental science from Antioch New England. She has been a science teacher and environmental educator for 25 years and an organic farmer for 14 years.

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