It was not an ordinary week for the sixth graders at St. Aloysius School in Harlem. Instead of heading to their inner city school every day for indoor study, they were up at 6:15 and heading to do farm chores before breakfast at Spring Brook Farm in Reading, Vermont. They were about to spend their school week milking cows, tending the farm animals, working in the garden, picking berries, shoveling manure, making apple cider... and getting school credit for all of it. And their teachers were spending the week at the farm with them as well.
Spring Brook Farm is the site of the unique Farms for City Kids program, which hosts classes of kids and teachers for week-long educational programs throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Students live in a dorm on the farm and spend their days learning practical skills and environmental awareness from the staff of nine educators/farmers. Staff and teachers help them relate what they're learning on the farm to their school work. (An early spring orientation for teachers helps them keep at least one step ahead of the kids during their week at the farm.) The experience is designed to blend math, social studies, language arts, and science into hands-on, practical learning. The 800-acre farm provides the perfect outdoor laboratory.
"Feeding the farm animals is not as easy as it looks," writes one student. "When feeding a baby calf, you have to measure the powdered milk in a cup. It has to be a full cup-no more, no less. Then you add warm water....The goats get 1/4 cup of grain and the sheep get a ? cup of grain. The turkeys eat a special feed, and the pigs eat mostly our leftovers. The cows get grain and hay and have a special water fountain to drink from. You have to be careful when feeding animals, and know what you are doing."
This farm classroom was the brainchild of James Hagedorn, Chairman of the Farms for City Kids Foundation Board of Directors and President of The Scotts Company. The foundation purchased the dairy farm from the Vermont Land Trust in 1992 and modeled the educational focus after a similar program in the United Kingdom. Farms for City Kids, which opened in 1995, is an accredited, independent Vermont school. Individual and corporate donations help make the program free for participating students and teachers.
Each year between 300 and 400 students spend weekly sessions at the farm. They come from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and even Vermont, where growing up on a family farm is not the common experience it used to be. For many of them, the experience is profound. Students learn the importance of agriculture, not only for the food that is produced but for how it binds together a community. They harvest vegetables and donate them to area food shelves. They learn responsibility, self confidence, cooperation, and good old fashioned hard work. Some of them even fall in love. With the animals, that is:
"Dear Mattie the Cow, I like when I pet you. I really like your beautiful eyes. I like your skin. I like your pretty nose. I like when the Farm teacher lets you go outside with the other cows. I hope you are happy living on this Farm. I like it when you run into the pasture. I love you Mattie. Love, Erica, P.S. 94."
A teacher from Brooklyn, NY, relates the experience of bringing to the farm a student who presented behavior challenges in the classroom. She hoped the farm program would help him. She writes, "The real joy of bringing this student was seeing him in a different light. Everyone got to see this, but most importantly, he saw himself in a new way. I think this trip changed him in many ways. He is more focused and self confident, and he does not get in as much trouble... This trip really impacted the life of a child, and isn't that why we all do this job?"
For more information about Farms for City Kids, or to make a tax-deductible contribution to the educational program, please contact:
Jennifer Thygesen, Development, Director; or Eric Johnson, Executive Director
Farms for City Kids
Caper Hill Road
Reading, VT 05062
Phone: 802-484-1236 (farm) or 802-484-0076
Web site: www.farmsforcitykids.org
Spring Brook Farm typically produces 400 to 700 gallons of maple syrup every year. Proceeds from syrup sales help fund their educational programs. By purchasing syrup from the farm, you're not only getting pure Vermont maple syrup, you'll also be helping city children participate in an unforgettable experience on a Vermont dairy farm.