Planting seeds at The FARM
The FARM Institute (TFI) is many things. It's a working farm that provides a variety of agricultural products to the community; it's a public open space that is enjoyed by many; it's part of the Island-wide effort to conserve land. However, executive director Matthew Goldfarb stresses that The FARM Institute is really about education. And in that role the Institute offers an invaluable service to a community with a longstanding agricultural tradition.
"We are excited about developing new opportunities to directly connect the community to the production of food," Mr. Goldfarb said. "Knowing how to grow potatoes, how to tend to a flock of sheep or laying hens will be the cornerstone of education and empowerment that will support healthy food and healthy living in our community. The FARM Institute is committed to teaching these skills to all Island children and families."
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
TFI has been conducting a number of year-round classes and summer programs for all ages of children since it was founded in 2000. Currently it offers four fall programs: Farmers-in-Training (FIT), for children 10 and over; Fall After School Program, for first through fifth grades; Saturday Afternoon Work, for children five and over, and for the learners from two- to four-years-old, Wee Farmer Mornings.
The FARM Institute's development director Rob Goldfarb (Matthew Goldfarb's brother), is equally passionate about FARM Institute's mission, saying, "The best thing is that our future generations are going to care about farming. They need to be exposed to the process. We're fostering a sense of generosity for the lands, the animals, and each other."
This spirit was in evidence on a recent Friday afternoon, as the FIT group gathered for chores. The students, who ranged in age from 10 to 14, worked together cooperatively, and seemed to genuinely care about each other. They also knew a lot about food production.
Fourteen-year-old Megan Mendenhall has been attending the FARM programs for eight years. "They're always teaching you different ways to apply what you're learning in your life, like knowing where your food comes from," she said, pointing out some of the problems with mass produced livestock and talking about the advantages of buying local.
Photos by Mary Baker
Farmer/teacher Julie Olson works with the younger children. She explained that in the Wee Farmers program they are "planting the seed" both literally and figuratively. "It's really just working with their senses - walking around the farm, doing things in the garden," she said.
"If future generations are going to care about farms and farming, they must be directly exposed to the cycles of food production," Rob Goldfarb said. "At TFI, our goal is to give our children the experience and knowledge of why land, animals and farms are so important... so when they are older.. not only will they care, but will be knowledgeable and will know how to act,"
Rob reiterated the value of hands-on learning, offering the example of the free-range Bronze turkeys that have been raised and made available for Thanksgiving. Of the 12- to 32-pound turkeys being sold, only the 30- to 32-pound ones are still available.
Said Rob Goldfarb, "The FARM Institute provides opportunities for students to use all of their senses to learn. The more they can touch, smell, and taste the things they are learning about, the more deeply they will understand and remember what they learn. It's not just that kids will learn how to milk a goat, pull up a carrot or feed a pig. By being on the farm, these kids are learning a sense of responsibility."
Milking a goat is, however, one of the chores for which the FIT group is responsible. On Friday, six students took turns - two milked while the others fed the goat grain and soothed her into submission.
"She'll make more milk the next time," said 10-year-old Jeremy Mercier, a four-year veteran of The FARM programs, who would like to own his own farm one day. "I've gotten three of my friends to come. They wanted to do work because they just play video games all day and they got bored with it," he explained enthusiastically.
Emma HallBilsback, 14, has been at the FARM longer than anyone, including some of the staff. She's participated in programs there for eight years, going back to the early days at Herring Creek. She was also a counselor this past summer. Each week, at least one in her group of four- and five-year-olds was afraid of the animals. Eventually, though, everyone became comfortable around the livestock. With an obvious sense of accomplishment, she said, "At the end of the week, they'd be giving the parents facts that I gave them."
And 11-year-old Ryan Levesque, new to the program, remarked, "I first thought it was kind of boring. My mom made me come. Now I think it's pretty fun 'cause we get to do a lot of stuff and get to hang with friends."
The FARM Institute also teaches entrepreneurial skills. Through WISP (Work Income Sharing Program) older kids grow and harvest vegetables, which they sell at the farmer's market and to local restaurants. The Institute recently received a grant from the 1772 Foundation that will allow them to restore their barn and build two winter greenhouses. This will enable them to extend the program to four seasons.
"What makes this program so unique," said Rob Goldfarb, "is that the participating students receive a reimbursement paycheck based on their sales. And what they don't sell, they donate to Island food banks and senior centers." He continued, "So in essence, these children are taking an active role in feeding our community."
He pointed out, "The children that come through our programs may not be future farmers. Nonetheless, they will be the future land stewards."
And future farmers or not, the kids are gaining more than just life lessons on the farm, as Mr. Goldfarb notes, "Whether they're learning math in the garden or history in the fields, there's a connection to what they're learning in school to how their lives apply to it now."
For more details about fall programs at The Farm Institute visit farminstiute.org, or call 508-627-7007.