Field day

At the FARM Institute it’s education first, production second.


Driving through the morning fog onto the FARM Institute was cinematic. There were expansive pastures in all directions; 23 grazing cows; 300 laying hens in and around their houses with children gathering eggs in baskets; and multiple barns with staff, campers of various ages, and farm educators busily going about their daily tasks to keep the place running as a working farm. Although it’s certainly a working farm, it’s also an educational institution. And you can’t help but learn a lot, no matter what you do there. Wanting to try the farm experience, I recently joined about six families with very enthusiastic youngsters on a morning farm tour.

Our guide, Marie Ambrose, led us first to the Katama Barn, where the left-side stalls have been turned into classrooms, and opposite them is a row of stalls with baby animals, along with those that need extra care. First, we visited the 2-week-old chicks who, we discovered, felt surprisingly fuzzy because their feathers haven’t developed yet. Marie explained, “The camp kids wanted to do an experiment and incubate the eggs to see if they got any chicks out of them, and sure enough they did.” She told me that summer camp runs for a week at a time, but a lot of the children come back week after week, year after year. When kids age out at 13 years old, they can move up the ranks to become farmer-educators-in-training who help out with and sometimes lead the camp activities.

Moving on, we spied little fluff balls in the next stall, which turned out to have three 1-day-old ducklings waddling after their mother, or at least that’s what it looked like they were trying to do.

Swinging around to the outside pens, Marie took us to see the four Duroc pigs, which won first and second prize at the recent Ag Fair. While technically they were still “little piglets,” we discovered that these rich, dark brown 4-month-old porkers were already well over 100 pounds. Marie shared the saying that pigs with curly tails are happy pigs, while those with straight ones are not. If so, then these are some very happy piglets, as well they should be with their own watering hose that they can drink from on demand and a mud puddle of their own.

Walking us through the rows of the impressive vegetable garden, Marie explained that the farm camp groups learn to plant, water, weed, harvest, and then cook with the different plants, including kale, chard, pumpkins, ‘Sungold’ tomatoes, cucumbers, brussel sprouts, strawberries, and purple beans. They also grow decorative flowers. Because the FARM Institute doesn’t use chemicals or pesticides in the garden, we were able to try some of the small cherry tomatoes while walking along. Marie also pointed out the small community garden where you can rent a plot to raise whatever you wish during the growing season.

On our way out, we visited the two resident pet chinchilla rabbits, Thumper and Clover. Marie explained that they’re called “chinchilla” because of their super-soft fur. Interestingly, just feet away was a patch of clover, where I found my very first four-leaf clover, although another young girl had already found four.

The oldest age group of children who worked on summer projects cleared and built a new area for the chickens. We learned that the term “chicken” covers both the female hen and male rooster, which made himself known while we were there. The farm has three coops and nearly 200 chickens in a number of breeds, each breed laying its own color of egg. Marie assured us that it doesn’t make a difference if the eggs are brown, white, or blue — what they’re fed and where they’re raised is what’s important.

The sun finally peeked through just in time for the hayride. After clambering on, we drove by the hops house. Bad Martha’s in Edgartown uses some of the hops from the FARM Institute in its brewing process. Then we rolled by a vast grazing pasture with sheep and flocks of birds taking off into the now clear, blue sky, looking like someone had staged a classic farm scene just for us.

But the greatest fun on the ride was when we got stuck in the middle of a herd of extremely vociferous bellowing cows pressed up around the wagon, necks stretched out and staring us straight in the eye. Moving on our way, we looked out over the sheep dotting the field. Marie said that certain breeds have fleece that sheds like a dog’s coat, while others have wool. In May, the FARM Institute hosts Sheepapalooza, when they shear all 23 breeding ewes, sending some of the wool out to be processed into yarn that they sell, as well as keeping samples for educational purposes.

It’s not too late to enjoy one of the family farm dinners held in the “people pasture,” with rotating guest chefs cooking a locally sourced meal and live music by the PickPocket Bluegrass Band. There are dinners planned for August 30 and Sept. 15. There’s also a Wednesday workshop on Sept. 8 where participants can forage for beach plums and learn how to make jam.

Marie said that the FARM Institute has “a great energy where you can learn about where your food comes from and the process of it all, and have fun while you’re doing it.” I couldn’t agree more.

For the current list of programs, visit Things to Do at the FARM Institute website.