photo of Chrissy Fowler '89

Planting seeds of knowledge

This July 70 campers from grades one through five will begin their day at 8:30 a.m. with farm chores such as feeding the chickens and checking the compost pile. Then, under Chrissy Fowler '89's direction, they'll learn how to mix soil, plant seeds and handle farm tools.

These activities are typical for campers at Adventures in Agriculture, which Fowler helped to create. Adventures in Agriculture takes place at Mill Valley, a 65-acre organic farm in southern New Hampshire, and is now in its third summer. The day camp teaches children how and where their food comes from, giving them an understanding of the importance of farming. "We walk them through the steps of having a farm," Fowler says. "They grow things in cooperation with the earth, in a way that works with natural processes." Fowler, a pre-school teacher whose parents were also organic gardeners and teachers, says the curriculum can be used by all kinds of farmers. She says campers are exposed to entomology, plant biology and meteorology every day in the chores and projects they do and even in the games they play. Campers tackle farm tasks such as collecting eggs, caring for animals (four goats in addition to Phoebe the sheep) and monitoring the farm's rain gauge and greenhouse temperature. They build a compost heap, pull weeds, test soil, and learn about mulching, transplanting, and all stages of gardening, from planting to harvesting. They take their lunch with the farm hands and make bean poles and scarecrows. They pick rye seeds out of rye plant stalks, grind them into flour with a hand-cranked grain mill and pack them into a fresh zucchini cake. They perform a play about composting with some acting the part of the compost, others worms and oxygen.

"I want kids to get a sense of where their food is coming from and to gain a greater appreciation of it," Fowler says. "I want them to have involvement in an authentic learning experience."

On an organic farm, food is grown in soil whose biological health is maintained by ecologically sound management practices. Pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, which may result in toxic residues or byproducts, are not used. Healthy plants can withstand a certain amount of insect predation, explains Fowler, and still produce tasty vegetables. Some bugs can be controlled by hand-picking. Horn worms that burrow into tomatoes, for example, can be collected and fed to the chickens. In one favorite exercise, kids make a game out of collecting bean beetles. Larvae count as one point, eggs, two points and adult beetles three points. Then the kids feed the beetles, in all their various stages of life, to the chicks. Organic farming works in concert with the ideal of sustainability: keeping land in good condition by using what is there.

Campers aren't the only beneficiaries at Adventures in Agriculture. "I feel quite proud of the way the camp works and the resulting positive publicity for the farm, organic agricultural practices, and locally-grown food," Fowler says. "Kids have such a great energy and interest for learning that they infuse a little bit of that energy into the farm crew. Their presence affects the environment of the farm in a very positive way.

"The camp will contribute to the financial viability of a small farm so it can continue to do the right thing: produce healthy food locally." Fowler's ultimate hope is to alter through early education our society's growth and consumption patterns, which she calls "frighteningly unsustainable."

And for Fowler, the benefits are two-fold: "The nice thing about teaching this camp is it integrates two things I really care about: growing food and teaching."

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