Farm Education for All

September 2017
Written by Education Director, Rebekah Carter

Fall after school harvest (Rebekah Carter 2016)

I’ve spent the past five years of my life serving as Education Director for Wright-Locke Farm, and the experience has been nothing short of incredible. But even now, five years into this journey, I am often asked, “What exactly do you do? What is farm education?” I think many who are not familiar with farm-based programs may assume that “farm ed” only relates to training programs for new or beginning farmers. Though this is certainly one form of it, farm education programs at Wright-Locke and many other small farms are typically geared towards the non-farming population of children, teens, and adults that make up a farm’s community. We may not all be farmers, but we’re all eaters, and the majority of us could use a little guidance when it comes to eating more locally and seasonally. Farm education gives farms a means to communicate to their customers both the knowledge and skills necessary to make better food and lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to growing or incorporating more fresh fruits, veggies, herbs, and other local foods into your diet.

Hosting theMOVE students at the farm (2014)Ideally, one’s participation in farm education will start as soon as possible during childhood, when our brains are absorbing all sorts of new information and we’re starting to develop skill sets, opinions, and habits- some of which may last a lifetime. While the desire to eat more healthfully can occur at any time in one’s life, it is evermore apparent how critical it is to develop these goals and habits when we’re young. Childhood and adult overweight and obesity rates are at an all time high in America and many other countries around the world, and their effects are not limited to clothing size; many chronic conditions and diseases are directly linked to maintaining an unhealthy weight or eating an unhealthy diet, and the ability to reverse or lessen these negative effects is often much more difficult than our ability to prevent them through diet and lifestyle choices. Children who start eating fruits and vegetables at a younger age are more likely to continue to do so throughout their childhood, into their teens, and then during adulthood. Farm education programs serve a crucial link between consumers of all ages, producers of farm products like fresh produce, eggs, dairy, and meats, and the food-consciousness and health of our society.

Looking at frames from a beehive (Rebekah Carter 2013)Wright-Locke Farm’s youth education programs offer children a unique hands-on experience learning about growing food, cooking, and the natural world on a historic working farm. All of our programs include lessons and activities related to agriculture, healthy eating, the environment, or natural science while utilizing the fields, pastures, barns, and wooded trails as our living classroom. Though we spend plenty of time focusing on subjects such as soil, compost, worms, plants, honeybees, Wright-Locke Farm’s domesticated animals (sheep, goats, chickens), land conservation, farm history, and local wildlife, we always include a healthy farm or season-inspired dish during our youth programs. Some days, this might mean simply going to one of our two organically-grown youth gardens to pick and snack on some of the harvest, be it Sungold cherry tomatoes, Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers, or purple, yellow, and green bush beans; other days, it means following a recipe to prepare a healthy dish together, using fresh foods from the garden, our farm fields, or the local farmers market.

Harvesting red lettuce for spring salads (Rebekah Carter 2016)

Whether it’s dehydrated kale chips, raw fruit and greens smoothies, overnight refrigerator pickles, salsa fresca, raw strawberry-rhubarb fruit leather, plant parts salad, or another of our favorite seasonal recipes, I’m always impressed by how much our youngest audience seems to enjoy picking, preparing, and eating these creations or sharing them with their parents (if there’s any leftover, of course). Time after time, I hear parents saying, “they would NEVER eat that at home!” or “I can’t believe my son/daughter ate that.” Even more exciting is when we hear about our youth participants cooking up veggies they harvested at the farm, or cooking up a farm recipe at home to share with their family. They may not realize it, but these kids are developing a taste for health-promoting foods, an opportunity that too few children seem to have but desperately need. In a world riddled with cheap unhealthy foods marketed directly to impressionable youths, it’s our responsibility to teach kids about the many nutrient-rich foods that local farms provide us throughout the seasons and how to include them in our daily meals.

Going into a hive during a beekeeping workshop (Rebekah Carter 2014)Farm-based education provides the perfect outlet for this type of teaching, learning and habit-forming, since program participants get to either directly witness or actively participate in the growing, harvesting, and preparation of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs into a delicious meal, side dish or snack. But this type of education is not limited to youth audiences only. As the saying goes, it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Teens and adults often need just as much guidance as our youngest students when it comes to improving their diets with the inclusion of more fresh foods and healthy cooking techniques. Wright-Locke’s educational workshops for teens and adults are a great way to learn practical skills related to healthy living, small-scale “backyard” agriculture, and the wonders of nature. Though we host a number of programs featuring subjects like yoga, herbalism, home composting, bouquet and wreath making, stargazing and more, the majority of our workshops are directly related to growing, foraging or cooking up local and seasonal foods. Whether it’s fermenting your own sour dill cucumber pickles, kraut or kombucha, cooking and canning some homemade jam or apple butter sweetened to your taste, making nutrient-rich stocks and soups from scratch, raising backyard hens for eggs or bees for raw honey, growing your own gourmet mushrooms, or creating delicious dishes featuring just-picked veggies and herbs… our workshops strive to connect people not only to our farm and its landscape, but to local and seasonal foods of all kinds- from the farmers market, your own home garden, or even the wild forageable areas of your community and beyond.

Making fall wreaths in the 1827 Barn (Rebekah Carter 2016)We have experienced amazing growth in our educational program offerings and audience over the past five years, and we are passionate about our desire to continue growing so that we can offer an even larger variety of programs and reach even more audiences. But the farm’s existing infrastructure is extremely limiting in terms of what we are able to offer in our short but very busy seven-month program season, currently running from April through October (truth be told- we’re so busy, we’re starting to book some programs and events in early November). Between our organic agriculture, education programs, special events, fundraising, and farm stand, we have all functional farm buildings and fields in full use; due to our many activities and increasing number of staff and volunteers, we often have to share workspaces, tools, and supplies. The only sheltered space available for programs and events, named the 1827 Barn after the year it was built, is spacious and gorgeous no matter the time of day, but it’s not heated and does not have a certified kitchen for the many food-based workshops and activities we do. Our current business model has worked to get us where we are today, but cannot sustain the growth we seek. The only reasonable solution to our roadblock is the creation of a year-round program and event facility. A climate-controlled building with a certified kitchen would not only give us more dedicated spaces to utilize for our current activities; more importantly, it would grant us the ability to offer a wider variety of programs for a more diverse range of audiences, all year long.

Ed Center PerspectiveWright-Locke Farm Conservancy has received an incredible amount of support from the community over its almost ten years of existence. Contributions of all kinds- be they monetary, material, or good ol’ “sweat equity”- have been critical in our transformation from a simple pick-your-own raspberry plot to a bustling non-profit community farm with activities for everyone to enjoy. We hope that this amazing farm community, which has already done so much to help us achieve successes both small and large, will continue to work with us towards our goal of establishing a year-round facility to enable further growth of this extraordinary institution. You can learn more about our farm’s vision and how you can help us “Cultivate our Future,” here.

Cultivating our Future

Locke Farm from Ridge Street~January 2017~

Written by: Rebekah Carter, Education Director at Wright-Locke Farm

I can’t begin to imagine what the past Wright and Locke families would think if they knew we now use their farmstead to not only grow food, but to also educate the public about food and agriculture. When these two families started their operations in Winchester hundreds of years ago, everyday life in America was markedly different from the world we know today. Ordinary people didn’t get to enjoy the incredible conveniences, whether in the form of products, services, or infrastructure, we often thoughtlessly consume in the twenty-first century. For many, everyday life was still a struggle to ensure one’s family had access to the most basic necessities: healthy food, clean water, and adequate shelter. And despite advances in science and technology, and a continuing movement towards more industrial jobs, an overwhelming portion of the population still relied on agriculture for their livelihoods at the turn of the twentieth century; farmers and farm workers, many of whom were family members of the farmers, made up just under 40% of the entire American workforce at that time. Even those not directly involved in local agriculture typically had some direct connection to it- they lived amongst farms once common in both rural and suburban neighborhoods, got fresh milk deliveries to their front door, purchased meats from their local butcher, raised a small flock of chickens for eggs, or grew their own fruits and vegetables to cook, preserve, and eat throughout the year.

Farmers handpick summer produce from the fieldsToday, less than 2% of our country’s workforce manage over 900 million acres of farmland on which we rely upon to grow and raise a significant portion of the world’s food supply and the raw materials needed for plant and animal-derived non-food products. Most hired farm workers (i.e. those not managing a farm operation or an unpaid family member) were born abroad and are concentrated in the more labor-intensive fruit, vegetable, and horticultural operations throughout the nation. It’s believed that most of these foreign-born workers are unauthorized, which results in a slew of issues that greatly affect both the workers themselves as well as the industry at large, since illegal workers are more often willing to accept lower wages for the physically-demanding and typically seasonal positions available. As farming in America continues to become less of a family affair and more of a global industry, there is a growing emphasis on the bottom line, which too often leads to increased production of foods that do not necessarily promote human or environmental health, but rather encourage increases in revenue above all else.

June vegetable harvest at Wright-Locke FarmWhile it’s understandable for farmers to seek out ways to strengthen their business models in order to survive in an industry laden with rising costs and a high risk for failure, there are a number of unsavory results born out of these changes in American agriculture. Many of these negative consequences trickle down from the farms to the consumers, who ultimately buy their products, and the landscapes from which we derive these items. Modern agriculture too often encourages crops and practices that are literally making our people, animals, land, and water sick. These trends can be disheartening to say the least, but our worries and fears will not change our reality: modern existence on planet Earth depends on agriculture. The necessary discoveries and change needed to make the industry more ecologically sustainable and increase the promotion of healthy foods will require the combined efforts of consumers, producers, and external forces such as government regulation and financial supports. But if consumers do not understand even the most fundamental aspects of agriculture, how can they begin to make the best choices for themselves and the planet?

Kids do chicken chores during summer programEnter: farm education. It’s certainly not a cure-all potion to instantly alleviate the many symptoms of a chronically-ill food system. But farm-based education is a means by which producers of food and other plant and animal-derived materials can teach people about the realities of agriculture when they otherwise might not get to experience such a direct connection to or understanding of food production. Thanks to the incredible support from the local community, Wright-Locke Farm is able to provide a diverse array of educational programs and volunteer opportunities for children and adults that connect participants to local agriculture through observational and hands-on activities at the farm or in the kitchen at Saint Eulalia’s Parish. Whether it’s learning how plants absorb nutrients from soil, why goats and sheep can eat plants like grass and poison ivy without issue, how to safely preserve homemade foods you make from your garden’s harvest, or why a hen doesn’t need a rooster to lay her eggs, our farm education programs teach both kids and adults about subjects directly connected to our unique farm landscape and the seasons while incorporating practical knowledge and skills that can be used for a lifetime.

Plasmabots gear up for opening a hiveAs more and more residents and students in the area discover Wright-Locke and all it has to offer, they often want to utilize the farm as a learning resource. In addition to our normal youth programs and adult workshops, we try to take on as many requests for small group subject-specific learning “in the field” as we can accommodate. A wonderful example of such learning is the story of the Plasmabots, a group of five middle school students from Lexington, MA competing in a local First Lego League “Animal Allies” Challenge. The FLL Challenge invites students in grades 4 – 8 across the United States to “research a real-world problem… and develop a solution” using technology they design themselves. After some initial consideration about which animal population they wanted to help, the students decided to focus on honey bees and set out to design a hive that would help reduce common issues affecting them. Their research included a trip to Wright-Locke this past fall to learn about the importance of bees and other native pollinators on our certified-organic farm, as well as issues we’ve experienced in our own honey beekeeping over the past five years. During their visit, team members also got a chance to gear up and “go in the hives” to get a closer look at the bees and harvest some raw honey to taste, straight from a frame. Based on their research, farm experience, and design feedback from executive director Archie McIntyre, the team was able to modify and improve their hive prototype before their first local competition. The group has since won first place in both their local and state competitions, got to meet state representative Katherine Clark to advocate for increased education and awareness about bee issues, and will be moving onto the world competition in St. Louis later this year!

Plasmabots win at the state competitionWe are extremely impressed by the Plasmabots’ success, and are very thankful they’ve taken the initiative to try to help honey bees through research-based engineering and technology. We hope to continue to support their work by using their modified prototype hive this year along with our typical Langstroth hives. And much like the Plasmabots, and the countless other volunteers, students, visitors, and friends we have at the farm, we invite you to become a part of Wright-Locke’s growing community. To find a way to directly connect yourself to local agriculture in a time when so few do, while taking in some of the same gorgeous views of the land that the Wright and Locke farmers once enjoyed, long ago.

You can reach Rebekah at rcarter@wlfarm.org.