Charlie is a fourth grader at King’s Highway Elementary School in Westport who has a deep passion for the farming life. It’s immediately obvious that Charlie would rather be farming than anything else, so when his teacher offered him the opportunity to do an independent study project, he jumped at the chance to share his knowledge and passion with his classmates.
Working with his teacher, Mrs. Malizia, he spent the last six weeks preparing a multimedia presentation for his class about local farms and their importance to our community. Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the class presentation. Charlie very confidently stood in front of his class and gave them an eloquent primer on local farms. “Do you know where your food comes from?” he asked the children sitting on the floor around him. He then presented the basic facts about what a farm is, how varied they are in size and nature, defined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and talked about the history of farming in the area. Corn and apples figure prominently in the area’s agricultural past (and present), but I really enjoyed learning that onions were grown in Westport during the Civil War to combat scurvy in the army ranks and “young boys our age would miss their spring and early fall school terms to harvest the onions.”
Charlie has a soft spot for Patti Popp, owner of Sport Hill Farm in Easton and host to almost 200 children in a summer farm camp run through The Unquowa School. During his “Meet the Farmer” segment, Charlie described Patti as “a hard working organic farmer who sometimes works from 7 am to 9 pm in the busy season on her four-and-a-half acre farm.” Highlighting the special relationship Patti has with her CSA families, Charlie pointed out that “once a week people come to pick up their shares that she picks that morning. Sometimes crops don’t do well, like broccoli this year, but there was arugula, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, bok choy, peppers, garlic and Swiss chard.”
“Farms are important to our way of life and we don’t want to lose them. If we can eat what is in season, it will save a lot of energy and fuel. One way to eat locally is to visit the farmers’ markets” recommended Charlie. “More and more kids are eating closer to home” from local farms and community, school and backyards gardens. “If we had a school garden like Staples and Greens Farms Academy, we could use it for science and maybe use the food in our cafeteria” Charlie suggested. One classmate added “cafeteria food isn’t healthy; I don’t like it” and received a roar of consent from the other children.
“It is important for kids to visit farms because you could like farms and not even know it” pointed out Charlie. His best recommendation for learning about farms and farming is to attend a farm camp. And he should know, he’s been attending them for years. “When I was 8, I went to Shelburne Farms in Vermont to their summer farm camp. It was a thousand acre farm, one of the largest farms I’ve been to. We helped collect eggs, feed pigs, help garden and visit the dairy.” At The Unquowa School’s Summer Farm Camp kids plant, harvest and really get their hands dirty at Patti’s Sport Hill Farm in Easton. They also get to eat what they’ve harvested after cooking it back at the school with Chef Peter Gorman. Charlie’s been attending the camp for two years now and said “It’s fun to get in the dirt and help.”
After the talk, it was all hands as the children peppered him with questions. “What is your favorite farm animal?” to which he responded “chickens, because they give you eggs every day.” “What do you like to do most on the farm?” elicited “I like planting, harvesting and working with the animals. Harvesting cauliflower was really hard because we had to twist and turn them to get the heads out of the ground.” “Will you grow up to be a farmer?” really required no response but it was wonderful to hear him say that yes, he would, and he’d be just like Patti raising vegetables and taking care of animals.
Mrs. Malizia manned the laptop to run a slide show on the classroom SmartBoard of Charlie visiting his favorite farms . When he got to the photo of broccoli and cauliflower, one child responded “Nice!” and the photo of hot peppers elicited a “Oh those are good!” from another. It’s obvious that these children know what real food is and like it! One little girl said her mother is an organic gardener and they even have chickens.
The last portion of Q&A was directed at Charlie’s special guest, organic farmer Patti Popp. “Do you really have a farm?” one girl asked almost incredulously. “Yes I do but we had to clear a lot of land to plant the farm” responded Patti. “When did you start?” another wanted to know. “It took many years to clear the land so we are now in our fourth year of farming” explained Patti. In response to “What is your favorite vegetable to grow?” Patti said with great certainty “tomatoes and spaghetti squash – both to grow and eat!” Chickens are her favorite farm animal and she raises Rhode Island Red hens to provide her customers with farm fresh eggs.
Patti talked about the summer farm campers’ experiences, ranging from learning that farm chores need to be done “even when it’s hot, rainy and sticky”, to playing zucchini baseball, to cooking and eating the foods they’ve picked. “Fresh picked food tastes different; don’t say you don’t like something until you’ve tasted it” she suggested. Mrs. Malizia summed up pretty much everyone’s thoughts when she said “I want my son to go to your camp as soon as he’s not one!”
After the presentation Mrs. Malizia pulled out the latest issue of Time for Kids magazine entitled “From Farm to You: A Fresh Look at Lunch” and shared that she had used it in class and felt it enabled the kids to better relate to Charlie’s message. It’s not often that a student takes her up on an offer to do an independent project, but it seemed she genuinely enjoyed meeting once a week with Charlie to help him manage the project, sometimes working over lunch with him. He told me that with help from his parents, he researched the history of Westport farms at the library and obtained information about the Westport Community Garden on Hyde Lane from Westport Now, a new resource for him. Welcome to new media Farmer Boy.