Reading, Vt. hosts school for City Kids: Farms for City Kids and City Kids Adventure Program

July 22, 2017
Reading, Vt.

A Community Gem Hidden in Plain View.

If you read Stephen D'Agostino's Reading column last week you know he just discovered Farms for City Kids and City Kids Adventure Learning Program hosted at Spring Brook Farm on Caper Hill Rd. Like most people, I've driven by the sign at the bottom of the hill thousands of times and said to myself "Spring Brook Farm, they make that wonderful Tarentasie and Reading cheese" and thought nothing more of it. I've also had interactions with the Top of the World 4-H Club but again thought-yes the 4-Hers meet somewhere in Reading. Intrigued by what D'Agostino discovered (and a suggestion from my editor), I reached out to Rob Macri, the executive director of Farms for City Kids and spent most of last Friday with the students from Phillips Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ.

The children arrived from their urban schools on Monday and begin their educational exploration of both the farm and wilderness on the acreage that most locals call "the farm" or "Top of the World." The program offers classes from March until Thanksgiving, seeing about 750 students annually, from schools in metropolitan New York, Boston and Vermont. Most students arrive with little or no experience of Vermont and are quickly immersed into our world of mud and bugs and cow manure.

Farms for City Kids foundation began in 1992 after landowners Karli and Jim Hagedorn saw a similar program in England called "Farms for City Children." The Hagedorns come from a background of growing things, the family business is ScottsMiracle-Gro. The Hagedorn family purchased the 1,000 + acre Spring Brook Farm from the Vermont Land Trust and started a licensed, independent school that teaches not only the basics of farming but also math, biology and environmental studies in one week intensive sessions. The core of their philosophy is teaching teamwork, respect and awareness.

Schools apply and teachers state their education goals. Macri, and his staff develop a curriculum based on this information to re-enforce what the children are learning in the classroom. "It could be conversions or genetics, they can look at the cards (the records kept on each cow and their milk production) and see that Burgundy in her lifetime has produced 46,000 pounds of milk, so if they are doing conversions they can divide that out and convert to gallons" explains Macri.

Once the children arrive, the Farm's teachers collect all their electronic devices and whatever food items they may have brought from home. Here at Spring Brook, they eat what the farm or nature provides and they learn to live quietly with cell phones or computers. "I miss my phone, I'm not going to say I don't miss my phone but it's fine because I'm being more social and I get to hang out with my friends more" said Tori Morrow-Smith, 13 from Orange, NJ.

The children settle in, in either bunk bed dormitory rooms or their tents (if they are attending the Adventure session.) The fun and learning begins.

Their days on the farm begin Tuesday at 6:30 a.m., after a quick snack they are off to do morning chores in the barn or garden (chores rotate so each child can get the full experience of farm life.) Meals are family style: breakfast at 9 a.m., lunch at 12:30 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m.. Afternoon chores run from 3:30 p.m. until about 4:30 p.m. then the children get recreation time before dinner. In between, lessons are taught and time is built in for quiet time. Before lights out at 9 p.m. the children get a snack, write in their journals and take showers.

Daily chores include milking the cows. The students get to hand-milk Bonny while the other cows are being milked by machine. They learn about mastitis and other diseases that can affect milk production and as the kids tire of hand milking, the bucket gets replaced by the machine. Discussion can begin on old farm ways verses modern ways. Math can also be taught "If it would take 45 minutes to completely milk her (Bonny) by hand, there's 42 Jerseys in here, how long would it take one person to milk all the cows" say Macri, an example of how everything is a teaching moment.

Other farm chores include taking care of the calves in the small barn. This team of "farmers" monitor the amount of grain each calf eats and makes sure their animal has clean water. They collect the grain bucket and empty out the leftover onto a scale and measure the amount left uneaten. They have to calculate and record this amount on the board. The students may have to do fractions or conversions depending upon what they are studying in school. Macri recalls "I had a kid one time turn around and say (to his teacher), how come you don't teach math like this in school."

Some of the math can be tough. Willow (a calf) )hasn't eaten much, Sahada Hunt-Foster, 11 from Newark, NJ explained to me that some of the calves are really little and don't eat much grain "at two months they (the calves) get weaned, and they get no more milk, and are put on grain. They do get hay too." So whatever Willow hasn't eaten is tracked until weaning her off milk. The leftovers go to the pigs. Nothing is wasted here.

Today was a special day because Journey calved at 5:30 just before the children arrived for chores. Journey's baby is a heifer so all were very excited. The children will come up with three possible names for the calf and vote on the one they like best. One of the teachers I spoke with said her students return to visit her and always reminisce about their time spent on the farm and one of the first things they ask 'is this cow still there, how is she doing'.

Over years the program grew and educators found that they had no way to track students and continue the education of these urban fifth graders. After some brainstorming and with Farms for City Kids Foundation approval, City Kids Adventure Program opened the woods at Top of The World in 2014.

The Adventure Program was created so the Farm graduates could return to Vermont and learn wilderness survival. Six of the seven students participating this week went through the farm program previously.

On Thursdays, the "Survival Kids" go through "Survival Olympics" where the skills they have learned all week are put to the test. On Tuesday, after learning about how to build a debris hut, the children are challenged to find a location for their own shelter and build one with only materials they find in the surrounding woods.

"You have to find a tree, one without widow trees around, trees with broken branches that could fall on you. You don't want your shelter near one of these trees" explained Chase Thomas, 10 from Irvington, NJ. They are also taught to look for other hazards like: steep areas where water could run off into your shelter; areas where bugs with ground nests might be; and poison plants.

Elijah Brooks, 10 from Rahway, NJ described their debris hut creation process, after finding their location, he and Chase looked for a ridge pole that will be the back bone of the shelter. "Next comes the ribbing, like your ribs. Then comes the lining and cover. We look for any kind of leaves and put them up on the ribbing." Macri interjects and questions the boys on how deep the leaves should be for a good cover. "Up to our elbows or shoulders would be better" said Chase.

"I was kind of iffy about doing something like this, I'm not really an outdoorsy person but when I came up here it opened my eyes. Because on the first day I was complaining, I don't want to be here, I want to go home, I miss my mom, I miss my family, I want to be at home and at camp swimming and stuff. But when we started learning stuff about the woods, I learned that if I ever get into a situation like this, Rob (has taught me) I can stay alive" said Tori Morrow-Smith 13 from Orange, NJ.

Another part of their training is camouflage. And today the "survival kids" are camouflaging-up and hiding in plain sight along the hiking trail of the "farmers". If they don't get seen by the farmers they pass this test of the learned skills. Assistant director, Nile Franc gets pots of charcoal and mud ready and the kids start their transformations. Next they find a good hiding spot and become very still because any movement and they will be seen. Some are seen and some are not but everyone laughs and giggles and hike up to a group lunch at the fire pit. It's their last day in Vermont and most are sad to be leaving. "I'd like to come back and go hiking, maybe camping with my family" said Morrow-Smith.

Eunice Senat, a teacher from Central Park East 1 Elementary School, has returned for her second time volunteering during the summer. During the school year she brings her class up. "The second night here last summer, I happened to step out of my tent and I looked up and there are all these amazing, amazing stars. And I was like oh my gosh! And after that I never went back in the tent. I slept outside every night that I could...I've never slept outside before...I got home and went looking for property up here."

"For me as a teacher to see the kids just go and explore, to be free, to go and climb a tree, to jump from a high place-it's OK, if you fall we'll scrape it up and get back up and keep it moving. It's just wonderful to see kids being kids" said Senat of her experience with students this year and last year at the Adventure Program.

Senat brings up her fifth grade class each year that her class size allows-the program can accommodate only so many children and Senat does not believe in doing a lottery or leaving students behind. "It's always the fifth grade group that comes and they tell the fourth grade group (about their experience at Farms for City Kids) and they tell their parents and they get them very excited. It's the very first question I get on the first day of school in September is-are we going to the farm this year?" This fall she has 30 children in her class, which is too large for the program so they will do a different class trip. As long as they'll have me, I'll keep coming back (to volunteer)" said Senat.

These learning experiences aren't just open to schools from away, the week of Aug. 21 the programs are open to local schools. If any teachers might be interested in learning more about the Farm or Adventure sessions contact Rob Macri at 484-5822 or An open house will be held this year on Sept. 23, for more information call Tatiana at 484-1236.

Farms for City Kids

More photos from my adventure: CLICK HERE

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