Valley Bounty: Kids need dirt to grow: Red Gate Farm in Ashfield provides hands-on learning for screen-saturated kids

By JACOB NELSON

For the Recorder

Published: 07-28-2023 1:43 PM

“When we realized this sheep was about to give birth, the kids from Mary Walsh Elementary School in Springfield were still yelling and racing around the farm in the middle of a scavenger hunt,” recalls Sydney Treuer, assistant director at Red Gate Farm Education Center in Ashfield. “But they made it to the barn in time and got so calm and quiet watching this lamb being born.”

“Seeing them recognize the significance of the moment was incredible,” she continues. “We named the lamb Mary after their school, and they took such good care of her and her mother the rest of that week.”

Moments of real consequence are common on farms, and they have much to teach about how the world works and how we choose to show up for others and ourselves. As fewer kids grow up with a direct connection to farming, Red Gate Farm offers a link to valuable lessons and self-empowerment for a growing number of students each year.

“Our goal is to grow kids’ confidence and help them become kind, independent and hardworking,” Treuer explains. “We’re using farming – working in the garden, managing the forest, caring for animals – to help kids find that in themselves.”

Like many farms in Ashfield, Red Gate Farm operates on land that was at different times both a dairy and an apple orchard. Rustic red barns housing sheep and goats greet visitors at the top of the driveway. Chickens cluck from their mobile coop in the pasture nearby and gentle oxen loom behind them.

Continuing down the lane, the view opens to rolling hills on the horizon. In the foreground, the main farmhouse, brand new dormitory and classroom buildings, a large garden and a circle of small cabins come into view.

On a sunny day in July, small groups of kids and educators dot the landscape, the air buzzing with joyful noise and activity. Summer programs are in full swing, offering kids five days or more to dig into the farming experience. Ages 6 to 10 attend day camp, overnight camp is for kids age 10 to 15, and 16 to 18-year-olds can participate in youth corps, taking on more challenging tasks and self-direction.

Meanwhile during the school year, spring and fall bring a steady stream of class visits, primarily 4th or 5th graders spending three days and two nights on the farm. Most participating schools are in western Mass, but some are based in surrounding New England states and as far as Boston.

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Very intentionally, about half of visiting classes come from public schools in Springfield. Treuer says, “About fifteen years back, our founder and director, Ben Murray, began forming partnerships with several Springfield schools, supporting many with financial aid to make visits work.”

Like all farming, no two days at Red Gate Farm are alike. Yet there are hallmarks that every visitor can enjoy. Each day starts with farm chores, shared breakfast, then morning work block where kids choose to join educators in the barn, forest, garden and kitchen.

“There’s no made-up work at Red Gate Farm,” says Treuer. “We’re not asking kids to paint signs and then whitewashing those signs so the next kids can paint them. We’re evaluating what needs to happen each week on the farm, and then finding ways to incorporate kids directly into it.”

When trusted with responsibility and given tools and support, kids often dive in with gusto that surprises their parents, teachers and even themselves. The well-kept appearance of garden beds and barn stalls bear witness to this.

“We don’t have to work hard to get kids invested,” says Treuer. “Their friends are relying on what they harvest for dinner. The goats are relying on them for clean water. So of course, they’re going to work hard picking veggies and scrubbing that slimy water bucket because they care about their friends and these animals.”

Afternoons are time for electives, kids choosing from a list of activities that span from hiking to art projects to learning new skills like lighting a campfire. While often finding new facets of themselves in these activities, kids and adults both get a chance to question what they know about each other.

Treuer says, “Teachers often tell us how they see a student one way in their classroom, maybe as the rambunctious troublemaker. But on the farm, they’re so hard-working, motivated, and kind to their friends. That lets them see and connect with that student in a new light.”

Including farm educators, counselors, chefs, directors and administrators, Red Gate Farm employs 12 to 14 staff throughout the year, aiming for a 1-to-4 staff-to-student ratio to maintain small groups. Their land only accommodates so many visitors, too. So, with demand growing to serve more kids, they came to a very agricultural conclusion – they needed new buildings to extend their season.

After launching a nearly complete $5.3 million fundraising campaign, they were able to build two heated buildings for staff and student housing along with a classroom, a kitchen and dining spaces. This was the first year they welcomed school groups for lambing and maple season in March and expect fall visitors into November.

The campaign is still collecting gifts for capital improvements. In addition, Red Gate Farm continues to offer visiting schools significant financial aid thanks to generous community donors who see the value of their vision.

“More opportunities for kids to be outside and learn through farming will always be a positive thing,” says Treuer. “The pandemic was necessarily a time of screens and isolation, but when we started welcoming kids back, I noticed anxiety was more prevalent. Self-esteem had taken a hit, and they seemed to have a harder time engaging with their teachers and classmates.”

Red Gate Farm offers kids a different way to be in the world, inviting them to connect more deeply with each other and sensations of nature around them.

“Last week we had two counselors and four kids up to our knees in mud, placing a 16-foot log onto our bog bridge,” describes Treuer. “That’s not the only way to practice teamwork, but it’s a great one, and it’s not accessible online or in a classroom. Here we can feel the cool mud, smell the ripe tomatoes in the garden, and we can build a bridge together.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms and what’s in season near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

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