Farm-Raised Kids

Schoolyard 1 Brian HalweilFew travelers heading east on the L.I.E. realize that a stone’s throw from Exit 67 lies a sprawling collection of antique barns, barnyards, silos, sheep pastures, henhouses, greenhouses and pigpens intended to inspire awe in all who visit. There are meticulous herb gardens and an awe-inspiring butterfly house. The farm’s menagerie includes dairy goats, Boer meat goats, sheep, rabbits, ducks, geese, turkeys, countless chicken breeds, pigs, ponies, horses, cows, llamas and bees. The animal yard is open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and there are weekly regulars, both old and young, who know the animals by name.

On any given day, a seemingly endless stream of school buses from Commack, Islip, William Floyd, Brentwood and other Long Island school districts pull into the farm’s parking lot. The children file off the buses and pile onto tractor-pulled hay wagons to begin their exploration—even if just for a day—of the ways of farm folk. “At the end of the day, the goal is to instill an appreciation for what it takes to raise one tomato,” says Patricia Hubbard, who for the last decade has managed the 219-acre Suffolk County Farm, one of the nation’s premier agricultural education centers, which annually teaches 20,000 young visitors what makes pigs most happy, when a tomato is ready to pick and why compost works. “I feel so fortunate to get paid to do what I consider important.”

The farm, owned by Suffolk County but run by Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension network, offers classes in rural photography, ice cream making, and quilting camp (for young women and young men). It helps Suffolk County Community College’s veterinary medicine students complete their large animal training. Ribbon-seeking children in Suffolk County who want to raise animals to compete in statewide fairs head to the farm for assistance. So do kids who want to train seeing-eye dogs or herding dogs.

“We could be doing a little less,” Hubbard admitted in a day-late, dollar-short sort of way. “Just keeping the grass cut at this place is a challenge.” But doing less would mean fewer opportunities to capture the attention of a suburban schoolkid for whom the farm is the most likely glimpse of where food comes from.

But Hubbard is quick to point out that this isn’t your grandfather’s brand of extension—a term dating from America’s 19th–century land grant colleges that literally means “extending” university and government knowledge about agriculture to the nearby rural community. Sitting in her office, Hubbard points to a Norman Rockwell painting depicting a 4-H agent showing an appreciative young girl how to estimate a calf’s weight without having a scale. “I love that painting because it’s such a romantic picture of what we do. But that extension agent didn’t organize farm summer camps, rural photography classes, barn dance fundraisers, or pumpkin catapult contests.”

The Suffolk County Farm is a model of how the nation’s extension system is redefining itself as there are fewer farmers raising potatoes and cauliflower and corn, and more farmers markets, community gardeners, small-scale food processors, and families who need to relearn how to eat properly.

In fact, the Suffolk County Farm is a model of how the nation’s extension system is redefining itself as there are fewer farmers raising potatoes and cauliflower and corn, and more farmers markets, community gardeners, small-scale food processors, and families who need to relearn how to eat properly. Instead of showing farmers how to weigh their calves—how many of your neighbors still keep a dairy cow in the yard—Cornell and Suffolk County Farm’s staff show vineyard managers the latest trellising techniques, advise baymen on new markets for farmed oysters, and help school teachers plant demonstration gardens.

And perhaps there is no one better to captain this new sort of extension than Hubbard, who grew up on the lower east side of Cleveland in the 1950s. Perhaps to instill a respect for where food comes from, her father regularly brought her to County Fairs, exposing her to children who raised their own animals for show and farmers who displayed champion pumpkins and bushels of corn. “I have vivid memories of my dad saying, ‘If we don’t stop spending money, we’ll end up at the poor farm,’” she recalls. “Now I’m managing the poor farm.”

In 1870, Suffolk County bought this farm from the Phillips family for $12,700 and created a poor farm, a common social institution well into the 20th century. Instead of roaming the Main Streets of Suffolk County, indigent, indebted, homeless and disabled lived in dormitory style housing and worked the land in exchange for room and board.

“They received vocational training, a safe place to live, and nutritious food,” says Hubbard, who proudly wears her green 4-H jacket and recounts stories with enthusiasm and detail as if she were sitting around the cracker barrel. “The first fruits of their labors ended up on their own tables. The balance supplied county jails. And we continue this tradition today.” At the nearby prison in Yaphank, inmates tend a prisoners garden, keep bees and donate extra vegetables to Long Island Cares, the hunger relief organization.

In the 1930s, as New Deal programs like food stamps and social security helped reintegrate the poor into society, the farm was handed over to the county sheriff’s office, and transformed into an “honor farm,” where 80 to 120 favored inmates would work and continue raising meat, milk, eggs, cabbage, onions, corn and assorted other vegetables for their mess halls.

Changing social mores would alter the farms fate again in the 1970s, when an increasingly congested Yaphank made the sheriff’s office skittish about having inmates working outside in close proximity to civilians. The inmates were taken off the land, and the county was on the verge of selling the farm, until some far-sighted administrators approached Cornell Cooperative Extension. In 1974, the farm became the center of Cornell’s youth education programs in conjunction with 4-H, America’s oldest youth organization. (In the nation’s breadbasket, only Coca-Cola is a more recognized brand than the group’s green four-leaf-clovered logo with the H’s standing for Head, Heart, Hands and Health.)

But the Suffolk Farm still draws on its social legacy. It offers a group house for teenage boys coming from foster care, and has 12 developmentally disabled adults gardening at the farm every day as part of an Independent Group Home Living program. And beyond its prisoner-farming programs, the farm houses the Island’s only federally certified slaughterhouse for four-legged animals on Long Island, where Yaphank County inmates are trained as butchers. It provides 280,000 pounds of meat each year for County cafeterias, and, along with Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, is one of the last livestock farms on Long Island. “The more time people can spend with their hands in the soil, the more connected they’ll be to the earth and to themselves and to other people,” says Hubbard. “I wonder how many fewer people would be in jail if we still had more working farms.”

Schoolyard 4 Kathryn SzokaSQUEELS OF DELIGHT
In some old poultry houses converted to classrooms, two dozen children from Northeast Elementary School in Brentwood watch an old-timey 4-H film on how an egg becomes a chicken. (This “Egg to Chick” class will be followed by “Moo to You” and “Fleece to Fabric.”) On the screen a scientist in lab coat carefully cuts a section of shell off of an egg to reveal the embryo within.

“Wow, those are the babies,” yells one boy. “Why is she cutting up the egg?,” a girl asks. The film goes on to demonstrate egg candling and incubating and follows a chick through its early days pecking through the shell, prompting a bevy of declarations: “It’s coming out,” “I see it,” “Wow, that’s a little chicken,” “He’s getting bigger.”

“Yes,” the teacher interjects taking this opportunity to bestow a life lesson. “Things start small and then get bigger.”

In a nearby classroom, students from William Floyd Elementary School listen as a teacher explains that pigs give birth to many piglets (“a litter”), that there is often a small one (“the runt”), that despite its size the runt can sometimes be famous (Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, for instance), and that pigs roll in mud to coat their bodies as a sort of sunblock. “What if they stay in the sun too long and turn into bacon?” a boy asks, perhaps playing the class clown and perhaps legitimately wondering if bacon can be made that way.

When these children are taken on a tour of the pig pens and given the chance to hold a piglet, they erupt in shrieks of delight. “The reaction, the joy, is always the same,” says Hubbard with some melancholy. “It’s almost evidence of deprivation. Our separation from animals and food in general and our desire to reconnect. Kids are growing up in homes where people don’t cook. It comes from plastic containers from the Chinese food restaurant and I’m not picking on Chinese food. So children are not only removed from the cooking and shopping end of it, but they are like four times removed from the soil.”

In this sense, all the farm activities become metaphors for life, since most of these children will not become farmers. In the Suffolk County Almshouse Hay Barn, an impressive double-bay structure with a massive root cellar that is the only original building on the property, instructors use the old machinery to talk about entrepreneurship and inventiveness of farming, “to inspire kids to invent and make the world better,” says Hubbard. “That’s what we want. Regardless of whether it’s the animals or the sewing or the rocketry, how can we use these activities to help these young people grow.”

Since the farm is walking distance from the Yaphank railroad station, some parents even bring their children out from the city. From July through August, weeklong summer camp sessions bring hundreds of children, some as young as three years old to collect eggs, water and weed the gardens, and groom ponies. A session with an emphasis on healthy eating is now offered for children with diabetes. The farm also hosts birthday parties.

The farm’s latest educational alliance involves plans to establish a Global Village on the farm that will immerse Suffolk County residents in a rural Third World experience complete with traditional Thai bamboo huts (made from Long Island bamboo), a yurt, a refugee site, outdoor kitchens where visitors will cook their meals, and mini food markets where shoppers will pay with baht or rupees or other local currencies.

“Suffolk County kids are so isolated,” says Tom Lyons, a volunteer with Heifer International who is directing the Global Village project, and sees it as a perfect complement to the Suffolk County Farm’s broader goal of cultivating an appreciation of where food comes from. “They go on vacation to Cozumel and never see Mexico.” (Heifer International is one of the nation’s oldest anti-hunger groups, whose “teach a man to fish” philosophy eradicates hunger and poverty around the world through giving families cows, pigs, guinea pigs, bees and other livestock.)

The addition of such a multicultural exhibit is just another example of how the farm has adapted. But it’s also an example of another program that needs to be funded. At the end of May, the farm was planting its feed corn a bit late, delayed by wet soil. The farm chops and bales its own hay for storage in a bunk silo. “We stretch what we’re able to do on the farm, because it keeps us from having to expend,” says Hubbard.

Although the county pays for the farm’s food production, which feeds Suffolk jails, the farm must raise its own funds for all its educational programs. And even though feed and energy costs are up, the county’s budget for the farm remains flat. Much of Hubbard’s year is spent organizing and promoting a calendar of fundraisers, from the Barn Dance Fundraiser on July 27 at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead to on-farm events like the 4-H Youth Fair on August 2, the Pumpkin Fest on October 4 and 5 (which typically raises $35,000 and helps close the budget gap) and the popular Pumpkin Fling on October 25 where local teams build trebuchets and send pumpkins into the distance.

But such economic challenges haven’t dampened Hubbard’s dreams. She has been working through the costly and tedious red tape of allowing the facility to process deer to help create a market for hunted venison. The farm is raising money to install rooftop solar panels and wind turbines and even generate energy and compost from its slaughterhouse wastes. “Because we have so many children here it’s a terrific opportunity to show them alternative energy sources,” says Hubbard, who also wants to remodel the pig houses to keep up with a national trend to keep pigs outside on pasture. “This is state of the art in the ‘50s,” she says. “We could do so much tomorrow if we had the money.”

At the north side of the farm is perhaps the most visible example of how this farm has adapted as the surrounding landscape and culture have shifted. There, cutting through about 30 acres of hay, is the expressway, as well as a tunnel underneath that allows tractors to move between fields. “It’s not an accident the farm’s still here,” says Hubbard, the roar of eastbound traffic overhead. “It’s best days are yet to come.”

Schoolyard 2 Kathryn SzokaWHY I EAT LUNCH
By Claire Lucido

Food for me is a comfort. If I’m stressed out, depressed or simply bored, food has always been there to “make it all better.” Whether it is a half a banana with chocolate hazelnut spread, or couscous and string beans from the night before, eating is the best emotional medicine.

I am a Senior at the Ross School, and the food at Ross is one of the things I will miss the most about the place, and not just because it relaxes me before a math test. I moved to Long Island from Los Angeles after the ninth grade and although I might still have the bad habit of making my worries disappear with food, my habit was much worse before I came to Ross because the food I was eating wasn’t exactly organic. And frankly, it just wasn’t delicious.

I have a distinct memory of walking into my ninth grade biology class (of 30 students), 20 minutes late, with a bowl (bigger than the size of my head) of super fried rice and crispy, sticky, sweet orange chicken and a large chocolate shake. The school’s food court featured about 15 different fast food chains. And, at lunch time, all of us kids pushed and shoved in line, scrounging for quarters at the bottoms of our purses and pockets, to eat as fast as we could and leave the place smelling of and glistening with grease. As we were filling our bellies with this preservative-pumped, processed, unclean food, we didn’t think twice about it. It was the only food that was there, and it tasted all right, so why shouldn’t we eat it?

But I am now part of an extremely small percentage of American high school students who are fed well at school. After eating breakfast and lunch at the Ross School these past three years, I now am committed to a mostly organic diet, and I feel lighter, more energetic, and more focused than I did before.

For those of you who’ve never eaten at Ross, I’ll give you an idea of a breakfast and lunch. For breakfast, we’re offered many different types of bread to toast, along with butter, cream cheese, jam or peanut butter to put on it. Hard-boiled eggs are also an option, and fresh fruit of course. There are different types of Kashi cereals, and housemade granola, which is great, and Thursday is bagel day (something the entire school looks forward to). There is always a type of hot cereal as well, whether it’s steel-cut oats, congee or grits.

But lunch is where things really get impressive. It’s been said that Ross serves the best lunch in the Hamptons. In fact, it’s my favorite restaurant.

There is salad every day—beautiful, fresh vegetables and different kinds of dressings and oils. There’s usually a bowl of quinoa or couscous to put into the salad, and a new and interesting vegetable or dip that changes every day. Kimchee, for example, or hummus. We often have pasta, always a different kind. Ross does a great pesto. All the sauces are delicious, whether it’s macaroni and cheese (a rare dish at Ross), penne with tomato sauce, or clear noodles with root vegetables. I’m only listing a few. Oh, and the tofu is amazing. I’d never had tofu before I came to Ross. I can thank line chef Shigeko Ando, who is Japanese, for making tofu an integral part of hundreds of students’ diets, due to her fabulous sauces. There are always platters of different vegetables, too. But the Ross lunch program is not completely vegetarian. The Ross chefs, headed by Liz Dobbs, le chef de cuisine, do a mean meatloaf. Never in my life have I had as good a meatloaf. All the meat that we eat at Ross is organic and grassfed, with no added hormones or antibiotics. Ham, duck, chicken and other meats are served frequently.

At Ross, we’ll have superb, authentic Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian and even Mayan food. And the food we eat resonates with what we are learning about, because school founder Courtney Ross envisioned the lunchroom as another classroom. Mayan food day is at the end of the middle school’s Mayan culture studies, and students come to the kitchen to make tortillas. The Chinese studies class learns to fold dumplings.) On Fridays, we get a dessert. The most recent dessert was a shortbread cookie with a layer of raspberry and a second layer of smooth, dark chocolate on top, which was excellent with a glass of milk. Students tend a garden, visit the farms that supply the kitchen, and compost what’s left over, posting the weight of food that gets dumped each day on a dry-erase board (and trying to keep that number as low as possible).

A few years ago, Harvard Medical School found that Ross students had lower levels of pesticides in their urine than the average American kid. The study also found that kids brought the school’s philosophy home with them. My mother has also been influenced by the school’s food motto: regional, organic, seasonal, sustainable; she is now a farmer at EECO Farm, along with my stepfather. We cook at home with the food that they grow, and all three of us have come to appreciate and understand food on a deeper level than before.

As my parents become part of a community of organic gardeners, I’ve become part of a community of organic eaters. The boundaries of the student/teacher relationship break at lunch. All of us sit together, talk, laugh and eat together, as humans, not as kids and adults. We give grateful shout outs to the chefs and staff in the café for food that is healthy, delicious and (to risk sounding corny) lovingly made. We bond over the food, in a way that I’ve never seen at any other school, in part because the food is just so good.

Claire Lucido lives in Bridgehampton and is a senior at Ross School. She will be attending Sarah Lawrence College in the fall to pursue a degree in the Liberal Arts.

Schoolyard 3 Brian HalweilTHE EDIBLE SCHOOLYARD By Mary Morgan

This past winter, parents, teachers, students and community volunteers gathered in the gym at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton on weekends and built a greenhouse. It was the first of many that the local Slow Food chapter plans to donate to schools, and this spring Hayground students planted during biology class and gardened in the after-school program. A summer vegetable garden and a kid-friendly teaching kitchen have been in operation here for the past three years.

Even if the edible schoolyard concept was coined on the west coast, our own East End schools are busy experimenting with hands-on farm visits, gardening, cooking, and creative nutrition programs. Sag Harbor elementary school recently added a greenhouse, pushed by science teacher and artist Kryn Olson At the Springs Public School, chef and parent of two Joe Realmuto is starting a student garden program. “My wife volunteered me at a school board meeting” says Realmuto, who also launched the East Hampton farmers market in the parking lot of Nick & Toni’s. Remember home economics? Enter eco-literacy, the 21st century offspring that is more holistic, more out-of-doors, more delicious and more fun.

East Hampton Middle School is in its fifth year of a “Bonac on Board for Wellness” program where students grow spring crops in a raised bed in the school’s courtyard, to be harvested and donated to the cafeteria. Linking with EECO Farm, which offers a range of “Kids in the Garden” programs, students are transplanting summer seedlings and feeding a worm-composter with food scraps from their lunches. The garden-to-table-to-compost-to-garden comes pleasingly full circle: we are what we eat.

Miche Bacher, teacher of Hayground’s summer “kitchen in- tensive” remembers when a group of 7-to-12-year-olds asked to cook the beet greens they had just harvested from the school garden. Bacher, a Greenport resident, professional chef, and mother of two, had discretely set the greens aside thinking no kid would even be interested. “Why don’t we cook those?” a girl asked. The class had discussed the nutritional value of vegetables, what parts of vegetables are eaten (in some cases the roots, in others the leaves), and how delicate parts require fast cooking to seal in nutrients and flavors. After just minutes of heat the tender leaves turned bright green. “They are bitter, but not too bitter,” the young taster commented approvingly. Under Bacher’s “one bite rule” fellow students nibbled and pronounced good, ok, or this-is-the-only-time-I’ll-be-eating-these. That’s ok with Bacher, who finds that “when kids are involved in the preparation they are more likely to try, and like, something new.” No more fast food for these young cooks. The delicious revolution has begun.

From the start, the innovative Hayground School had visions of a teaching kitchen, where kids can study the entrepreneurial aspects of raising produce, the mathematical challenge of maximizing planting space, and the biological realities of preserving genetic diversity, “all through exploring the differences between a big red tomato and a beautiful, funky green zebra tomato,” according to Bacher. Five years ago the school built the Jeff Salaway Culinary Center, fondly known as “Jeff’s Kitchen,” after the late restaurateur who helped found the school and conceive of the kitchen. For teacher and artist-in-residence John Snow, an avid gardener, the greenhouse offers year-round hands-on educational possibilities. “There is no better way to teach cause and effect than with a garden.”