Once upon a time, before massive urbanization, every day of a child’s life was “farm camp.” The thought of sending your child to some field in the middle of a city to learn about plants and soil and cooking would have been side-splittingly hilarious. But times have changed and now only a very small percentage of our population (2% according to the American Farm Bureau Federation) lives on a farm (and that figure includes ranchers).
Still, many of us grew up with gardens and were put to work weeding, picking off potato beetles and shelling peas. I think as a child I would not have been over the moon for farm camp.
Now, far removed from my parents’ garden and the fertile Shenandoah Valley where I was raised, I’m on pins and needles for my daughter to turn five so I can send her to farm camp at Rio Grande Community Farm. For now I just have to be a farm camp voyeur. My friend Kathryn Peters, this week’s Euforkia subject, invited me to come see what was happening there last week.
Alas! ‘Twas a world of happy children making jam; mulching the garden, shaking ice cream into existence; sneaking spilled sugar off the table; twirling on tiptoes; sowing seeds, singing quasi-bawdy songs.
Why can’t life be like farm camp, I wondered? A system in which you are not ultimately responsible for the fate of the plants you tend, where chickens roost on your arm, tall people cool you off with watering cans, guitars and sing-alongs materialize out of thin air, and someone magically appears with fresh ingredients and tells you what to cook.
I went home and looked at my droopy tomato plant, empty fridge, and chicken-less living room and just felt sad. Send your children to farm camp, people! Send them to Kathryn Peters! (All of this importuning is for next year because this year’s camp is already over.)
In the meantime, you can recreate two of the culinary highlights of farm camp with your kids at home—beet cupcakes and hibiscus tea. According to Kathryn, these two items were almost universally popular. Not that you need to have kids to make these (or to go to Explora or the public pool or make bunny-shaped birthday cakes, for that matter). However, you do need to have kids to justify playing Candyland, the most wretched board game in the history of games.)
This is Kathryn:
Kathryn comes to us from the hallowed breadbasket of Oklahoma, where she attended Oklahoma State University and earned her B.S. in Environmental Science. From there she went to the Department of Caazapa in Paraguay via the Peace Corps for 2.25 years to work with small-scale Paraguayan farmers. Her mission was agroforestry education…which we can break down into it’s component parts agro=field, forestry=trees: how to farm trees for forage, fruit or nuts in a sustainable way and how to incorporate trees into your farmscape as windbreaks.
Of course, it is the outsider who learns as much the people she sets out to teach, in this case, Guarani-speaking, subsistence farmers raising yucca, corn, beans, garden vegetables, peanuts and sugar cane. Kathryn was most amazed by the Paraguayans foraging skills. Kids always knew what fruits were ripe on which trees and how to gather them. Adults were well-versed in curative herbs. With the nearest Peace Corps office 11 hours away, Kathryn depended more than once on local remedies to fight illness. She marveled at this resourcefulness and intimacy with the native flora.
She also marveled (in a dismayed sort of way) at the campesinos’ new diet, as NGOs dumped white flour, white rice, white pasta and white sugar into the country. Recipes that traditionally used corn were now being adapted to substitute perennially abundant white flour. As a result, Kathryn says her diet there was not the new-world, model of health that you might imagine.
It was a familiar cautionary tale of privatization and globalization in Paraguay: the small-scale campesinos struggling under the shadow of soybean juggernauts (often Brazilian-owned farms on Paraguayan land); the subsequent deforestation of land, and the toxic impact of large soybean farmers’ application of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide on their GMO soybeans (Roundup kills the subsistence crops of nearby farmers, and contaminates the water and air that all Paraguayans depend upon.)
During her college years, Kathryn learned to stop compartmentalizing human beings as separate from plants and animals, and to recognize food and agriculture as a universal point of human connection with each other and the earth. Her experience in Paraguay just drove home the point.
Paraguay to New Mexico: From Paraguay, Kathryn’s landed in Albuquerque to study at UNM where she is now just two clicks away from graduating with a dual Master’s degree in Community & Regional Planning and Latin American Studies. She traveled back to Paraguay for her thesis work on how changing economic practices in that community are altering their relationships with each other and the earth.
Meanwhile, Kathryn wanted to find a job working with kids in either food or environmental education. She hit the jackpot with Rio Grande Community Farm which offers both. Kathryn’s original assignment involved leading farm tours for visiting school groups. Now she works as an Americorps VISTA volunteer, under the farm’s educational director, Julie Hirshfield, to coordinate events throughout the year, including a month of week-long farm camps, and a spring break camp for kids. (Note: She would have also planned the grandiose and ever-popular corn maze festival, but the corn all died due to acequia access restriction. The farm is whipping up other fun harvest festival activities in its stead.)
Half of the kids who attended the camps were there on scholarships from Lavender in the Village, a Los Ranchos organization that Kathryn says has created a wonderful and vital partnership with the farm. (Another note: Lavender in the Village’s annual lavender festival is happening July 13-14. Mark your calendars in light purple.)
RGCF’s farm camp is only in its sophomore year, but you wouldn’t know it as an observer. This is a rich, well-organized program stacked with fun and engaging activities. Located in a beautiful patch of Los Poblanos Open Space in the North Valley, the kids walk back and forth from the community garden and The Village of Los Ranchos’ Agri-Nature Center, which houses the camp kitchen. Each camp session lasts one week, is open to kids 5 to 11 years old, and centers around a distinct theme.
Farm Philosophy: Kathryn’s philosophy born out of her education and experience in Paraguay dovetails nicely with RGCF’s mission statement. The farm seeks to provide a model for sustainable urban farms, offer educational opportunities in agriculture, grow food for the local community, protect and enhance wildlife habitats, and celebrate the unique vocation of farming. All of this manifests itself in farm camp curriculum as well (designed by Julie Hirshfield and hammered out by Kathryn.) Kathryn and Julie don’t do it all themselves. They are assisted by three senior camp counselors, and numerous junior counselor volunteers and adult guest speakers that come in and lead workshops throughout the week. (You, too, can volunteer, if you contact Julie Hirshfield at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Week I: Pizza Camp. I know. It sounds like a fantasy camp designed by children. You don’t sit around eating pizza all week, however. Rather, in a clever thematic move, kids learn about pizza components from farm to table. They ground their own flour from wheat, craft their own mozzarella cheese, prepare their own pesto and tomato sauce. It’s not all pizza, all the time. Julie and Kathryn have built all sorts of tangential sprees into the curriculum. The kids also make nature journals, go hiking, and do yoga.
Week II: Lotions and Potions: This is the camp with the highest registration. I’m gonna guess that it’s the potions more than the lotions that are seducing the 5-11 year old set. It is kind of magical to make your own glycerine soap, body butter, chapstick and salve; pretty fantastical to convert kale and chard into something you like to eat: kale and chard chips; and fairy-esque to throw lavender flowers into cake and steep hibiscus flowers for tea.
Week III: Cooking Camp: This is just what it sounds like, a camp for budding chefs. Kids work in the garden and then bring the garden to the kitchen. (Though it’s still too early in the growing season to use ingredients solely from the farm.) This week they made homemade ricotta, strawberry jam, zucchini bread, cinnamon cake and ye olde ice cream in a bag. Since only one segment at a time can use the kitchen, they also incorporate fun activities like mixing their own sidewalk chalk, pressing beet pulp paper, fashioning paper mache vegetables and mixing bicycle blender smoothies (yes, where kids jump on someone’s tricked-out stationary bike and power a blender with their pedaling–that someone being Jake Foreman, Cycles of Life founder.)
Week IV: Wilderness Camp: This week focuses more on animal wildlife than food. Kids learn about animals–coyotes, bugs and birds–found in the local habitat. This includes playing around with vermiculture, dissecting owl pellets, learning about bee hives, and parlaying with a great horned owl. They built their own solar oven out of a pizza box and tin foil for S’mores roasting. They learned about rocket stoves and baked dutch oven biscuits. Homemade granola was on the menu this week, along with pickled cucumbers.
Food Philosophy: Kathryn’s own stance is to try everything once, twice or three times, but she knows that some people are very invested in their personal diets and stubborn about predilections. People don’t want to be told what to eat. “Several kids came into camp thinking they didn’t like beets and kale, but after trying beet cupcakes and kale chips, left with a new affinity. Julie Hirshfield, my supervisor, has a great rule that campers have to try everything and can spit it out (we eat outside) if they don’t like it! This rule is great for debunking preconceived judgments about food,” says Kathryn.
When I ask Kathryn what she finds encouraging in today’s food culture, she says, “I think it’s beautiful, positive and hopeful that so many people are becoming more and more aware of the sources of their food and want to choose food from sources that treat farmers fairly and respect the earth.”
These values are clearly reflected at Rio Grande Community Farm, a place influenced by Kathryn’s (and so many other people’s) personal history with land cultivation. It makes me wonder about the stories of everyone who brings this farm, and camp, to fruition–what particular joys and revelations spring from the universal practice of growing food.
On the Fork: Red Beet Cupcakes and Hibiscus Tea!
The Red Beet Cupcakes are just a smidge sweet, sugared only with honey, more akin to muffins than cupcakes. This is not one of those covert vegetable operations like smuggling zucchini into chocolate cake or applesauce into brownies. Beets are in the limelight here–that cool, meadowy, beet flavor permeates both the muffin and showy, fushia-colored frosting.
For kid-pleasing visual mayhem, serve with deep purple hibiscus tea, another farm camp favorite:
So farm camp is over, but the spirit of farm camp lives on! Thanks to Kathryn Peters and Rio Grande Community Farm for letting me drop in.
Come back in two weeks, when Euforkia will interview a mystery person doing mind-blowing, indescribable things with food. (Mysterious and indescribable because I don’t know who it is yet.)