Spring is a very busy time on a farm. This is especially true at the educational farm in New Haven at the West Rock Nature Center. It's not big as farms go, a barnyard - with a goat and a sheep, four ducks, a gentle bantam rooster, four hens, and some rabbits - a pig pen, a half dozen garden beds, a good-sized compost system (to process the animal wastes) and a few grape vines, blueberry bushes and raspberry plants. But, you'd be amazed at the number of students and adults who visit and study there on a spring day.
The farm was started 13 years ago to help high school students learn ecology. The cycles of the farm- the soil, sun, plants and animals-as well as the meadows, forest and stream at the Nature Center, provide everyday examples of ecological principles and a meaningful context for learning. The realities of growth and weather, of the animals, the smells and even the mud get through to urban teenagers who are oftentimes numbed by our TV/consumer culture.
A former maintenance shed and a cabin we renovated, heated only by wood stoves, provide classroom space. Important biogeochemical cycles of this planet can be studied just by caring for a wood stove. The farm's resources and the park's wild areas are great assets in the learning process.
Students must learn how to dress for cold or inclement weather. The animals need to be fed, even if the weather is awful. Many of these teenagers get to use a hammer and a shovel for the very first time. They begin to realize that food comes from plants that can be grown in a garden, and from barnyard animals, too. They gain self-confidence and learn to work together. The farm helps some reconnect with their rural roots and others to connect with a future career, or with the natural world for the first time. All of the students have terrific questions.
After seeing this type of hands-on, outdoor ecology education, grounded in the reality of plants and animals, work so well for seven years, educators, farmers and community members began a non-profit organization, the New Haven Ecology Project, to increase the availability of this kind of education. With the help of individuals, foundations, and the New Haven Board of Education and the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Ecology Project began running more programs at the farm. The Common Ground summer program for teenagers is in its fourth year. Here, students hone their writing skills and expand their science knowledge, while learning to work together cooperatively. Cooking lunch from the garden, caring for animals, and a camping trip in the park are big hits. Teenagers who initially say they'd rather be home playing video games or watching TV soon discover the joy of being outside as the beauties of New Haven's wild areas unfold.
The Barnyard program is now in its second year. Four or five times a week, New Haven elementary classes visit for a hands-on tour of the barnyard and gardens. Another class of high school students visits once a week to help with maintenance. Students from nearby universities, from Wallingford's and New Haven's vocational agriculture programs and from a private school in Branford also studied and worked on the farm this week. Home-schooled children and their parents come to learn there, too.
Because the gardening areas are very limited at the Nature Center, the city of New Haven has agreed to allow the Ecology Project to turn an abandoned 20-acre piece of land near West Rock into the Springside Community Farm, which will serve as a regional educational resource. Community members have been cleaning up years of accumulated trash, removing overgrown brush to create garden beds, and patching eroded roads.
The New Haven Ecology Project shares its vision for the new educational farm and the excitement of active ecology education at the Springside Farm Festival, one week from tomorrow, from 10 a.m. to 4 pm at the Eli Whitney Barn on Whitney Avenue near the Hamden/New Haven line. There'll be animals, demonstrations like sheep shearing and spinning and lots of good food, of course. And, I'll be giving a short talk at two in the afternoon.
For more information, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Farm Festival, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432, or call the farm at (203) 946-8017. See you there!
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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