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Farm to Dining Hall: A Camp Farm Program with a Long History
In 1890, the folks who built the water powered grist mill just off Carson Creek, outside Brevard, North Carolina, never envisioned that one day the property surrounding the mill would become Gwynn Valley Camp. Established in 1935 by Mary Gwynn, Gwynn Valley continues to offer strong farm, wilderness, and traditional programs that nurture the child while fostering a connection with the land and the simple joys of childhood. Children gain a strong connection to their environment when they paddle a canoe down a river, hike to a waterfall, ride a horse through a field, or participate in harvesting vegetables and caring for animals on a farm. A connection to the land creates a sense of purpose and provides roots for young people; what better way to develop this connection than from working and playing on a farm?
The farm program at Gwynn Valley Camp began in the early 1980s and has continued to develop for over twenty-five years. Early on, when more family farms surrounded the camp, the leadership staff decided to buy from the “local” farmers that offered up a variety of vegetables that could be served in the camp dining room. “Buy local” evolved into “growing your own,” which was conceived by Dale Robertson, Gwynn Valley’s site director, farmer, and true believer in “another day of opportunity.” In 1983, Dale utilized nearby land to set up the first gardening program that produced a small amount of food for the campers and staff. Campers were transported about a mile to the property, and success was in the making in the small-but-abundant harvesting that produced more than just food. The next year, through the acquisition of adjacent land, the farm program began in earnest right at the camp.
Fast forward twenty-nine years, and the premise is still the same. It’s important that children understand where their food comes from, and when you engage them in the process of growing and harvesting, you’ve really invested in their understanding and appreciation of food, from farm to fork. Because most camps spend quite a bit of time in their dining halls eating, this provides a great learning opportunity! There are meals at Gwynn Valley where everything that is on the menu comes right off the property. Campers who sign up for the farm activity help milk a cow or goat, pick and harvest a bounty of different vegetables, feed animals, and develop a sense of ownership that translates from farm to table. After a short time working in the garden, one camper remarked, “I never realized how much energy goes into making food.”
Appreciation of History
As the family farm continues to disappear, the association of where our food comes from carries importance in the education of our children. The average child has little contact with farming and all the aspects of that important age-old tradition. Being able to work and learn on a farm is easily and naturally done in our setting, and it develops a child’s own personal history with food and where it comes from. Gwynn Valley was fortunate in that we were able to rejuvenate an existing farm, which was easier than starting from scratch.
In our situation, the farm we acquired had been an operating farm but needed lots of restoration. The land had lain fallow, and the buildings, including a wonderful old barn, chicken coop, and pig pen, provided the history and starting blocks to begin anew. After the farm was revived at Gwynn Valley, the next project was to make the 1890s grist mill operational. Again, Dale stepped up, and in 1990, we had a working water-powered grist mill, which was almost like a time machine, as staff guided children through the activities of grinding corn and producing corn meal and grits from corn grown on the farm. One of our veteran staff members, who is a teacher, has taken our mill program and turned it into a living history museum where campers make corn husk dolls, experience open fire cooking, and fish for trout in the mill pond. The mill is also the site of a favorite camp activity: four outlets for churned ice cream makers that run off the power of the mill. Any flavor you want!
Dependence on the Earth and the Independence of Sustainability
All of us in camp give a high priority to teaching children the importance of the environment and how people can alter that environment to its detriment or benefit. A garden is not a natural environment. We differentiate in our nature program, as ours has to do with plants and animals in their natural setting. But a garden is a great opportunity to teach many things about soil conservation, the effect of one plant or animal on the other, and more. The independence of growing your own food obviously takes more work, but the rewards are numerous. We have taken major parts of our everyday lives, as they relate to food, and placed them on the doorstep of learning. We have also done our part to lessen our footprint on an everburgeoned environment where everything is trucked and transported long distances to end up on our table.
Camp staff and teachers understand the importance of hands-on learning. Yet, even in camp, there can be a tendency to repeat the mistake of society in reducing opportunities for children to do things for themselves. The farm can set up situations whereby children get involved totally and feel the successes that come from a job well done. Campers going on an overnight are invested in the food they carry in their packs by taking along some fresh vegetables that were picked that morning from the garden.
Basic Biological Principles and the Wonders of Life
A child gets a great biology course while participating in activities at the farm. The birth of farm animals is always a fascination and teaches so much — not only of the mechanics of birth, but also the wonder of creation and recreative capacity. Even mishaps become the means for further lessons. We have had goats born to mothers without milk, triplets born to mothers with only two positions, and piglets that get stepped on by their 500-pound mother. In these cases, the baby was bottle fed by the campers with goat’s milk (which the campers milked by hand). You then have an animal accustomed to humans, which makes for a good pet that will offer joy to a reluctant child. One of the highlights of our summer is when the mama pig gives birth and sometimes campers will be present!
Leftover garden waste and uncooked vegetable waste can be composted. We can’t compost all of our kitchen and garden waste here at camp, but we can do enough to educate children to the fact that those items can be rendered back into soil. Vermiculture (worm composting) on a small scale is another way to bring the children into seeing how food waste can feed a small colony of worms, which provide excellent fertilizer for gardens.
Work Values and Responsibility
A farm requires a lot of effort by many hands, which helps instill a good work ethic and sense of responsibility in our campers and staff. When in attendance for only short periods and coming from diverse backgrounds, it is prudent to be flexible and have safeguards that the necessary work will be accomplished.
We now have several tractors, plows, and a planter, and we hire three full-time staff for the farm program each summer so that the animals and the garden are well taken care of. The staff organize the work in such a way that the children are actually participating and are needed in order to accomplish the various tasks — even if their contribution is only one step in the process. It is best to have groups move from one job to another rather frequently, perhaps using the less desirable chores as prerequisites to others more appealing.
For example, a counselor might say, “We will need to harvest for thirty minutes before we can bottle-feed the calves today.” In every case, we find that when the staff is enthusiastic about the task at hand, the children also become willingly involved. Some days it takes a little more to motivate the campers to do certain tasks, but they always rise to the occasion when animals are in the picture.
What child doesn’t want to gather eggs from right underneath a mother hen, milk a cow or goat, or feed a baby piglet? When we have corn on the cob that was picked that morning by a group of campers, it’s always nice to recognize those children who helped to put food on the table. Children love that sense of accomplishment, and it’s more meaningful when you helped in the process.
Animals must be fed and watered daily, and children learn real responsibility from this regular routine with the realization that a life depends on them. Much of our agriculture in this country is harvested and cared for by people we never see or have a connection to. Our hope is that our campers gain an appreciation for how hard many of these people work on a daily basis. Without their labor, our lives would be different.
Food and Nutritional Concerns
The program connection to the farm can be a segue to a discussion of issues like wasting food, limited preferences, and the influence of the packaged, processed diet that many Americans eat. There is always the concern for the millions who are hungry in the world today, and the realization of a connection between our society’s level of consumption and the great needs in third-world countries can be startling. We are thankful for a means to teach good eating habits and attitudes. Campers who have participated in food production and preparation develop an entirely different attitude. We have many campers try their first green bean, tomato, or broccoli at camp simply because they spent time harvesting that food earlier in the day. As one mother wrote, “My children now want broccoli for dinner because they have seen it grow, and they have picked it for their dinner at Gwynn Valley.”
Is a Farm or Garden Program for Your Camp? We hope that this article provides a better understanding of how a farm or garden program might be able to assist any camp in offering meaningful, experiential education opportunities; improve attitudes toward food and nutrition; and help instill an appreciation for how food was and is produced. A food production program can range from a simple small garden to a full, working farm. Both require sound planning, enthusiastic leadership, and some financial investment in order to be successful. The economic realities are such that it may be impractical to expect to produce enough food to cut your food budget. However, the camp will eat better, be healthier, and enjoy the hands-on aspect of planting to harvest. Food is a big part of our lives, and we are increasingly conscious of how it affects our health and well-being. Camp is the perfect venue to introduce the farm-to-fork concept, where children understand and participate in the simple joys of food production.
Planning a Farm Program
Although there are farm camps in the country, we suggest that many general or traditional camps can add a farm/gardening program to their activities, much as they might add any new activity. Each camp has to tailor the program to the amount of land available and to the skills and interests of their staff. Some vegetable production is possible even with very limited space. Raised-bed garden plots can produce a good bounty of vegetables, and the local farm agent in your county or region can help you get started. We utilize about five of our more than fifty acres for the Gwynn Valley farm to grow up to twenty varieties of vegetables and raise our animals. Because of the size of the garden, we use a tractor for much of the heavy work, such as soil preparation and cultivating. It is important to plan well in advance, and the following is a brief list of many of the steps to be followed, with approximate dates, in order to accomplish a useful garden and animal farm program for camp.
• Take soil samples and submit them for analysis to the local agricultural extension agent.
• Plan and execute breeding for summer birthing (as much as possible).
• Prepare land — plow, cultivate, fertilize, and remove rock.
The yield you should receive for a given variety will vary according to climate, soil, and management. The amount you actually plant, therefore, is a judgment that will improve with experience. For example, we plant broccoli, which has turned out to be very successful for us. It requires little maintenance, is fun to pick, is well liked, and has many uses. Broccoli plants will yield from one-quarter to one pound per plant, so we have chosen a half-pound plant and plant several hundred each season. Although a large garden and farm can require quite an investment in tools and equipment, a more modest program can be executed with only a small investment.
Staffing a Farm Program
Hiring specific staff for the farm program is important. We have a year-round, experienced person who manages our farm and site, but not all programs will warrant this. It would be highly desirable to have at least one farm-oriented person on the summer staff who could arrive at camp early enough to prepare the garden and plant the earliest varieties. Even counselors without farm backgrounds can be very useful if they are motivated, eager to learn, and hardworking. Enthusiasm is an important key. We hire three full-time farm staff members each summer — a farm manager, a lead teacher, and an assistant.
For animal care, you need someone who is primarily responsible for daily tasks. Although we want the campers to do as much as possible, the animals must be taken care of, even in between sessions. There need to be proper cages, pens, or stalls constructed for each animal utilized in the program. There is no substitute for an open pasture for the health of larger animals. Without one, a camp should think twice before attempting to use large animals.
Feeding the Animals and Other Issues
Each animal has certain nutritional requirements, and these need to be studied carefully. However, grazing pasture, a supply of corn, and hay will provide the essentials for most. We plant about seven acres of corn, harvest 1,000 bales of hay annually, and grow pearl millet put up in round bales. Much of the hay is used to feed ten horses throughout the year.
Another consideration for a farm is your responsibility toward biohazards that can come from the animals on the farm. All farm animals generate waste that, if not monitored correctly by staff and campers, can lead to illness. Shoes and farm clothing need to be cleaned and changed so that animal feces cannot be transported to the garden area and other parts of the camp community. All campers and staff should wash their hands and change their footwear after working with any animals or when entering the garden areas. Containers that are used for harvest in the fields should not be taken to the kitchen area; vegetables should be transferred to clean, sanitized containers.
Each camp has to plan its farm program according to the existing format of their camps’ schedule. At Gwynn Valley, as many as sixteen campers can sign up for a two-hour farm activity period each morning and afternoon. The children are divided into groups and given different responsibilities. Some chores, such as milking, feeding, watering, collecting eggs, and bottle-feeding, are included each day, while other tasks vary from day to day. The campers first work in the garden harvesting and weighing vegetables, digging potatoes, or planting new plants. Afterward, the children work with and feed the animals. Some of these responsibilities include:
There is a lot of creativity that can go into planning activities at the farm, such as finding the “golden potato” or the world’s largest two-legged carrot. On a hot day, take a break and wade or play in the creek to cool off — or pour buckets of creek water over the baby piglets, who always need a bath.
Vegetables are taken by the farm staff to a holding area at the kitchen and stored in a walk-in refrigerator. After lunch, corn is taken to the basketball court, where campers and staff shuck and separate shucks and corn before heading to the lodge for sign-ups. Shucks are taken back to the farm where mature cows eat them or they can be composted.
Food Service Considerations
Each summer about 60 to 70 percent of the food we consume at camp comes from our farm, which includes raising our own beef. Our cows are the only farm animal that provides meat; it is processed off site and is USDA certified. We consume about 5,000 pounds of beef per summer in a variety of dishes from hamburgers to steaks to beef stew. Our figures indicate that we save about one half of our meat costs by raising beef on site. When you take into consideration not only the hands-on experience for campers, but that our beef is grass fed and hormone free, it’s a win-win situation. We don’t go into great detail with the children, but if they ask, we do explain the process and what a wonderful life the Gwynn Valley cows have here. Some don’t blink an eye; others react mildly and move on.
We have quite a few children who are vegetarians, but they still love to feed and nurture our calves. The size of the farm enables us to do more than would be possible for every camp. There is not a great savings on the food budget by growing our own vegetables because it requires a larger kitchen staff to clean and prep the fresh vegetables. But it does create some savings in other ways.
It takes about five years to recoup your investment in equipment and getting things up and running. Keep in mind that’s on our scale; we’re producing just over 20,000 pounds of vegetables per summer. As food and fuel prices continue to rise (and they are heavily linked), we figure that we’re saving anywhere from 10 to 25 percent on overall food costs.
The other positive aspect about savings on these types of foods also results in an increase in the quality of other foods that you purchase for the summer. Specialty items can be introduced into the menu where normally you might just be serving standard fare with the same budget. There are so many considerations and outcomes from growing our own produce, as mentioned earlier, that it’s well worth the effort.
Programmatically, the farm is what we’re known for, even though many other great programs exist at camp. It’s a major theme in our promotion of camp. Our homegrown popcorn goes on the road with us every year when we’re out promoting camp and talking to groups about the program. Campers take something home that is natural, can be eaten, and requires some hands-on work to get the popcorn off the cob and into the pan or microwave (it’s very easy).
Inevitably, some crops come in at times that challenge your menu planning, and you have an overabundance of, say, lettuce. Last summer, our kitchen manager made smoothies with peaches, honey, lime juice, and the magic, overabundant ingredient of lettuce. The campers loved it, and we truly can’t remember if there was full disclosure of all ingredients. How many ways can potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, squash, and corn be used? Some of the ones mentioned are fairly easy to use in a variety of dishes, and others are more challenging with younger campers, who might be picky eaters.
Food prep, while challenging for kitchen staff, can be fun for campers. During the time period when the corn is being harvested, campers and staff will leave the dining room at lunch and shuck corn. Since we don’t use pesticides on our corn, there are always worms to be found, and it’s fun to collect those worms and either take them back to the farm for the chickens or to the mill pond for the trout to eat in the “circle of life.”
In 1998, Anne and Grant Bullard became the directors and owners of Gwynn Valley Camp. Grant has thirty-six years of experience in the camping field, and Anne taught school at both the elementary and secondary levels for sixteen years and has worked in camping for eighteen years. Dale Robertson, assistant director, manages the Gwynn Valley site, mill, and farm, and has worked at camp since 1974. He received his MS in Agriculture from Clemson University.
Originally published in the September/October 2012 Camping Magazine.