Ask most kids where their eggs, beef and milk come from and they'll tell you the grocery store. Ask the same question of the young people who have spent a week at Herring Creek Farm and they'll answer differently: "It comes from a farm."
The Farm Institute is having its first banner season at Herring Creek Farm in Edgartown. Already more than 200 youngsters have been introduced firsthand to farming. They've picked beans, petted the cows and fed the chickens. For John Curelli, director of the Farm Institute, this is not only a good season for farming, it is a good season for Island young people.
The nonprofit educational program is filling a void that hasn't had support in years. They are offering youngsters an opportunity to learn how to work on a farm, how to grow a garden and raise livestock - in short, to learn about the culture in agriculture.
This Sunday, the institute is holding its first social luncheon from noon to 4 p.m. at Herring Creek Farm. Parking is at Katama Farm and there will be a shuttle service. Admission is $50 for adults; children under 12 of age are free. There will be lively country music provided by The Flying Elbows. Auctioneer Trip Barnes will hold a livestock auction that is similar to the real thing. There will also be an auction of interesting artwork and other valuable items. Tours will be given.
Farm Institute has a simple mission: "Education of children in sustainable agriculture and the stewardship of farmland on Martha's Vineyard." It is to agriculture what Sail Martha's Vineyard is to the water, making sure an important part of the Island's heritage is kept alive.
This week, the youngsters were out in the fields getting experience.
Six-year-old Charlotte Lowell-Bettencourt of Edgartown said she likes being on the farm. "I like horses. I like to pet them all. I get to pet the chickens. I used to go after school."
Aaron Lowe, six, of Edgartown, said: "Farming is fun. I don't know why I like it. I just like it."
Jen Bennett of Edgartown is the head gardener and is responsible for setting up the education programs. On Tuesday morning, under an oppressively hot sun, she coached the children in the art of picking beans.
There is a quarter-acre garden where the bean bushes are lush, the flowers are colorful and the corn is tall. Ms. Bennett said the small lot was used as a garden more than a decade ago. Now that it is in its first year, the old grass that was once in the soil keeps coming back as weed.
The institute is growing heirloom vegetables. Ms. Bennett explained that today farmers use hybrid plants. This farm is using hybrids as a way to preserve the original plants. "The seeds that a hybrid produces aren't true," she said. The second generation plant of a hybrid isn't usually as productive as the first generation. But an heirloom vegetable is consistently productive.
For those who remember Herring Creek Farm of years ago, the Farm Institute is a pleasing sight. There are belted Galloway cows wandering the field. There are sheep and goats.
Last week the farm had a special visitor, a belted Galloway bull from western Massachusetts. The bull's name is Bur de mer Boris, and for two years he has been a national champion. The results of his visit will be seen next spring when the six cows are expected to have calves.
Close to 200 youngsters have taken part in various institute programs since it opened in January. Their ages have ranged from six to 12. "They spend anywhere from a few days to a week. We've got a dozen we call the intensive kids. They are truly gifted with an ability to enjoy and engage in the farming program," Mr. Curelli said.
This summer alone, the institute will see 75 youngsters. Most of them are Islanders but there are a few off-Islanders. "We have a few openings for later in August," Mr. Curelli said. The cost per child is $250 a week, and the program meets from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
To operate, Farm Institute has an annual working budget of well over $300,000. They are eight months into their first year, and Mr. Curelli said they have already learned a lot. "It is a lot more difficult than I thought. I think it is a confluence of a number of reasons: economic times, post 9/11, the stock market. But I tell you we are committed to providing education to these kids. They want it and deserve it."
The Vineyard has already demonstrated that farming programs for young people work. The state for many years funded a 4H program. "The state pulled the funds 15 years ago," Mr. Curelli said. "It was a big program. Farming was so important to this community. Years ago farming sustained many families. It sustained generations of families; in those days we didn't have the ferry boats running every day or every week to bring food. There was once a lot of beef, lamb and chickens, and all of it came from the farm."
Mr. Curelli said: "We feel excited that we are filling a niche left by the 4H. We are providing a new type of education, a new method for teaching agriculture. We are teaching these young people what it takes to grow food, graze animals. We talk about the impact farming has on the environment. We talk about what it means to have an organic farm, healthy food, and we talk about what it means to support the growers of this community that provide locally grown food. We talk about pasture management. We've had the kids build small coldframes. We do some bird watching."
The benefit of passing farming from one generation to the next is already felt strongly among the crew of teachers on the farm.
Becky Brown, who manages the farm, grew up in Edgartown. Her father has a farm in town.
Cleo Wild's grandparents, Ron and Dorothy Wild, used to own Herring Creek Farm. Her father is the late Michael Wild. Miss Wild is a teaching assistant. For her, there is significance to passing the knowledge from one generation to the next.
Miss Wild said her father cared a good deal about the farm, the land and its use. She said she remembers growing up and being told that she couldn't walk the farm. "It was off limits," she said, but she can walk it now.
This farm is again full of young people and animals.
Miss Wild is attending Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., where there is a farming program.
"It is a wonderful circle," Mr. Curelli said, to see both Miss Brown and Miss Wild at work on this piece of land. "The two played together as kids. It was Becky's dream to come back to farming on this Island. It is nice to be able to make that possible. There is so much pressure from real estate; it really has almost eliminated the opportunity for young farmers to get started.
"These two have come back to their own Island and are now teaching other kids their experience. It doesn't have to be a big farm, it can be a small plot of land in your backyard. Yes, you can grow lettuce, peas and beans. Many of these youngsters have never done that before," Mr. Curelli said.
There is hope, pointing to the future. Mr. Curelli said this community is warming up to the idea of seeing young people out in the fields tending the animals. Mr. Curelli takes heart from the prospect of strong attendance for this Sunday's event. "We've already sold 120 tickets," he said.