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Cedar Circle Farm Program Exposes Children to the Soil

  • Ingrid Groff, 6, center, and Lucille Dest, 6, run their hands through asparagus fronds and berries while learning about field production during the “Exploration” period of Cedar Circle Farm Camp on Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in East Thetford, Vt. The day camp aims to broaden children’s understanding of local foodways and ecology through a varied schedule of activities. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Cedar Circle Farm Camp counselor Maggie MacArthur-McKay, of Thetford Center, Vt., speaks with a group of young campers about the relationship between soil ecology and food production during a day camp session on Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in East Thetford, Vt. When exploring the concept of soil bacteria, one camper estimated that the field contained at least, “seven thousand, eight million grams of bacteria.” (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • A Cedar Circle Farm worker pauses from her field activities to show the group of campers a black swallowtail caterpillar she found while picking herbs on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 in East Thetford, Vt.(Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Chris Farrell, 6, right, inspects the receptacle of a raspberry after eating a berry he had plucked off a bush as fellow camper Bruno Eisenberg, 6, searches for his own raspberry during a field production exploration of the Cedar Circle Farm Camp on Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in East Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • A group of campers, led by counselor Isabel Buenaga, with backpack, circumnavigates a mobile chicken coop as they collect fresh eggs and learn about chickens during a “Chores” session of the Cedar Circle Farm Camp on Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in East Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/2/2016 10:00:49 PM
Modified: 8/3/2016 9:44:04 AM

It was a familiar summer camp scene. With morning dew on the grass, parents dropped off children between the ages of 6 and 10, leaving them with fresh-faced counselors for the day.

But this camp was a little different. The drop-off location was Cedar Circle Farm, an organic vegetable farm in East Thetford. Families said their goodbyes in front of a red barn on Pavillion Road. Nearby, a row of golden sunflowers shone in the morning light.

Once the children assembled, the counselors — all young women — led them across the street to picnic tables under a tent. Campers stowed their backpacks and lunchboxes and then gathered on a circular bench near a stand of cedars.

“Good morning!” said Eric Tadlock, the farm’s education programs manager.

It’s Wacky Wednesday, he told the children. He outlined the schedule for the morning. They would begin the day with chores and exploration, he said. After snack, instead of the usual free choice activity, they would wrap up the morning with a camp-wide game of predator/prey — an ecology-themed game of tag.

This is the first year of the camp — which is now in its last week for the season. The idea is to bring young people to the farm and expose them to basic concepts of agriculture and ecology through inquiry, Tadlock said, during an interview at the farm earlier this summer.

The farm’s educational programs aim to educate consumers and help people of all ages understand the gravity of their food choices, he said.

It’s also important “just to be outside and have a physical — maybe spiritual connection — with a place like a farm,” he said.

The concept appears to be popular with parents and kids. With limited marketing, the 104 summer camper spots filled up in less than a month this spring, Tadlock said.

The camp cost $230 per child per week this summer, Tadlock said. This year, the farm offered 5 percent discounts for early registration, siblings and multiple weeks. The discounts could be combined.

After Tadlock’s greeting, the large group of campers broke up into small ones. Some hopped into a tractor-pulled wagon to go to the blueberry field and others went to do some weeding.

Counselor Isabel Buenaga, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, led a cluster to the chicken coops to collect eggs. Buenaga is a senior at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn.

As they approached the two mobile coops — each surrounded with tall portable fences — Buenaga asked the children to drop their water bottles into a pile.

To assuage some of the campers’ concerns, Buenaga informed them that the roosters had “taken a vacation to another farm.” They needn’t worry about the birds’ aggressive behavior.

She unlatched the fence and warned campers to watch out for chicken poop. Most of the children flocked to the egg boxes to grab the eggs, many still warm.

But, Hazel Tompkins, 10, of Norwich, stayed behind.

“They just kind of freak me out,” she said.

Her family keeps chickens and she has been pecked before, she said.

Despite sitting out the egg gathering, Hazel said she likes farm camp, “all of it, basically.”

Hazel’s father, Page Tompkins, said in a phone interview that the camp expanded his vegetarian daughter’s view of how vegetables might be incorporated into her diet. Before camp, Hazel would have been happy to live on bread and pasta, but learning how to make her own salsa taught her that vegetables’ uses go beyond their raw state, Tompkins said.

Tompkins, who is the executive director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute, said he liked that the farm experiences were authentic — not a mere exercise.

“She liked doing real stuff (and) liked feeling like she was doing actual farming,” he said.

In a raspberry patch not far from the chickens, counselor Maggie MacArthur-McKay, of Thetford Center, guided her group in an exploration. She asked the children to consider why some of the raspberry canes are dry and devoid of leaves.

Conor Fox, 6, of Hanover, speculated that the problem was caused by the dry, hot weather.

If it was too dry and hot, why would only some of the plants be dry, while others are still lush and leafy? MacArthur-McKay asked the group.

The dry canes produced fruit last year, she said. Summer-bearing raspberry canes die after fruiting.

The children popped a few final raspberries into their mouths as MacArthur-McKay led them to the next spot.

“What crop is this?” she asked, pointing to tall, green, “ferny-looking things.”

When the children seemed stumped, she offered a clue: “For some people, when you eat this vegetable and then you go pee, your pee stinks.”

It’s shaped like a spear, she added.

“Asparagus,” Ingrid Groff, 6, of Hanover, said.

“If you let the asparagus grow, this is what happens,” said MacArthur-McKay.

She led the group back toward the cedar circle for snacktime, but Chris Farrell, 7, of Hanover, dawdled, swinging his waterbottle at the asparagus ferns.

“I want to get the Japanese beetles dead,” he said, between swings. “They eat my dad’s flowers.”

On the walk, Ingrid said she likes being on the farm.

“There’s so many things to look at,” she said.

She particularly enjoys seeing the plants as they grow and guessing which plant produces which vegetable, she said.

“It’s kind of a long drive for me to get here, but I still like going,” she said.

Back by the cedars, the children washed their hands at a water station made of wood and PVC pipe and then gathered again on the circular bench.

Counselors offered apple slices and handfuls of blueberries — harvested by campers the day before.

Lyme parent Kati Miller said she was glad to send her daughter, Lily, 7, to the camp for a week this summer.

“I love that it took place on a farm and it was farm-focused,” Miller said, in a phone interview.

The Millers have had a CSA share at Cedar Circle since Lily was born and bringing her to the camp seemed like an opportunity to deepen Lily’s relationship with the farm, Miller said.

“She was really excited to tell us what she did everyday,” Miller said.

Miller appreciated the simplicity of the camp, she said. Lily learned basic principles of growing vegetables and when certain vegetables are in season. A particular highlight for Lily was a lesson in creating an herbal salve for bug-bites, Miller said.

As a parent, Miller said she appreciated that the camp included time for journaling. It was a quiet time that can be rare in the summer, she said.

“I would have sent her more this summer, but it was completely full,” she said.

The camp’s popularity makes Tadlock think Cedar Circle’s programs help to fill a gap in the region’s educational offerings.

“The problem isn’t as great in the Northeast, but all over the country family farms are being developed and ... newer generations are having fewer and fewer farm experiences,” Tadlock said. “It’s really important to preserve that agrarian heritage that we have.”

In addition to farm camp, Cedar Circle also offers a weekly drop-in program for toddlers and their caregivers — on hiatus while the camp is ongoing — a science program for homeschool students and school field trips.

Information about Cedar Circle Farm’s educational programs can be found at

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

Valley News

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