Gardening at the Farm Institute

Gardening at the Farm Institute

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Fava beans or green beans?

What’s on the lunch menu all depends on what’s ready for the kids to harvest.

Yes, the kids. At the nonprofit Farm Institute on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, the local and vacationing kids who attend summer day camp here tend the expansive vegetable garden, gather eggs and care for the animals. Older kids may learn the art of composting and carpentry.

Here, kids learn what it takes to get their food to their neighborhood markets, says Christina Pereira, who oversees the camp program staffed with those who have educational as well as agriculture backgrounds. “The kids have responsibilities — sweeping, watering and feeding the animals, weeding the garden,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of places where kids have real responsibilities. Did I mention they’re having a blast ‘working’?”

“Super fun,” said Allyson Lorenzo, from Brooklyn, New York, whose son Isaac, 3, was busy feeding chickens and then triumphantly bringing over an egg he had gathered as part of the Wee Farmers program.

These 180 acres at the edge of Edgartown, Massachusetts — the flattest area of Martha’s Vineyard — has been farmed since the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century and before that by the local Wampanoag Indians. Efforts to develop this land were thwarted some 20 years ago and today, this farm, partly owned by the town of Edgartown and partly by the state of Massachusetts, is permanently protected for agricultural education and agricultural use. The Farm Institute has been here for the past decade, giving locals and visitors a unique, up-close look at what farm-to-table really means.

Certainly there are increasing options to visit farms and farmers’ markets wherever you are vacationing (search by ZIP code at this USDA directory), which teaches kids where their food comes from and maybe encourages them to try a new food the next time they’re in a restaurant. (Artichokes raised in Half Moon Bay, California, at the kid-friendly Half Moon Brewing Company, or a unique kind of cheese made in Wisconsin where there are 600 to choose from, perhaps?) Have your kids ever seen a stalk of rhubarb or berries on a bush? Pick fruit at a place like Middlefield Orchard in Cooperstown, New York; In Kennebunk, Maine, the Lodge on the Cove is even offering a pick your own blueberries package, complete with pail and packed lunch.

Find more last-minute outdoor summer vacation ideas at the Taking the Kids Summer Fun section. For example, there are many farms across the country where you can stay, like we did at the Inn at Valley Farms in Walpole, New Hampshire, picking lettuce and garlic from the garden for our dinner. (Choose by region at Farm Stay U.S.)

“Kids need to learn where the food comes from, how it grows, why it is good for you, how to prepare it and how to share it,” says Jon Previant, who oversees the Farm Institute on Martha’s Vineyard. Every week in summer, more than 100 kids from 4-year-old “Sprouts” to teen Educators in Training attend camp: During the school year, underserved city youth are hosted.

Strawberry picking on Martha’s Vineyard

Strawberry picking on Martha’s Vineyard

Families can also visit for a guided tour in summer or sign on to help with the morning chores in fall, when you are invited to explore on your own. (From October to May, call ahead 508-627-7007 for the “Chore Tour.”)

The older kids especially love the chance to cook for the Friday Fiestas during which they prepare what they’ve harvested. To that end, the Institute has just launched a $1.5 million campaign to build a large 1,000-square-foot Teaching Kitchen with room for 70 youngsters at a time.

Fall, by the way, is an excellent time to visit Martha’s Vineyard, whether for a day (just an hour on one of the ferries from Cape Cod where fares start at just $8, $4.25 for kids up to 12) or several days, if your kids aren’t yet in school. The weather is still warm enough for the beach — there are 19 to choose from and some 44 miles of bike trails — but the crowds and A-listers are gone (the Obamas are expected to vacation here this month) and hotel rates drop significantly.

For example, rates at the 123-year-old Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, which serves eggs from the Farm Institute and whose chef Nate Gould, sources 80 percent of the food locally, start at $210 in fall, less than half summer rates. Families will love the convenience — a short walk to town and the beach, the pool, big wrap-around porch with rocking chairs. When we visited, kids found the lawns perfect for somersaults and hand-stands.

The Winnetu Oceanside Resort, which borders the Farm Institute and brings their young guests here weekly in summer, touts a special fall program for parents, grandparents and toddlers with rates starting at $175 (down from $495 in summer.) Families love the South Beach location, the heated pools, tennis club and complimentary yoga.

But nothing trumps the lessons to be learned at the Farm Institute.

“I learned cows can’t see in front, just to the side,” said 8-year-old Abby.

“I learned that pigs don’t sweat. That’s why they need to roll around in the mud to cool off,” said Karinne, 10.

“I learned you have to be calm and quiet around bunnies, or they will run away,” said Ricky, 6.

All valuable lessons — and vacation memories — they won’t forget, especially the next time they’re at the grocery store.

(If you are heading to New England, check out Eileen’s new Kid’s Guide to Boston, one of her series of city Kid’s Guides available online or from major booksellers.)