Red Gate Farm thrills city kids with ‘life nourishing’ experience

The Greenfield Recorder, May 25, 2017, by Diane Broncaccio

BUCKLAND — Springfield schoolchildren got a taste of Apple Valley when they planted crops, fed animals and spent a couple of nights in tents at the Red Gate Farm learning center.

Back for her second time, fifth-grader Mia Toolin from Samuel Bowles Elementary School recalled working in the barn last spring and helping in the garden. “You could help with the honey,” she said, referring to the beehives at Red Gate. Or with Joe the Ox, a majestic oxen who on Wednesday was reclining in a pasture as though he were lord of it all.

“You could be cooking, and sometimes you get to help make dinner or lunch,” she added.

Mia was among at least 80 city students who visited the farm this week.

“My favorite thing was definitely playing with the animals, and hanging out with them,” she said. “They are really, really nice.”

“I like the outdoor shower,” said Crystaliz Soto, also a Bowles fifth-grader. “And the food was amazing,”

A’marie Diaz liked the campfires and feeding the pigs. Jodeci Delgado liked the chickens. And all liked the fresh farm food.

About half the schoolchildren who arrived Wednesday were Red Gate Farm “veterans,” who would help to mentor younger children who might not have ever been on a farm before.

After getting their tent assignments, the children got a tour of the farm; afterwards, they had lunch – much of the food coming from the farm itself.

At 1 p.m., the hard work of farming was to begin. “The kids will be put into garden, forest and barn teams,” explained Jake Krain, one of the guides and teachers at Red Gate. One team was to work in the greenhouse, possibly picking lettuce, chard or carrots for the evening dinner; the day’s barn crew was to weigh the sheep and help with hoof-cutting, while Krain explained the importance of animal footcare. The forest team was to weed the invasive floral rose away from the sugar maples. Then the teams would rotate over the next two days so that everyone has a chance to try everything, he said.

And the city children don’t seem to mind the work. “Last year, seven or eight kids were cleaning out a goat pen,” said Bowles teacher Donald Dorn. “They worked two to three hours shoveling out dung — all winter’s worth. And not one of them complained about anything,” he said.

Walking along on their tour, children gave joyful squeals when they were told homemade maple syrup was to be part of their morning breakfast, and that they would be collecting eggs from the hen house later that afternoon. They got a tour of the “little barn,” where tools are kept, and the 110-year-old “big barn,” where hay is stored and where some of the animals live. They met the goats: Abby, Annabelle and Andre.

For the last 14 years, the 60-acre nonprofit Red Gate Farm has been raising sheep, goats, bees and chickens, growing vegetables and making maple syrup. But in the eyes of owner Ben Murray, the real “crop” here is “growing children who are hard-working, confident and kind.”

“What we do is centered around kids and value development,” said Murray. “Farming provides character values. Hard work, seeing the effect of your work, having responsibilities, challenges students.”

In 2013, Red Gate Farm raised the money to put in a dozen wood-framed platformed wall tents that house four children each and built a kitchen large enough to serve 40.

For the past five years, Red Gate Farm has been partnering with Springfield Public Schools. Donations from the Charles H. Hall Foundation, Bank of America, Bertera Subaru of West Springfield and other organizations help to cover costs.

“Farms are the perfect place for young people to connect with the things that really matter,” said Murray. “We know that the demands of everyday life and the call of technology can keep simple, life-nourishing experiences at the end of a long list of to-dos.”