Farm camp introduces students to food at its source

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Deborah Dramby. This version has been corrected.

The campers dropped off at an Alexandria farm are met with a list of chores: Weed the garden beds, squash bugs, gather eggs from the chicken coop, harvest the vegetables.

Children filled baskets on a recent morning with carrots, squash, tomatoes, Tongue of Fire beans and onions. A few scoured the blackberry bush for ripe fruit. It was a challenge with the eagerly tended bush, but when 7-year-old Franz Pena spotted a bright, plump blackberry, it looked too good to surrender to the basket.

“May I eat it — please?” he asked his counselor.

The elementary-age students were working — and snacking — their way through the first week of “farm camp,” a hands-on summer program that introduces children to the place where their food originates.

Such camps are cropping up around the country, alongside school gardens and farmers markets that have gained momentum amid efforts to promote healthful eating and sustainable farming practices.


Jacob Luhman, 8, and Oren Staniorski, 7, help chop tomatoes for an omelette at farm camp. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

“You are feeding two birds with one seed” with farm-based education, said John Fisher, director of programs and partnerships at Life Lab, a California-based organization that promotes similar programs. “You are getting kids into the outdoor space — and we know that kids are not getting outdoors enough — and you are also doing a powerful form of environmental education.”

The Alexandria camp is organized by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, founded by local restaurateur Michael Babin. In addition to the summer camp, the center operates a mobile farmers market that stops in low-income neighborhoods with limited access to grocery stores and sells discounted food to people using food stamps.

The farm is on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation, once a part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The center is working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to expand the farm on the estate and promote the site’s agricultural history.

The month-long summer camp has a different focus each week, spanning the basics of growing food, the critters that form a garden ecosystem, lessons on eating seasonally, and cooking skills for “small chefs” to prepare farm-grown food for the table.

Later in the summer, campers are scheduled to learn about beehives — and taste fresh honey — during a visit with a beekeeper. They also will conduct a taste test comparing a dozen varieties of farm-grown tomatoes with others bought at a store.

Each day the campers sample some of the food grown around them.

“This is the way you get kids to eat healthy foods,” said Pamela Hess, executive director of the center. “They are generally quite willing to eat a turnip if they pull it out of the ground themselves.”


Thirty elementary students attend farm camp on the Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria on July 10. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

That transformation doesn’t always happen right away.

By midmorning last week, campers were chopping up squash and tomatoes from their early harvest and beating eggs for a snack. The smell of frying onions floated into the air as a counselor used a propane stove.

“Can we not have the squash in there?” asked 7-year-old Oren Staniorski. “I don’t like it.”

He wasn’t the only one who wanted his eggs plain, so the vegetables stayed on the side.

What Oren and a lot of the other children did like were bugs. And the farm is full of them.

During the week, the campers learned about pests such as Japanese beetles and cucumber beetles that harm crops. They were given permission to squish the pests. They also learned about “good” insects such as honeybees, ladybugs and butterflies that pollinate the plants or eat pests.

They encountered many more friendly bugs, including scores of wood-burrowing beetles that were living in old logs. Some campers adopted the insects as pets, setting them up with wood chips and moss in glass jars, and organizing races or watching them crawl up and down their arms. Others advocated for freeing the bugs. Oren found a caterpillar and named it Catty.

The campers also learned how to tend the egg-laying hens that live at the farm, and on Thursday they met some broiler chickens brought over by Deborah “Farmer Deb” Dramby from Willowsford Farm in Ashburn.

Dramby talked about different breeds of chickens, and introduced the children to 4-month-old Pop Corn, who had been pardoned on processing day because he was too small. She also brought a younger, white chicken that she invited the children to name. “Snowflake,” they said.

Campers talked about some of their favorite parts of farm camp: digging worms out of the compost, catching insects, petting chickens and making bouquets of fresh flowers.

They also said that farm camp has some discomfort.

“There was a bug on my skin and it hurt!” one camper said. Another lamented: “How do these rocks keep getting in my shoes?” A third said his parents told him farm camp would be an ad­ven­ture, but he wasn’t sure.

Tired and sweaty by 10 a.m., he concluded: “This is hard work.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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