The city children stepped carefully across the pasture, avoiding mounds of cow manure at Hard Bargain Farm, an environmental center on the bank of the Potomac River in southern Prince George’s County.
The 28 fifth-graders from Adelphi Elementary School, most of whom are growing up in apartments, had never seen a river so close before. Or plucked a fresh egg from a hen’s nest. Or encountered real-life sheep. For many of them, farm animals were creatures out of storybooks.
“Hey, you guys. Even if you get scared, no shrieking. Okay?” said their instructor, Maya Higgins, a naturalist with the Alice Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit that runs Hard Bargain Farm. “I know you might get scared, but just stand still and hold it in.”
The children moved forward cautiously in the open farm yard, where they were greeted by a goat named Dash.
The children stared. Dash stared back with yellow eyes containing black horizontal pupils.
“Oh, look at his eyes!” exclaimed Deisy Chocon, 10.
“In a lot of mythology, goats are often the evil ones” because their eyes remind people of snakes, Higgins said. “But as it turns out, they are playful and silly.”
As if on cue, Dash relieved himself. The kids cackled.
“Oh, he’s pooping!” Higgins said. “You guys get both ends of the show.”
She sliced an apple and showed the group how to use flat hands to feed the goat. “I promise Dash isn’t going to hurt you. He is one of the friendliest animals we have.”
Angel Avelar, 10, bundled in a red scarf against the chill of the wind, raised her hand. “You know how you can milk a cow from the udders. How can you milk a goat?”
Higgins explained that goats have smaller udders and that poor families often keep goats because a goat takes up less space than a cow.
They talked about the farm’s beef herd, which is mostly female. “We have one big steer, and we actually call him Sir Loin,” Higgins said. “Get it?”
“When you are older,” said Higgins, her red hair sweeping into her face, “you will laugh very hard about that.”
The children shrugged and trudged on for their day on a real working farm.
For nearly 60 years, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit created in 1954, has been providing outdoor classrooms for Washington area students.
Forty minutes south of Washington, just off Indian Head Highway and up a winding gravel lane lies a two-story white clapboard farmhouse that looks like it has been lost in time. Hard Bargain Farm sits on land that was purchased as a summer retreat in 1922 by Alice Ferguson, an artist, and her husband Henry Ferguson, a geologist.
After Alice Ferguson died in 1951, her husband established the Alice Ferguson Foundation with a “mission to connect people to nature, to sustainable agricultural and the cultural heritage of their local watershed,” said Lori Arguelles, the foundation’s executive director. “We have been providing environmental education before really the phrase was coined.”
In the 1960s, the lower part of the farm was deeded to the National Park Service to become part of Piscataway Park, a move that protected the ecosystem and left virtually untouched a stunning view of the river, the Capitol dome and Mount Vernon.
The farm features a children’s garden, a log cabin, an original tool shed and a lodge with metal bunks. Down the road, a $15.7 million Potomac Watershed Study Center is under construction, designed to be one of the country’s greenest buildings.
Every year, about 4,500 children visit the farm on day trips and overnight trips to learn about the Potomac River watershed, environmental conservation and the wonders of the natural world. Many are from under-served communities, including the group from Adelphi Elementary, where three-quarters of its 400 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced priced lunch.
“Hard Bargain is the best place we know of in this area to connect with nature and to truly understand what nature provides for us,” Arguelles said. “Everything we eat — and it used to be everything we wear — comes from nature. It comes from a plant or an animal.
“When students come here for a day or overnight experience, what we are offering them is a deeper connection to their place in the life cycle.”
Down the hill, the Adelphi kids hiked through the woods, observing marshland and swamp, watching birds. They passed a field of dozens of geese facing south.
The class stopped at the Potomac, where trash was stuck in the muddy bank.
“Where do you think this trash came from?” Higgins asked.
“I think the river must have taken it in,” Deisy said.
“How would that have gotten into the river in the first place . . . people?” Higgins asked. “What’s over there again?” She pointed to Washington. “Anytime something goes into a storm drain, it is let out in the river. We see more and more trash in the river every day.”
Just then, a blue heron flew over.
Higgins pointed to a white Styrofoam cup and explained that it could take hundreds of thousands of years for it to decompose. “If you drop it at your school, 2 million years from now, someone could find it,” she said. “It’s not just going to go away.”
As the group moved up the boardwalk, Cesilia Cruz, 10, looked back at the cup lying in the mud.
Later, Sharon Elias, Jose Flores and one other classmate stepped into the barn, prepared for their lesson in milking Annie the cow.
Jose, 11, admitted he was nervous: “I’ve never touched a cow or felt one.”
They waited as Eileen Watts, the farm manager, washed the cow’s udders with warm water. Watts, who has worked at the farm for 40 years, explained where the milk comes from.
“There is milk in the udder, and it drains down into these four teats,” Watts said. “Just close, open, clamp shut and squeeze. Squeeze quite hard. You are not going to hurt her.”
Annie, whose neck was contained in a metal harness, continued to munch hay, seeming oblivious to the three novices behind her.
“It’s okay,” Watts said, in a soothing voice. “She likes being touched.”
Sharon sat on a stool on the cow’s left. Jose sat on a stool on the cow’s right. They squeezed. Soon, milk was coming out in long streams into the metal pail. In minutes, the pail was half full of warm milk.
Annie’s tail swished and swiped Sharon in the face. She laughed. Jose decided milking a cow was not very scary at all.
On the bus ride back to Adelphi later that morning, he was still thinking about what he’d seen at Hard Bargain Farm.
“When I get home,” he said, “I’m telling my family about the pigs. I liked milking the cow and feeding the goat.”
He paused. “Then, I’m going to tell them about the river and how it was 400 years ago. Four hundred years ago, you could drink out of it and swim in it. Now, it’s been depleted and lots of trash is inside. I really didn’t know much about the river, and I do now. I want to do something to make it a little better.”