Camp brings farming alive for youth

Published 6:20 am Saturday, June 29, 2019

There were plenty of little hands getting dirty this week at Pine Mountain Settlement School’s Farm Camp.

“This is the coolest thing ever!” said 12-year-old William Hatfield.

The youth might have been at the camp with his mother, who was leading a wool dye workshop, but he was taking an active part in all the activities. For young Hatfield, there is fun to be had in the dirt.

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“It’s the best way to spend your summer,” he said. “Being outdoors is awesome.”

And that is the message that organizers of Pine Mountain Settlement School’s Summer Farm Camp are striving to get across to local youth — that farm life is the fun life, along with other “more adult” messages such as economic sustainability, public health, cultural preservation and organic promotion.

“Pres – er- va- tion,” young Hatfield drew out each syllable of the long word as he repeated it from his mother. “What’s that?”

“It’s where you save something,” his mother, Misty, responded. “It’s things from the past that we’re trying to still hold on today.”

“Oh!” Hatfield exclaimed as he shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t care what it’s called. It’s still fun!”

And with that, the boy was off to join the other children as they gathered to learn and explore. Misty laughed as she watched her son actively engage. He is one of four children she and her husband are raising on a 100-acre farm in Knox County that was purchased through a USDA agriculture grant. While the Harlan native says her family has been farming for about 10 years, they have only started to seriously pursue agriculture as a business for the past five years. Misty said farming for her family is not only a business but a lifestyle. She and her husband chose to not only raise food, but to raise healthy, responsible and hard-working children.

“Farming is so much more than getting your hands dirty,” Misty said. “These kids might think that’s the fun part about it now, but camps like this one that Pine Mountain Settlement School are doing is teaching our children the importance of living off the land.”

Misty said once she talked to a young person about raising corn, and that the child said she thought the produce was wrapped in the husk for sale.

“The child didn’t even realize how corn was grown,” she said. “We have new generations of young people coming up who don’t know about farming or gardening anymore, and these kinds of camps are wonderful for introducing kids to the land, to help foster an appreciation for the land, and to better connect them to their roots.”

It’s in the roots where staff of Pine Mountain Settlement School hope area youth will find an interest. Pine Mountain Settlement School Interim Director Preston Jones said farming and gardening allows young people to “dig deep” within their own resolve to learn to be responsible stewards of the land and to develop a good work ethic.

“The reward we see these children receiving from learning to live off the land is an acquired peace they develop and a certain pride. It gives them something to be proud of when they see what can grow from a little hard work, dedication and care,” Jones said.

Jones said Farm Camp was a part of Pine Mountain Settlement School’s extension of its preservation farm, which began in 1913 and is one of the longest running in eastern, Kentucky. Pine Mountain Settlement School is a non-profit education center that, according to its mission statement, “looks to traditional folkways to create innovative solutions to Appalachia’s challenges, while inviting in the broader world to engage and connect to our natural and cultural heritage.”

Through the institution’s preservation farm outreach, more than a dozen free workshops are offered each year. Pine Mountain Settlement School’s preservation farm and sustainability programming help gardeners and farmers with practical knowledge on how to maintain the land. Staff also helped launch Harlan County’s first-ever farmers market, had the first honey harvest recently in over 50 years, raises egg-producing chickens in their barn, and also recently participated in Kentucky’s hemp-pilot project.

“What we’re doing is not really new,” Jones said. “It’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. But, there seems to be a renewed interest in farming and gardening, so Pine Mountain Settlement School is the perfect place where this new interest can be developed at an old institution. People are realizing that there is value and assets in gardening and farming, and Pine Mountain Settlement School makes it a crucial part of our mission to keep traditional practices alive and well.”

Some of the camp activities in which children participated this past week for free were seed planting, plant picking, making wildflower sanctuary areas to sustain insect and wildlife, learning pollination techniques, making and dyeing wool, as well as food skills such as food preservation, stringing beans, canning, making butter and ice cream. Camp participants even spent some time making their own homemade salad vinaigrette’s.

Kathryn Forester, of the Kentucky Community Farm Alliance, helped secure grant funding for the summer camp at Pine Mountain Settlement School. She said local businesses also made donations for camp needs such as gloves and seeds. She said the summer camp had provided the perfect link between healthy living and efforts in invigorating the county’s economy.

“There are so many options out there pertaining to agriculture that people — including our youth — just don’t know about,” Forester said. “Programming like this promotes healthy eating and economic opportunities, as well as promoting our unique skills here in the mountains and keeping those traditions alive. Our youth are just being introduced to farming now, but we are planting the seeds, so to speak, of our future generations becoming healthier and building a more sustainable economy. But for now, they are just excited to be outside in the sunshine with their hands in the dirt, excited and fully engaged, and having a blast.”