Merrimack farm camp teaches children responsibility

MERRIMACK – Bri Lafoe grew up on a farm, and still lives on a Mont Vernon farm today, raising and rescuing animals and growing fresh produce.

But working for the Greater Nashua YMCA, she knows this lifestyle is becoming increasingly less common in the Granite State.

“It’s an experience that many kids will never get,” she said.

So this summer, Lafoe decided to bring the farm to her campers at Merrimack’s Camp Sargent, a program of the local YMCA, hosting a barn of goats, sheep, chickens, and ducks at the day camp.

In its first few weeks, the new Farm Camp has taken off, gaining popularity among those signed up to work at the farm and those who only visit it.

Now, Lafoe, an assistant director at the camp, is hoping to expand the program, turning it into a 4H Club to let interested children show the farm animals at state fairs this fall, and bringing in new animals next summer.

On Tuesday, the campers’ enthusiasm for Farm Camp was clear. They could barely contain their excitement to work with the animals and meet the farm’s newest addition– a small, white goat named Monster.

“He’s so cute,” one girl exclaimed.

“Can we feed them and clean the barn?” another camper asked.

The campers got right to work, cleaning the animals’ food and water bowls, feeding them out of their hands, catching chickens and placing them in the coop and sweeping up hay in the barn.

For Lafoe and Farm Camp workers Merrill Koontz and Chelsea Roberge, the
enthusiasm is encouraging.

All three grew up around farms. And while New Hampshire still has plenty of small farms, more and more people are becoming disconnected with them.

“There’s a huge disconnect these days between people and where their food comes from,” Lafoe said. “We’re showing these kids that anyone can do some farming.”

Lafoe, who judges 4H animal shows at local state fairs, said she’s seen participation in the children’s competitions drop from dozens of contestants when she was in the program as a child, to less than 10 at many fairs today.

And for the youth at Camp Sargent, many of whom come from Merrimack and Nashua and live in small homes or apartments, living on a farm, or considering farming as a career, is something completely foreign.

“A lot of kids, they don’t realize that there are women farmers, that anyone can be a farmer,” Koontz said.

In addition to taking care of the farm animals, the campers will tend a vegetable garden – built with the help of the local Home Depot – growing everything from radishes, green beans and cabbage to tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Once the vegetables are ready for picking, the camp will set up a farm stand, selling the goods to the community to raise money for the YMCA’s Strong Kids campaign, which helps send low-income youth to camps and other Y programs.

Later this summer, the camp will bring in guest teachers, who will teach the kids about sheep shearing, large animal veterinary work and sustainability. A group of older students will take field trips to the University of New Hampshire to learn about the kinds of careers they could enter in farming.

And the students involved in the current camp session also are helping to spread the word about farming, collecting food scraps from other campers at lunch for the camp’s compost bin and talking to their families about getting chickens or planting vegetables in pots, even on apartment balconies.

“We’re really trying to make farming realistic for them,” Lafoe said.

And while Lafoe said she’s already heard from parents who want to learn more about raising chickens, for now, the students are happy to be working with the animals at the camp.

Warren Chen, 8, lives in Nashua with his family. He said he’s visited a farm before and has always wanted to have pets, but his family has no backyard and no place for animals.

Attending Farm Camp, he said, has given him a way to spend time with the animals he loves.

“It’s really interesting,” he said Tuesday, while chasing chickens through the farm yard. “I really like to be with the animals, so it’s fun.”

Chen’s fellow campers agreed, with many saying they’re interested in learning more about what it takes to run a farm.

Timothy Paquin, 8, of Merrimack, said he’d visited a farm and seen animals before, but that he’s never been able to help take care of them.

“I get to pet and feed the goats all the time, which I really like,” he said Tuesday.

Lafoe said she’s been overwhelmed by the camp’s popularity, and said she hopes to grow the program in coming years, bringing in a miniature horse or other animals.

While the campers just view the farm work as fun, she said, they’re learning important lessons that will carry into other areas throughout their lives.

“If they finish the chores, they’re always asking what else they can do,” she said. “It’s a whole new way of learning responsibility. These animals are depending on them for survival.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).