Brenda Charpentier's Forest Journal: The school of goats, bees and trees brings kids closer to the farm

By BRENDA CHARPENTIER June 16. 2017 10:18PM
Fourth graders get a good look at the brook trout brought by N.H. Fish and Game biologists, who taught them about hatchery raised fish during the School to Farm Day event at The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem. (Forest Society)

Debi Cox has had the astounding experience of trying to convince a shopping-savvy fourth grader that milk does not originate at the grocery store. But when a child has never, ever seen milk come from an actual cow, the concept can be hard to grasp.

The same goes for forest products: How many elementary-school kids associate a wooden baseball bat with an ash tree, or their sock drawers with a white pine? And what tiny fraction of them get that harvesting these trees using sustainable methods from a forest can be good for the environment and jobs in New Hampshire?

As the state coordinator of Agriculture in the Classroom, a national nonprofit organization, Cox works to give kids an understanding of farms, food and fibers. One of the ways she does this is to organize annual School to Farm events around the state, when schools are invited to a working farm - UNH's Fairchild Dairy in Durham hosts the biggest event - to learn about all things agriculture.

"The vast majority of students - and even many parents and teachers - are really removed from where their food comes from, and this is an effort to reconnect them," Cox said about the events.

These are the ideas that brought 135 enthusiastic kids, mostly fourth graders, to the Forest Society's working farm recently. The Rocks Estate, just northwest of the White Mountain National Forest in Bethlehem, grows Christmas trees, maples for sugaring and many other tree species for firewood.

It was obvious from the happy faces that the kids were enjoying this outdoor classroom. No hallways of enforced silence here. They spent the day rotating around displays manned by volunteers and professionals tasked with showing kids where our food and farm products come from. The kids could milk a goat, tap a maple tree, examine wood items, see a hatchery-raised brook trout up close, and watch honeybees, among other activities.

"When kids are here and they see a tractor go by, they get really excited to be at a real working farm," said Rocks manager Nigel Manley. "This event brings a lot of different agriculture professionals and volunteers all together in one place, and when that place is a farm, the kids start to understand what agriculture is all about."

Hearing from farmers, foresters, soil scientists and other natural resource workers introduces kids to careers they may not have even known existed. This is getting more important than ever, Cox pointed out, as the need is increasing for qualified workers to produce the agricultural goods our growing global population will need.

High-tech jobs may be sexy, but you can't eat a meme or build a house out of an app.

Quizzed by a forester

Coos County Forester Brendan Prusik and Grafton County Forester Jim Frohn were very likely the first foresters the kids have ever encountered. They were making the most of the opportunity when I got to their table mid-way into their presentation.

Holding up a green maple leaf, Prusik was telling the kids that leaves are amazing machines that manufacture the oxygen we breathe. He followed up with a stumper (ready to play "Are You Smarter than a Fourth Grader?"):

"Where does the energy come from that enables leaves to make oxygen?"

"Water," said one fourth grader.

"Air," said another.

"Roots," said one more, followed by more guesses of "gas," then "oil."

"It starts with an S," Prusik hinted.

"Soap!" a boy said, excitedly.

"Soap?" asked Prusik, looking alarmed.

Finally, a tall boy named Travis saved the day when he said, "the sun."

Standing in the sun at a working farm while learning about leaves, trees and the wood products that come from the forest very likely will help the kids remember this important concept.

The Rocks-hosted Farm to School Day was sponsored by the Grafton County Conservation District, so the schools didn't have to pay the $3 per student cost. Many of the schools used parent volunteers as carpool drivers and did not have to incur busing charges, making the field trip a freebie. The low or no cost makes it more likely schools will take part, since district budgets typically only allow a couple of field trips per year.

"Our kids are really fortunate to be able to come today," said Jessica Davis, who accompanied her class from Lisbon Elementary School. "This is taking what they're learning in the classroom and making it hands-on. It's awesome."

Brenda Charpentier is communications manager for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. She can be reached at

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