Farm-related summer camp now growing into fruition

Managing Editor

URBANA, Md. (May 30, 2017) — As the school year winds down in Maryland, attention turns to summer camp for a lot of parents.
While sports and other specialized camps still top the list, a Frederick County camp complex is seeing growth around a camp focused on farming and food production.
Operating summer camps at Bar-T Ranch in Laytonsville, Md., since 1985, Joe Richardson bought the 115-acre Bar-T Mountainside property in Frederick County in 2003 with plans for another summer camp complex.
He said from the start he wanted to incorporate agriculture but just getting going with traditional summer camps quickly took priority.
“It took us four years to open our summer camp,” he said. “This was really run down and neglected.”
Invasive weeds had run rampant of the farmland which had been fallow for decades.
The harvest camp took shape in 2013 as part of Mountainside Grows, an effort to grow produce commercially for local farmers’ markets to help offset the investment of establishing the farm of about an acre of vegetables and a 40 foot by 90 foot high tunnel. He said he also had to convince his son and CEO, Joe Jr., that a farming-focused camp would take off.
“I had to sell him on it. He said, ‘you think they’ll want to do that?’” Richardson said. “I said, ‘I think they’re hungering for it.’”
In its first year, harvest camp was offered for three weeks of the summer.
Richardson said it didn’t take long for interest in the camp just to build by talking about what was happening week to week
This year, it’s been expanded to seven weeks with about 30 to 40 kids expected each week, Richardson said, adding he anticipates it to continue to grow.
“I have kids who bail on summer camp to do harvest camp,’ Richardson said.
The camp’s growth soon shifted the focus of the farm from the commercial farmers’ markets to just serving the kids at Mountainside, making their experience the primary cash crop.
“We have the kids to reach,” said Nick Miller, Bar-T’s farmer and harvest camp leader. “Production is all about that.”
The farm camp includes some of the traditional summer camp activities like swimming and games but mainly devotes time in the morning and afternoon to working and learning in the high tunnel vegetable field and then using what is grown in snacks the kids make.
“The kids like it because it’s unusual to them,” Miller said. “There’s this romance to gardening too that I think the kids pick up on.”
Activities include all the things needed to make the farm operation and the plants grow along with a taste of the finished products.
Cooking and food preparation is a key part of the camp’s success, Miller said, as the culmination of the campers’ work in the field.
“It’s one thing to pick it but we’ve also got to have a solution for something for them to eat,” he said. “That’s what kind of made it click.”
Some of the favorite snacks in the camp groups are kale chips, pesto, salad, salsa and pickles, he said.
Richardson said parents focusing more on specialized camps has helped the harvest camp’s popularity.
“Summer camps used to be about making memories and making friends,” Richardson said. “Parents now are demanding their kids learn some new skill.”
So Bar-T offers camps for sports, cheerleading, fishing, photography and other areas to meet the demand.
For discerning parents encouraging healthy eating and wanting to know where food comes from, a camp centered around growing food becomes quickly appealing, he added.
“If offers a great opportunity to the kids who don’t necessarily fit into the basketball camp or the baseball camp or the fishing camp or things like that,” Miller added.
Lessons in growing and preparing food goes beyond harvest camp as well, Miller said.
Mountainside brings in more than 300 campers a day during summer and through the week, each one gets at least one experience related to the farm. Those experiences range from making salsa with ingredients grown on the farm to competing in a watermelon seed spitting contest. Farm lessons are also integrated into the outdoor education camps, Miller said.
There’s also the chatter among campers that spreads the word of what up in harvest camp, Richardson said. Last year, 15 campers opted to switch to harvest camp mid-week because it looked like more fun.
A major part of Bar-T is before- and after-school child care and within that program is Harvest Club, where Miller visits about 36 schools during the winter and early fall, mainly in Montgomery County, bringing lessons and activities in food preparation and vegetable education. That component reaches thousands of kids each year, he said.
With no shortage of enthusiasm for experiential learning, Richardson said there are lots of ways to expand the agricultural offerings.
Mushroom growing was a casualty of stopping farmers’ market sales but something he wants to bring back. Raising chickens has been another piece that’s been discussed as the best option for incorporating animal agriculture.
Composting is another part of the farming process he expects to integrate soon. With a new special events building, Richardson is hoping to bring in more groups of adults and eventually getting them involved in farm-related activities is part of his plan.
Groups that come to Mountainside now are offered the farm as part of their visit but Richardson said it can go deeper than that.
“I really want it to become multi-generational. I want to have seminars on greenhouse growing,” Richardson said. “I have this vision of octogenarians helping Nick plant seeds on a winter day to go into the greenhouse. I want to tap in on this knowledge base that seniors have. I’d like to have seniors out here on camp days. I’m not there yet but that’s one of the ideas.”