Twice a year, in the spring and fall, I sign my cubs up for farm classes at Benner’s farm, a private fifteen-acre homestead on Long Island’s idyllic north shore. To say they love it would be an understatement, a gross misrepresentation of how much they truly adore these classes. They adore their teacher, Miss Judy and her soft-spoken way of educating them using the musical, tactile, and inclusive methods that work best at their age. They adore seeing the individual characteristics, behaviors, and diets of all the animals. Lastly, they also adore the feelings of security and familiarity a natural outdoor classroom provides, totally accepting of their need to move and touch in order to learn. From their perspective, it is actually very easy to see why they love their farm classes so much. The thing is, we love them too, but mostly for reasons that are very different from their’s, and that aren’t necessarily as easy to see.
What I love about Benner’s, what I love about all farms, is that they provide you with an opportunity to come into direct contact with the alimentary component of nature, a component that is now largely hidden from the public despite its undeniable importance. These days, the very fundamental aspects of farming as its always been known are becoming increasingly foreign, and subsequently, opportunities to witness these traditions firsthand are becoming increasingly rare. Small family farms are like relics now, just tiny pieces in the enormous puzzle of food production today. For me, they serve as undeniable reminders that- despite all of big-ag’s attempts to meddle with it, nature will always be surprisingly sound and predictable in its workings, astonishingly simple for all of its complexity. I love that Benner’s is providing my cubs with the judicious values I want them to possess about the environment, food, and animals. I love it because it gives them a positive and gentle introduction to nourishing traditions that are quickly dying. Finally, I also love that it provides my littles with hands-on opportunities to put what I’m trying to teach them into practice. Whenever they’re at the farm, they are essentially doing exactly what I’m doing when I avoid things like GMO’s, feedlots, dyes, and artificial sweeteners at the supermarket.
The Benner’s are the seventh family to farm this stretch of land along Gnarled Hollow Road in East Setauket since the 1700s. For many Long Islanders, mommy-and-me classes at Benner’s is almost a rite of passage. Many people have fond memories of the farm as kids and many preschoolers in the area are current regulars, including now, our own brood. You won’t find any tourist draws at Benner’s. There are no luxury amenities or accommodations. That’s not what they’re about. Instead, you’ll find an inviting porch with an assortment of rocking chairs and benches gathered on one end for each class’ opening song and a picnic table on the other for snack time. You’ll find lively chickens and roosters roaming the grounds next to the barn, strutting around like they own the place. You’ll also find a sprawling lawn of natural grass, sprinkled with wildflowers and black walnut husks all around. The overall look of the grounds gives the impression that it is alive with activity.
The classes during each session strive to introduce the students to the animals’ needs and characteristics, and to the processes involved in getting the entire farm ready for the coming season. During the fall, harvest is naturally a major theme of the classes, with a focus on the changes the animals go through as well as on the season’s distinctive fruits and vegetables. No matter the time of year, however, each class always begins with a song, a catchy rendition of “Down on Benner’s Farm” that the children all grow to love. Clapping along as we sing, the teacher prompts the children to choose the animal they’d like to sing about for each verse along with its color, a request the children happily oblige by shouting out animals and colors at the top of their lungs.
After the opening song, the children are treated to the instructional experience or demonstration for that week. For our first week this past fall session, the children were shown how to make applesauce. Each child was asked to pick out an apple from a basket on the porch, wash it in the basin of water on the floor next to it, and then hand it to Miss Judy for peeling. Using an old-fashioned, hand-cranked apple peeler and corer, all the children looked on in amazement, chins on the table, as the peel slowly came off in a long, narrow spiral. Mama bears were on hand to dice up the peeled apples, which the children then dropped into a big pot. Once we were done, the pot was brought inside to simmer on the stovetop for the duration of the class.
Another lesson from this season’s session was about wool. After our opening song, a small tuft of sheared wool was passed around to the children as Miss Judy explained how the wool grows on the sheep, how the natural lanolin they produce keeps moisture away from their bodies, and how the wool is sheared off to make warm clothing for the colder months. Holding the wool in their hands, the children all got to feel the waxy residue of the lanolin on their fingers. Miss Judy also showed them a pair of hand carders, brush-like paddles that are used to take clumps of the unordered wool fibers and prepare them for spinning by brushing them out and removing tangles. As the cubs looked on in fascination, Miss Judy demonstrated the carding process on the very wool they’d just been passing around. Once she’d finished, she held up a spindle, and demonstrated how it is used to wind the fiber into thread as it spins, before letting the children all have a turn with the tools.
After the lesson, the class usually moves on to visit with the animals of the farm. On applesauce-making day, the children toted along the apple peels and cores as a special treat to feed to the rabbits and chickens, but usually it is hay they are handed for giving to the animals. During the fall session, the instructor teaches the children about hay. They learn that hay is actually grass that has been cut and dried. It is kept stored in the loft of the barn for the animals to eat during the winter months when the ground is covered in snow. Placing a handful of hay into each little hand, we move out to where the sheep’s enclosure is located, laughing as the ringing of a bell brings all the sheep running in from the pasture within seconds for their, apparently yummy, snack of dried grass.
After visiting with the goats, sheep and ducks by the barn, our group usually moves on to see the chickens. Opening up the hinged doors behind the coop and revealing the nesting boxes right on the other side, Miss Judy pulls out fresh, warm eggs one-by-one for the children to hold. They each receive their little treasure carefully while listening to their teacher explain how the hens lay the eggs and sit on them to keep them warm. Somehow they all innately understand the eggs’ fragility and value, balancing the egg gently in their cupped hands. In all the classes we’ve attended, we have never seen one of the students treat the eggs with anything other than the utmost respect. As we move on, we walk past Mini the young cow. She often begins to follow our group along the fence line, waiting for Miss Judy to turn around and notice her, not unlike a curious puppy. Knowing she’s there and exactly what she wants, Judy reaches in and affectionately scratches Mini between the eyes, giving her head a loving rub. Mini leans into it and closes her eyes, enjoying every second of the attention. The children love it. They are drawn in by the sight of such a large animal actively seeking and enjoying human affection and I know they are beginning to look at this cow from a different perspective.
At least once during each session the children are guided through a craft for the season. One time, this entailed donning a smock and a large paintbrush to paint their own pumpkins. This was an activity the children particularly enjoyed, splattering their orange canvases with abandon. This past fall session, the children made magnets out of thin pieces of wood cut in the shape of a sheep. Using glue sticks, they glued on tufts of real wool fiber on one side and a magnet on the other before handing them over to us to draw on a face. This adorable little keepsake is currently still occupying prime real estate on our refrigerator doors.
During the last week of class, the children usually get to ride on “the swing.” This converted tire swing hangs down from the highest branches of a tree at the rear end of the property and swings the children in long, steady arcs as they fly through the air. It is a tradition they have come to look forward to, anxiously awaiting their turn as Miss Judy calls them up one by one. During the fall session, the class gets to enjoy a hayride around the grounds as well, winding past the pumpkin patch, spooky scarecrows, and a giant spiderweb along the way. Each class ends with a visit to the hand washing station next to the barn and then, knowing what is next, the children all make a mad dash for the porch for a very laidback snack time of juice and crackers. On applesauce making day, however, they patiently took turns at the food strainer instead. Turning the crank slowly, they each churned out warm sauce from the apples that had been simmering during class. Snack that afternoon consisted of the best tasting applesauce they’d probably ever had.
Children’s classes are hardly all that goes on at Benner’s farm. Throughout the year, the Benner’s host a variety of popular courses, workshops, concerts, and festivals. The annual strawberry and harvest fairs are particularly popular as are the adult workshops on pickling and canning, and children’s workshops on puppet making and pumpkin carving. While all of these foster a real sense of community within the surrounding area, what draws us back season after season are the children’s classes themselves. As far as Long Island farm classes go, Benner’s is hard to top. The particular attention paid to educating our children and to fostering a sense of wonder when it comes to nature is too beautiful and priceless to ever pass up.