Cleaning cow pens and loving it: A Maine camp shows kids farm life

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In Albion, Maine - a town of rolling hills and red barns, where cows outnumber people - a week-long farm camp is in session. It lets city and suburban kids grind wheat and feed chickens, connecting children with animals, earth, and the farming cycle.

Established three years ago by Linda Hartkopf at her organic dairy farm, the camp is an educational experience that doesn't spare the shovel or the fun. For any child who has whined, "I want to live on a farm," to his or her parents, it's the ultimate summer experience.

Ms. Hartkopf's campers explore a working farm, pick up pointers about soils and growing vegetables, learn animal care, make cheese, dye wool, and cook with fresh food from the farm's gardens.

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"I love being able to expose these kids to this lifestyle," Hartkopf says. "Just being here - playing on hay bales, experiencing the animals - that alone is invaluable."

While watching her campers feed calves, Hartkopf pointed out the future implications of teaching children the realities of farming life.

"These are the future policymakers," she says. "It is vital that they understand the energy it takes to get food from its raw state to a finished product." Beginning each day with shovels and feed buckets, the children quickly grasp that raw state of farming.

"I love it," says Bo Willoughby of Winslow, Maine. His mother and father grew up on a farm. "We moved from the farm when I was 2, and my parents wanted me to know about farm life," he says. "I like everything here, especially the cows and chickens."

Chores are the first activity of the day at Hart-to-Hart Farm. The chickens, goats, calves, and sheep all need to be fed and watered, and their pens must be cleaned.

Hartkopf, along with her husband, Doug, established the farm in 1997. While earning a degree in animal science from the University of Maine , Hartkopf spent a summer on an educational farm in New York, and the experience stayed with her.

"Maine's commissioner of agriculture, Robert Spear, has been advocating value-added aspects for Maine's farms," she says. "So when we switched to organic production four years ago, we also began looking at other ways to change and add value to the farm."

By running three weeklong sessions, Hartkopf can boost the family's annual income by more than $12,000. Since chores last only a half-hour, the campers don't provide free labor for the farm.

"A lot of parents assume their children know about rural life," she says. "But those are our experiences, not theirs. I've had parents tell me they are looking for that reconnection for their children. I had one parent say he grew up on a beef farm in Aroostook County and had such fond memories, he wanted his child to have some, too."

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