Apprentices love the land and making friends at Ambler Farm

On a recent hot day at Ambler Farm, students walked around cleaning out the chicken coop, whacking weeds, and driving the tractor.

The thermometer read in the mid-90s. The students, ranging from fifth graders to seniors, weren’t there because they were required to. They were there because they wanted to.

Ambler Farm is in the midst of another season of its apprentice program. Headed by Kevin Meehan, students help run a large portion of the 200-year-old farm.

Mr. Meehan is the program manager and develops the educational program at Ambler Farm. He lives on the property, and is a science resource teacher at Cider Mill School, where he has been for 15 years.

Mr. Meehan, however, believes it is more than just menial farm tasks being learned.

“It is really a mentoring program,” he said. “We are responsible for a lot of things at the farm in the educational gardens.”

As he guides guests around the farm, taking time out from his busy schedule, he notes “Farmer Jonathan’s production garden,” the results of which go to the farm stand at Ambler or the farmers’ market.

Apprentices may come to Ambler Farm three times a week, for two hours each visit. They work for an hour and a half, with the last half-hour being social.”

“That’s as important as the work time,” he said. “It’s about connecting. The reason kids come back is because they’re connected to other kids, and they’re given real responsibilities.”

The apprentice program runs from May until October, and while students are offered three times per week to come, the commitment isn’t mandatory.

“I never take attendance,” Mr. Meehan said. “You could not be here for two months and return and we’re happy to have you back.

“Some of these kids get their sense of community here.”

Each day starts at the sheep and goat pen where participants gather until everyone has arrived. Then Mr. Meehan puts mentors — those who have more experience in the program — in charge of smaller groups.

“I sent a group to harvest strawberries, a group to harvest snow peas, and a group to harvest sugar snaps. They went and worked for 45 minutes and brought it over to the farm stand,” he said.

Mr. Meehan utilizes a hands-off philosophy, in which he puts the mentors in charge. He teaches everyone what to do at first, then gives them the responsibility of doing it themselves.

It’s not a glamorous job, but the students seem content. Given the temperatures on the hot July day, there were still a few apprentices staying around. They stayed busy by cleaning the chicken coop, the goat and sheep house and the rabbit pen. Others tended to the 9,000 square feet of gardens or mowed the lawn.

“We mow what the town doesn’t,” Mr. Meehan said.

Baby chicks peeped as the tour of the apprentice area continued.

“We’ll soon have new baby chicks here,” Mr. Meehan added.

It’s an all-encompassing process, including the food the apprentices help produce.

“At one point today, when they were done harvesting, I said to them ‘all right, we have to go into the berry patch and I want you to eat the raspberries,’” he said.

“I want them to make connections to all of the food that’s here.”

Their apprentice gardens are a shared harvest. The apprentices may take food home, given that it will be used. Otherwise, they are welcome to pick it and eat while they work. Mr. Meehan doesn’t want any of it to go to waste.

Looking around, there are cucumbers, marigolds, tomatoes, pumpkins, and lots more. Plus the garden has increased in size, with a new accessible area that is available to students with special needs.

“You can teach kids how to eat differently in a classroom,” he said. “But if you teach it here, and you’re tasting and growing? That is where it really makes a difference. Not what you read about in a book. It’s pick it, taste it. Let’s try this lettuce. Do you notice the difference?”

The apprentices are part of other events, such as farm day and fright night, which they set up and help to oversee. They may also become counselors in the summer program.

“It’s also about getting connected,” Mr. Meehan said.

He stressed that while this program is for making friendships and connecting to the life of running a farm, he’s not trying to create farmers.

“We’re not upstate Connecticut,” he said. “We have a lot of finance majors down here. We’re trying to get kids connected with the land and each other. It’s really an apprentice program for life — how we work together and take pride in what we do.

“These kids make this farm a better place.”

As he spoke, two of the apprentices who had stayed beyond the two hours walked over looking for guidance.

“I’d always liked farming,” said Sarah Peroee. “I just like animals. In seventh grade, I was looking for a farming program, and this one was perfect.” Sarah just graduated from Wilton High School and will be heading off to the University of Vermont where she will study animal science.

“I’ve always loved to be outdoors,” said Corey Sabia, who will be entering ninth grade. “When I had Mr. Meehan for a teacher, I would overhear him talking about the farm. I got interested in it.” He joined the program toward the end of fifth grade.

“In the beginning, it was about farming,” Sarah added. “It still is, but I have a lot of friends, so it’s more than that.”

“It’s become a big community as you get more involved,” Corey said.

Corey and Sarah also participate in the maple syrup process, which takes approximately five weeks to harvest.

“You have to show that you’re productive and incredibly responsible to stay late and do that,” Mr. Meehan said.

Despite all of the work, there’s also fun to be had, as watermelon gets cut up, or pizza is brought in during the maple syrup season.

“It’s me and kids that take care of almost 20 acres,” Mr. Meehan said. “The town does the major mowing, but we get to do everything else.

“Because I’m with the fifth graders (at Cider Mill), it’s a great feeder system to know what I do. I find out who’s interested from that. Unfortunately we have to close the program each year, because we can only take so many kids. Sixty is the most we’ve ever done.”

The program will hold open houses in early 2014 to let people know about apprentice opportunities. A few spaces will be open, although they are limited.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever fill more than 60,” he said. “We’ve never run out of things for them to do yet.”

He paused then said. “Maybe more. Who knows?”

“We’re on the ground floor of something. They become ambassadors for the farm.”