farm camp
Farm Campers get to see bees up close when Jan Zientek visits. Zientek is department head and program coordinator, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County. COURTESY MONTCLAIR HISTORY CENTER

by Elizabeth Oguss
oguss@montclairlocal.news

Julie Piccoli’s children don’t aspire to be farmers — “they’re regular kids” — and didn’t want to go to Farm Camp the first time she suggested it. But they loved it and can’t wait to go for the third time this summer. At 11, Piccoli’s eldest is already looking forward to becoming a counselor in training in 2018.

Piccoli, a mother of four and former preschool teacher, describes herself as “super picky” about camps and classes. So she vetted Farm Camp before sending her three older children. (The youngest is still too young for camp.)

“Farm camp has been such a perfect, developmentally appropriate, fun and easy summer experience for each one of my kids,” Piccoli said.

2017 is Farm Camp’s fourth year. It’s held at the Montclair History Center, behind the historic Clark House at 108 Orange Road, where there’s a 6,000-square-foot plot that’s one of two sites of Montclair Community Farms. The History Center and MCF are two of the camp sponsors, along with Rutgers Cooperative Extension 4-H.

For its first year, the camp was run by MCF and 4-H; the Montclair History Center, formerly known as the Montclair Historical Society, ran its own history-focused camp.

Now the combined camp program encompasses “food, agriculture, history, culture, past roots, and ancestors,” according to Angelica Diggs, manager of audience engagement at MHC.

Half-day sessions are divided into three age groups that have the same theme but activities appropriate for the age. All camp weeks conclude with a Friday field trip. This year, Farm Camp will launch its first full-day session, for ages 7 to 11.

Diggs says the camp philosophy is to spend as much time in the fresh air as possible and that’s what Piccoli and her children love about Farm Camp.

“A lot of camps try to shelter kids from the elements, but the more they’re outside, exposed to nature … the better,” Piccoli said.

At Farm Camp, the time is unstructured, but far from empty. Camp counselors staff all parts of the camp site so that children are never unsupervised. They can choose from activities including soap-making, chicken-tending — chickens are extremely popular — tree-climbing, sachet-making using herbs from the garden, fabric-dyeing using turmeric and beets, finding the hidden walkway in the garden, and vegetable picking and other farm chores. “They get their hands dirty,” Diggs said.

They also get to enjoy the fruits of their labors and cook with the vegetables they harvest. Last year they took part in a salsa-making competition.

The camp hosts visitors both human and otherwise. Children get to meet a beekeeper and an herbalist, as well as farm and service animals. The one indoor activity is a visit to the Montclair History Center’s museum and hearth kitchen in the 1796 Israel Crane House.

One of the things Piccoli loves about Farm Camp is the “lovely flow” to the day. “Everyone who works there… they’re all just happy.”

“It’s so close, you wouldn’t expect to have that experience here,” Piccoli said. “It’s just a lovely experience.

Farm Camp

A joint venture of Montclair Community Farms, Montclair History Center, and Rutgers Cooperative Extension 4-H

Held at Montclair History Center

108 Orange Road

Four half-day sessions

Ages 4-6: Down on the Farm: Experience Farm Life in Suburban New Jersey, June 26-30

Ages 6-9:  Homegrown Living: Connecting to Each Other, the Community, and the Farm, July 17-21

Ages 9-11: Back to the Future: Learning From the Past to Make a Better Future, July 31-Aug. 4

All camp weeks conclude with field trip and later pickup time.

Full-day session for ages 7-12: Farm to Table: Learn to Plant, Harvest, Share and Enjoy Local Grown Food, Aug. 28-Sept. 1

Note: The session for ages 6 to 9 is full but if waiting list is long enough, a second session will be added.

Information on camp fees and early drop-off: Rutgers Cooperative Extension 4-H at 973-353-1337 or essex4h@njaes.rutgers.edu. Register at essex.njaes.rutgers.edu/4h/