Kids in the Plymouth River School’s Voyager program enjoy the thrill of pulling a carrot from their school garden with Holly Hill Farm educator Janice McPhillips.

belber and benji“Honey, you really gotta move.”

I said it as steadily as possible, not wanting to frighten the 10 year old girl in front of me, standing obliviously just inside (and hence blocking) the gate that I was becoming increasingly desperate to close. Embarrassingly, it had been I who had let a group of children into the pen to pet the Holly Hill Farm donkey, Benji, and now Benji had seen an opportunity. Are donkeys highly intelligent? I don’t know, but this one saw a shot at freedom and was going for it. Quickly.

The student did not get out of the way in time and the gate remained open. Out came Benji, bounding into a crowd of squealing, delighted ten to twelve year old children from a summer camp in Boston who had been entrusted to the care of me and my fellow church parishioners for the day and who had quite possibly never seen a donkey (and almost certainly not a “rescue donkey” like Benji).

Enter Jon Belber, Education Director at Holly Hill Farm, no doubt realized the potential for this scenario to go south quickly (many kids were clamoring to pet the donkey and approaching from perfect rear leg kicking angles, for example). Jon calmly and coolly lured Benji to his waiting rope and then dragged him back up to his pen. Crisis averted.

Jon didn’t even break a sweat (nor did he reprimand me for opening the gate in the first place).

harvesting a carrotJust another day at the farm, apparently. Knowing Jon a bit better now, I’ve realized that his attitude about the donkey’s failed escape plan mirrors his attitude about everything at the farm: well, wonderful, here is an opportunity for kids to learn something new!

Many of us on the South Shore have heard of Holly Hill Farm, the only certified organic farm in these parts, and hopefully visited the farm stand or purchased the farm’s delicious produce at the Cohasset and Scituate Farmers Markets. But perhaps fewer people know that the farm is providing opportunities for kids and youth to get kicked by farm animals nearly every day via a massive educational programming effort that extends far beyond the South Shore. The farm is run by the Friends of Holly Hill Farm, a nonprofit created in 2002 to further late owner Frank White’s education vision. The farm had been in the White family for five generations; the family put 120 acres in a conservation trust in 1980. So when I refer to the “farm,” I’m referring to the efforts of the “Friends.”

I sat down with Jon and Janice McPhillips, Farm Educator, Outreach Coordinator, Grant Writer and Compost Coordinator to talk to them about these efforts. Our interview is paraphrased below.

bsafe kids holly hill farmWhat kinds of educational offerings does the farm currently have in place?

The farm offers a summer camp for kids ages 3-18, school year programs for kids K-12 that include field trips, on-site school garden programs, after school programs, and workshops. They have partnered with numerous local public schools as well as Codman Academy Charter School, the Blackstone School, and Rafael Hernandez School in Boston.

Since 2012, they also have run a “Farm to Food Pantry” program open to kids ages 12-18 that involves maintaining a garden and delivering its yield to food pantries. Another of their activities is managing a giant compost pile. The farm composts 1000-1500 pounds of waste weekly, including farm animal manure and refuse but also food pantry excess and approximately 150 pounds of used coffee grounds from Hingham’s “Coffee Corner.” They recently received a state grant that will allow them to enhance these efforts further. In addition, they offer many workshops on regenerative farming.

Knowing that many CK readers have smaller kids, I asked about opportunities on the farm for very young, pre-school age kids to come learn and Jon unhesitatingly responded yes, they could arrange something for a group of younger kids too – just reach out! Ditto teenagers. More than anything, what jumped out at me are Jon and Janice’s eagerness to reach and teach as many people as possible in the most effective ways possible.

What do kids love most of all the things grown on the farm?

Carrots are a big favorite. However, Janice once saw a young girl tucking some kale in her pocket and was informed she was “saving it forbelber teaching her mother.”

What’s up next?

They would love to get hoop houses set up so they could grow more in the winter, as well as a “green building” to allow them to teach on-site all year round. They’d also love more cooking space. Right now, groups can cook in their ServSafe-certified kitchen but they cannot accommodate large groups.

They are constantly learning and evolving to figure out how they can move the needle and reach more people about responsible food production and its link to climate and better stewardship of the earth. They want to teach kids things that will stay with them — and that they will hopefully bring home to mom and dad. But at the same time they are very conscientious about the need to balance their presentations against the risk of causing anxiety for kids about current environmental realities.

What’s the best question a kid ever asked you?

“Why does it grow?” Janice had this one. Her sage response: “every living thing wants to grow.”

Interested in learning more? Visit the Friends of Holly Hill Farm’s website. Have a question or idea for a new program you’d like to see or something you want to learn about? Contact Jon Belber.