Struggling students take to the farm fields in Leicester

LEICESTER — The cucumber came soaring through the air in one smooth, effortless arc, landed solidly in 16-year-old Ernest Cormia’s hands, and then joined a growing pile of ripe vegetables in a five-gallon bucket at the end of the lush garden row.
“Toss me another,” Cormia called, and Bill Moore, a teacher at the Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program, hurled another across the garden.
These cucumbers, as well as fresh eggs and other organic produce, will head to more than 75 senior citizens at Brandon’s Conant Square Inn and Neshobe House, and Pittsford’s Village Manor.
Providing fresh vegetables for these senior citizens, and tending the Foxcroft Farm in Leicester, has kept 10 teenage boys busy this summer. There are chickens to feed and cows to tend, horses to groom and gardens to weed.
Now in its 10th year, the Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program serves more than just the senior citizens and other local residents who purchase these vegetables at the Brandon Farmers’ Market. For students struggling in traditional classroom settings, the program also provides an alternative approach to education that stresses outdoor activity, hands-on learning and practical knowledge.
“We’re not trying to raise farmers,” said Anne Young, the founder and director of the program. “We’re trying to help kids get through school.”
For some of these students, that means leaving behind the conventional classrooms where they may have struggled.
In the program’s kitchen, 15-year-old David Flanders of Pittsford stirred chocolate chips into a thick batter. He was making chocolate chip muffins, the students’ mid-morning snack.
He, like most of the students at the Foxcroft program, said that sitting inside a classroom all day just wasn’t for him.
“I was having a really hard time at Otter Valley,” Flanders said. “I hate being inside.”
That’s something you’ll hear from most of the students at Foxcroft. Sitting still and spending all day at a desk, just isn’t a good fit.
That most of the program’s participants are boys might tie into this.
“Boys tend to misbehave more,” joked Cormia, a Leicester resident. He’s working at Foxcroft for the summer, and goes to a tutor during the school year for his class work.
Young laughed at this, but shook her head.
“No, that’s not it,” she said. “They’re just maybe more active.”
At Foxcroft, there’s plenty of room for moving around — 60 acres, in fact.
“The environment gives them a lot of space,” Young said. “It gives them a routine.”
Earlier in the morning, while Flanders worked in the kitchen, Cormia and 15-year-old Matt Jensen of Brandon tidied up the workshop, where some of the Foxcroft boys built and stained Adirondack chairs this summer. The furniture will be raffled off in a few months to help fund the program.
But soon everyone was outdoors. Jensen joined Moore in the garden, cutting cucumbers from the vine.
Others helped Young with the farm horses, two enormous Belgians named Molly and George. Hitched up to a wagon, the horses tossed their heads good-naturedly, nosing the boys who stepped forward to pat them. A stout, enthusiastic yellow Labrador named Sam, muddy from dashing along in the woods beside the horses, wandered about the wagon.
A few of the students scrambled up onto the wagon with Young, and took turns driving the team, while Young offered a few quiet words of advice here and there.
The outing took the group along rutted trails that run through the farm, which Young and her husband, Ken, bought in 1985. They milked cows for several years, but then the idea for the harvest program took root. The two were raising children of their own, Young said, and became involved in the foster care system.
“Just seeing the need for something different for kids (inspired the start of the program),” Young said. “It puts my two passions together: kids and farming.”
Young worked on the program for several years before the school district came on board, starting a nonprofit to make her idea for Foxcroft a reality.
Now, 10 years later, the program has space for 12 students, and is affiliated with the United Way Agency. During the six-week summer program, students earn money from the Department of Labor for work that counts as a summer job while they also earn school credit. That six-week stint culminates this week in a booth, manned by students, at Addison County Fair and Field Days.
Most of the funding for the program comes from the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, and the rest is patched together through raffles, vegetable sales at the farmers’ market and odd jobs. The farm raises calves for a neighboring dairy farmer, another source of revenue.
During the school year, the farm harvest program kicks in mid-morning. Students in grades 7 through 12 are eligible to participate. They leave their school around 11 a.m. and head to the farm for six hours, where work varies with the season.
In the fall, they wrap up the harvest and tend a corn maze visited each year by hundreds of local school children. Visiting younger students return in the early spring, when the Foxcroft program collects sap from their maple trees and boils it down to make maple sugar.
The students complete classwork as well, and they’re graded year-round, but it’s a different type of work than they’d encounter in the halls of a traditional school, Young and Moore said. They might help keep the books for the farm, or learn about science through the lens of tending the farm animals. They keep journals of their time at the farm to polish their writing skills.
Most students, Young said, stick with the program for about two years. After that, the hope is they can graduate or transition back to high school. Some head to other alternative education programs.
Wayne Kane, 14, is just an eighth-grader, but already the Forestdale student talking about sticking with the Foxcroft program for as long as he can.
“You get to move around,” Kane said. “You get to do things you’ve never done before. I like working in the garden, and being around the animals. It’s a good place to be, because you’re always motivated and active. We’re always helping and contributing (to the farm).”
In the Foxcroft barn, a few skittish new calves from down the road awkwardly ambled into a nearby field. Kane reached over into the pigsty to pat some of the younger pigs, who reached their snouts up toward his hand.
“They learn just by doing the things that they’re doing,” Young said. “I would say it’s applied academics, if you want to call it academics. Everything they learn here you can learn throughout life. How to stick with something you start. How to do something whether or you want to do something or not. How to work with others you may not want to work with, and get through it. Every day is a new day.”

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