Consumers have a growing interest in food production. Organizations and companies are answering the call by providing resources through programs and grant support. The Monsanto Fund, for example, has provided grants to organizations that want to grow urban gardens. However, city gardens are not the only option in offering hands-on learning with children and their food. In fact, an opportunity may be right down the road.
Dee Dee Clements Darden from Smithfield, Va., is a past America’s Farmers Mom of the Year winner from the Southeast Region who brings more value to her farm by incorporating educational tours. Along with raising beef cattle, Dee Dee and her husband, Tommy, farm 600 acres of peanuts, cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans and pumpkins. Darden also runs a family-operated country store and participates in the local farmers market. But, that is not all.
Six years ago Darden began offering farm tours during the fall.
“We attended workshops about adding value to the farm, and it gave us the idea to start a pumpkin patch,” said Darden. “For me, this was the perfect opportunity to be a good advocate for agriculture.”
This fall, Darden has more than 1,100 children scheduled to attend the farm tour. Many of the tourists come from local schools, church groups and home school groups on field trips.
“We started small by reaching out to a few schools and a few hundred students visited,” said Darden. “Word spread among teachers, so the amount of visitors and our tour itself has really grown.”
The tour begins with a hay ride, which carries tourists to a meet-and-greet with the cows. Then, visitors are able to pick a pumpkin from a four-and-a-half acre patch, hand-planted by Dee Dee and her family. Children can sit on the tractors, travel through a corn maze, visit the mini petting zoo, see how the crops grow and jump around in a trailer full of cotton. Recently, they have added “Hay Land” which consists of a tunnel maze and pretend “hay people.”
The tour does include a small fee, but along with the fun experiences, Darden provides a short, creative and educational program.
“There is such a disconnect with people and where their food and fiber comes from,” said Darden. “We take everyday items, such as peanut butter and clothes, to show where those items originate and to help people make the connection that it all starts with a farmer.”
According to Darden, visitors enjoy spending the day in the country, and children are not the only visitors that travel home with more knowledge about food production.
“Sometimes a kindergarten class will visit, and their parents will come along and then show up that weekend with their older children and their neighbors,” said Darden. “We’re educating the parents of these kids as well in some cases.”
Darden facilitates the tours with help from volunteer retirees and family members.
“We love to see the kids’ faces when they get off of the school bus,” said Darden. “I think the excitement they have is contagious. I get excited, because they get excited about being on the farm.
“It is fun to see people react and connect to the products you grow.”