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Farm in Winchester revived as a hands-on classroom

By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2012
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Even when the wind kicks up and temperatures plummet, Wright-Locke Farm is resplendent with undulating fields and striking architecture. But this former family homestead, Winchester’s last sliver of tillable land, is not merely a picturesque vista. It is a living classroom that invites hands-on learning.

The fields, the barn, and even the pond are being transformed into a nonprofit institution dedicated to educating visitors about the region’s proud agricultural history. Established in the 1630s, the farm was once a private residence, owned by only three families - the Wrights, the Lockes, and the Hamiltons - until its purchase by the town of Winchester in 2007.

Today, the former market garden, one of many that dotted the local landscape at the turn of the 20th century, is the town’s sole surviving link to its rich agrarian past. According to Sally Quinn, vice president of the Wright-Locke Farm Conservancy Inc., the nonprofit corporation that operates the community-owned farm, its mission is “to draw the community in.’’

Visitors are welcome year-round, encouraged to explore its wending trails, pick raspberries, or sow and harvest certified organic produce. The farm’s list of activities, cultivated in recent years, next month will grow to include a farm education program for local schoolchildren.

The initiative, supported in part by a $10,000 grant from the John and Mary Educational Foundation, will be offered during April vacation and throughout the summer, giving elementary students a chance to have fun in the dirt while learning about farming and agriculture. The “Fun at the Farm’’ program will include a range of activities, including farm chores, garden work, and animal care. Kindergartners and first- and second-grade students will experience the rhythm of life on a farm, caring for chickens and tending a garden.

“We’re connecting the kids to the land and where their food comes from,’’ said Lily Holland, 22, of Winchester, who was hired last month to run the program. A recent graduate of Connecticut College, Holland is a certified elementary education teacher.

“We’re really focused on finding the right balance of fun and farm education,’’ she said. “We’ll be eating things that come from the garden, taking wagon rides and short hikes, and playing in the pond. We’ll also be doing a variety of farm crafts, including experimenting with vegetable dyes.’’

A portion of the conservancy’s greenhouse has been set aside for the children, Quinn said. Even on the chilliest of days, the greenhouse maintains a temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit, “so no matter what the weather, we will wrap the kids right into the farm,’’ Quinn said.

The farm itself is a remarkable classroom, home to an 1827 barn and an 1828 farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as a vast collection of historical agricultural tools and equipment, including horse-drawn farm carts, and feeders, planters, and markers that have not been made since the 1850s. More recent additions include the greenhouse and a children’s garden with raised beds to make planting easier for pint-sized farmers.

“We will be exploring both past and present,’’ said Holland. “We’ll talk about what’s happening on Wright-Locke Farm now, and explore what farming was like in 1827.’’ By the time youngsters arrive in April for the conservancy’s first farm education program, Wright-Locke Farm also will be home to a new chicken coop teeming with pullets.

Last summer, as the conservancy was developing the “Fun at the Farm’’ curriculum, a bit of kismet united Quinn with three Winchester students - Emma Wickline, 10, and siblings Kate and Will McPhee, 12 and 10, respectively - who wanted to raise a flock of baby chicks. The students suggested the conservancy keep domestic hens at the farm, giving children in the community an opportunity to care for the birds and sell their eggs at the local farmers’ market.

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, the students persuaded the conservancy board to invest in a mix of araucana, barred rock, and red star chicks. The baby birds arrived from an Iowa hatchery Feb. 6. Three local families, including the McPhees, are caring for them until early April, when the chicks will be old enough to move to the farm.

“I was interested in getting chicks for our family, but that didn’t work out,’’ said Kate, an aspiring veterinarian who now serves with Emma on the farm’s Chicken Committee. “This is the next best thing. The chicks are really cute and fun to play with. We’re having a lot of fun getting them used to people.’’

For Will, a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary, the best part of caring for the chicks is “learning new stuff about them.’’ One memorable lesson: The color of an araucana chicken’s feet - green or pale blue - indicates what color the bird’s eggs will be. These and other lessons will be shared with the student farmers, Quinn said.

“Our Farm Ed program will start slowly, but either by this summer or by next year we will add programs for all ages, preschool through adult,’’ Quinn said, noting that a honey harvesting class is planned for this fall. “We want the community to be part of everything that is going on at the farm.’’

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