How the Learning Tree Farm is getting local kids back to nature
By Emma Jarman
The speed limit is 50 miles per hour down a two-lane road. Fresh eggs sit unattended at the end of the driveway, waiting for purchase on the honor system. When the sun goes down, this place sleeps; it’s unlike the city where the lights are always on and Golden Arches shine higher than the power lines. It’s rural Ohio, decades apart but only a few miles away from the epicenter of the City of Dayton.
Twenty minutes from anywhere, they say.
There are hundreds of farmhouses in these rural areas with cows, sheep, horses, gardens and whatever else you can think of that complements farm life. Twenty minutes away, there are also thousands of inner city children that think 40 trees in a green space is a forest. They have no concept of how big an acre is. There are thousands more inner-city children who think milk comes from the grocery store, period, and that pigs and pork chops are two different things.
The Learning Tree Farm is working to change that.
Opened in 1973 by inner-city schoolteachers Jean Ryan, Sally Keyes and two others who are no longer with the farm, the Learning Tree Farm sits on a sprawling 60 acres of land about 15 minutes north of Dayton. In short, the farm provides hands-on learning opportunities to school groups, church youth groups, YMCA field trippers and any other group or individual that is interested in learning about how a traditional farm operated in the 1800s. The farm was opened to get kids back in touch with the outdoors.
“Our mission is to touch people,” said Executive Director Dona Vella, who recently joined the farm from the Dayton Art Institute where she was the Deputy Director for Development and External Affairs. And it hasn’t been easy since the start. When the farm was first opened, Ryan and Keyes actually lived in a dilapidated century home that sat on the property. The barns were falling apart, in desperate need of reconstruction and the home was crumbling around them. Heat and food were created with wood fires and the dim flicker of kerosene lamps provided light. They lived in the same way they hoped to teach children about: like nothing kids these days have ever experienced.
Since then, the house has been restored and acts as office space and home to a small museum. The barns have been re-erected and serve as sturdy stalls to pigs, goats, horses, donkeys, chickens and an array of barn cats now accustomed to being chased around and tugged at by toddlers. Paths have been carved through the wooded areas lining the property and the vegetable garden is in full-production mode, supplying its goods to both a local restaurant and the local grocery nearby.
I envy their bounty of zucchini.
“You could have slugs,” said Ryan when I asked her expert opinion on why my squash flowers kept falling off at home. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but we continued on.
Sitting at a picnic table on the property, talking to Vella and Ryan, I could see the impact happening. Kids in matching T-shirts were running obstacle loops over the fields, through the barns and past the antique tractor parked at the edge of the woods. They were sweating and smiling their way through the farm’s “Farm Fun and Fitness” program, one of its most popular. My own little tike sprinted as best as someone with foot-long legs can, down the hill towards the tractor and proceeded to climb straight into the driver’s seat. In the sweltering heat, I wondered how these kids kept their minds away from it, but it was obvious the donkeys and pigs wagging their tails, snorting and huffing at them helped.
“It’s July!” said Ryan, ignoring the heat as she strolled the grounds in loose jeans and a long shirt with the sleeves half rolled up, giving my dripping self and anxious 18-month-old a tour of the livestock.
Vella and Ryan’s passion for education and reconnecting youth with their natural roots is apparent, and also translates wonderfully into their programs and then back to the classroom.
“The farm has implications in every subject,” said Vella. Ryan nodded along in reminiscent agreement, reminding me of the time, pre-Learning Tree, when she taught kids at an inner-city Catholic school that cancelled its physical education. The inspiration behind opening the farm, she said, was the one time every month when she would be able to get her classes outside and do something to fulfill their nonexistent physical education requirement.
“Teaching those kids … that inspired us to start this place,” said Ryan. “Taking kids on field trips showed them they could succeed outdoors. That confidence carried into the classroom.”
Confidence, she continued, is not something many kids have much of when they first arrive at the Learning Tree. There is a certain fear factor that comes with exposing kids who don’t have a backyard to 60 acres of 1800s-style farmland.
“Most of the kids, it’s their first time seeing farm animals up close,” said Ryan. “Kids are afraid of this much space… [But] how are kids going to be responsible to take care of [the earth] if they don’t know it?”
Just as their parents are afraid to let their kids go outside at all sometimes, there is a certain sense of safety that is found inside four walls that students, teachers and parents must be willing to let go of when they step off the bus at the Learning Tree Farm. With an average age of children between preschool and third grade, the suspension of disbelief is sometimes not as willing as it could be, but the farm’s feedback has always been enormously positive, with many returning customers and a call-ahead window of at least a couple of months to get the desired programs. The interest in the programs is important, because the impacts are inevitable.
“Nature’s in our DNA,” said Ryan. “This is who we are, how we start. And you have to take your shoes off and put your foot in the ground.” Ryan, Vella and a full staff of employees and volunteers work every day to give kids these experiences.
“Once they’re here, they don’t forget it,” continued Ryan. And how could they with such inimitable opportunities and venues through which to learn about science, history and culture?
The farm has many popular programs, but their most, by far, is the Hands on the Farm program. Part of the Science Impact series, Hands on the Farm gives teachers the opportunity to use the Learning Tree Farm as a classroom, to teach their students lessons in a different environment and allow them to build their confidence outdoors and in the classroom setting simultaneously. Hands on the Farm is a self-exploring visit that allows children to enjoy all the features of the farm including visits to both the historic Bank Barn and the Tobacco Barn, observing the changes in the vegetable, herb and flower gardens and visiting the Pioneer Life Museum in the Century House.
Other admired programs include Hands on the Past, part of the Cultural Impact series where attendees work and play as children did 100 years ago, and the Finding Freedom on the Farm: The Underground Railroad program, which takes kids through an interactive presentation of the underground railroad and through the century home, which is believed to be a station on the historic track. For anyone curious about scheduling a program, make sure to call well ahead of time, as resources are limited as are the hours in the day.
Families and those interested in attending without school groups are always welcome to visit the farm at anytime. The hours are sun-up to sundown and entrance is $3 per person on the honor system (just like the eggs down the street).
Programming at the Learning Tree Farm is scheduled rather uniquely. Rather than setting times for each program and telling groups to come then or miss it, groups are given the opportunity to schedule their own times. Make an appointment to do the Native Americans and Pioneers on the Farm: Living the History program and they’ll ask you when you want to come, make sure they have the space in their schedule and then get the staff they need to accommodate you. Much like an educational concierge service, they work with you and for you.
Another opportunity the Learning Tree Farm provides is the annual Autumn Fest. The one-day-only festival is September 24 this year. “It’ll be a farm experience in a festival way,” said Vella. “[We’re excited to] teach our vision with programs they’ll be able to participate in.” Autumn Fest is free and open to the public, with no preregistration necessary. Just show up.
The festival will open up with a family run through a property-wide obstacle course. Not your typical 5K and much like the Fun Farm and Fitness route, the course will go over hay bales and through the barns, past the gardens and along the tree lines. Don’t feel obligated, though, to conquer every obstacle or run the entire distance. Take the run (or walk) as you can. Following the early morning exertion will be a whole wheat pancake breakfast, continuing the Farm Fun and Fitness theme. Then, throughout the day will come a full schedule of the farm’s typical programming, including some that aren’t on the everyday menu. Make sure to do as the Yankees did and join in with Hands on the Past, and Hands on the Farm. Other special events at this year’s Autumn Fest include blacksmith demonstrations, pony rides, barn tours, birds of prey exhibits from the Hueston Woods Nature Center and live music and storytelling. There’s something for everyone and it is the farm’s only opportunity through the year to drum up business and interest in their mission.
The Learning Tree Farm has been around for much longer than most of their patrons have been alive, and hopes to continue with the goal of educating children for decades to come. Already they see generations pass through, as children become adults with children of their own, wanting to teach them how to be active and productive members of nature. The future of the Learning Tree Farm sees changes, with hopes of instituting summer camps and an (air-conditioned) education center. But most of all, the legacy shall continue.
Vella’s mission to touch people and inspire and instill confidence in young people, not letting them become victims of urbanization, is timeless and unforgettable. The seeds that were planted more than 30 years ago continue to grow.
To reach the Learning Tree Farm to schedule a visit, donate or volunteer on the premises, call Dona Vella at (937) 866-8650. More information on programming and the farm is also available online at www.learningtreefarm.org. Like the Learning Tree Farm on Facebook.
Reach DCP freelance writer and editorial intern Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com.