At the Intervale Community Farm (ICF, a 550-member CSA in Burlington, VT), we work hard to grow a bounty of high-quality, certified organic produce for our CSA members. Most of the resources, personnel, and energy on our farm go towards this purpose. But at the end of the season, when we survey our members to ask them what they like most about the farm, many of them say that they are ICF members because they simply like coming to the farm each week. The on-farm experience with their families is what compels them to join ICF over the many other high-quality CSA options available in our region. In particular, children love coming to our CSA pick-ups. Therefore, we’ve had to recognize that nurturing an alluring environment for the kids is an important aspect of our business.
An Inviting Atmosphere
One challenge of inviting families to visit the farm—whether it’s for CSA pickups, pick-your-own, pizza nights, or other events—is the constant need for physical upkeep of the farm. Most members of the public aren’t compelled by typical farmyards, which, even if “tidy”, still involve sights like abandoned swaths of used row cover, piles of harvest containers, towers of greenhouse trays, unmowed field edges, and torn scraps of black plastic. Inviting the public to the farm means tidy storage and hiding some messes. It also means a regular routine of mowing, trimming, parking lot maintenance (at ICF, we stripe the parking lot to delineate parking spots), and general clean up. Depending on the size of the farm, the costs of maintaining an appealing appearance can add up quickly.
Another challenge posed by incorporating visiting families into the farm business is the liability risks associated with visitors. Even the most organized farm is still full of hazards for children—implements, tractors, old barbed wire fences, rusty tomato cages, holes dug by groundhogs that could twist an ankle…the dangers are endless once you look carefully around the farm. Making sure that your farm has liability insurance—or an additional rider or policy–for visitors is critical and requires a call to your insurance agent.
Enjoy the Ride!
Finally, it’s crucial to make sure that having kids and families on your farm is fun for YOU. It can be easy to underestimate the effort and focus it takes to manage customers on your farm, and it’s worth dedicating staffing effort to create a welcoming, warm atmosphere that focuses on the visitors.
Creating a Kid-Friendly Area
Some simple infrastructure additions dramatically enhance the experience for kids visiting the farm. Investing in a very small (but incredibly well used) sandbox and asking for any unused lawn toys from farm members has vastly improved the experience small children have at ICF pick-ups. Some kids just want to come to the farm to play, and providing them with a joyful space to do so makes the experience parents have gathering their CSA share much more enjoyable.
Bringing kids down to the farm also means charming them into tasting the treats from the field. Planting fun, easily edible things near the visitors’ area helps them take the initiative for trying the food themselves—things like cherry tomatoes, raspberries, husk cherries, beans, and peas are good examples of kid-friendly crops. At the Intervale Community Farm, we also plant a “Kids’ Garden” with all sorts of wacky and wild plants, like giant snake gourds, Mammoth sunflowers, vines running up teepee structures, fuzzy grasses, herbs, and edible flowers. This is a space where kids are free to pick whatever they want to without any adult oversight.
Allowing kids to sit on parked equipment is probably never very safe, but something that is a favorite activity for our young farm visitors. At the Intervale Community Farm, we generally have the tractors out of sight during CSA pick up times, but some farm members bring their kids down on off hours to carefully look at the tractors.
Ultimately, creating a kid- and family-friendly atmosphere at a farm isn’t hard, but requires a different type of energy than what we are accustomed to directing towards the field. It demands a level of aesthetic maintenance that many of us struggle to prioritize over the pressures of weed control and irrigation. Furthermore, and perhaps more
importantly, welcoming families to the farm requires a social personality and willingness to slow down, smile a lot, patiently answer questions, and graciously provide a vibrant and compelling farm experience for visitors.
The rewards of having families—especially kids—at the farm are huge, both economically and emotionally. Very little can pull you away from the summer rush better than sweet little hands reaching up to pluck a cherry tomato. Who knows…maybe those little hands will eventually turn into farmer hands!