Heifer Farm: Reacquainting Children with Their Food

by Julie Bastuk

Much of the food system in America today falls into the hands of two major players: the food industry and industrial farming. While these depend on each other to survive, a wall exists between the two that fundamentally causes the American public to remain ignorant of their food sources and food manufacturing.


“Sunflower seeds!”

The kindergarteners’ responses caught me by surprise. I had asked the group of youngsters who were touring a small farm what catsup was made of, and was fairly confident that they would answer correctly. Nope.   The origin of a condiment that is so ubiquitous in the chicken finger and French fry diets of American children was a complete mystery to them.

Shockingly, these kids are not an anomaly. With increased urbanization and the rise of factory farming and Big-Ag, children in the United States and other industrialized nations are becoming more and more disconnected from agriculture and their food sources. In fact, the ignorance surrounding food sometimes borders on the absurd. Children ask to see the salsa trees, assume cheese comes from plants, and believe cotton is an animal product. In the mind of many, food spontaneously generates in the supermarket.

In the past several years, Australia and Great Britain have surveyed their youth to determine the extent of the agricultural ignorance problem. (Similar studies in the US are tougher to find, presumably because Americans are much more concerned with categorizing their consumption by macro and micronutrient ratios than by plant and animal species.) Researchers from both countries were shocked at the results, which showed significant food ignorance across a broad age range of children and adolescents.

Fortunately, as awareness of this issue spreads, individuals and organizations are stepping up to educate children and reacquaint them with their food sources. Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver (formerly of The Naked Chef) have worked to implement better food education into school curricula. Farmers such as Joel Salatin have lectured and written books on creating sustainable farms that communities can be proud of. Non-profits like Heifer Farm offer hands on farming and global learning experiences for children to educate and inspire this generation to a more informed and earth-friendly future.

Heifer Farm was once a livestock holding center for its parent organization, Heifer International. For decades following World War II, Heifer International sent livestock to needy areas around the world. These donations helped impoverished families and communities create sustainable sources of income. During the mid-80s, Heifer International changed its model of giving and stopped shipping American livestock, choosing instead to raise and donate animals that were indigenous to each part of the world where Heifer was working.

Heifer Farm was transformed into an “international learning center.” Education became the key focus: teaching about sustainable agriculture as opposed to huge factory farms, and giving children opportunities to experience the world through their simulated global village. Heifer staff and volunteers host children for short day visits as well as overnight or multiple day camps.

Through their interactions on the farm, children learn, often for the first time, where their food products originate. They milk goats, gather eggs, sample freshly boiled maple syrup, and practice combing wool shorn from the farm’s sheep, among many other tasks. They are also given a glimpse of small scale farming, a piece of Americana that is almost non-existent in today’s mass production industrial farming scene.

Heifer’s model has apparently been working, piquing the interest of families, church youth groups, schools, and other organizations. Last year it boasted its highest number of visitors in a year, topping out at 18,000 people. Many of Heifer’s young admirers come back as adults to do volunteer internships, often launching into careers in non-profits.

In a fast paced world that desires more…quicker…better, Heifer Farm is a refreshing hard stop to remind us where we come from and what the earth so freely offers us.

I recently toured Heifer farm with a local kindergarten class and was shocked at their struggle to name the sources of several common food products. Paul Bertler, education manager at Heifer Farm, offers a short history of the land and the educational goals to which the non-profit aspires.


Heifer Farm’s iconic red barn houses livestock and contains a milking parlor and educational rec room.

chicken copy

A red hen perches on a fence to watch over the barn’s daily activity.


A kindergartener from Nashoba Brooks School in Concord, MA looks on as a Heifer Farm volunteer gives a lesson in milking goats.


The kindergarten class becomes acquainted with the farm’s sheep and lambs.


A youngster practices combing wool shorn from Heifer’s sheep.


A Heifer volunteer talks to the students about the importance of farming and knowing where our food comes from.

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