Learning Farm inspires love of food, nature

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Across the road from Robert H. Treman State Park, tucked into a curve on Enfield Falls Road, is The Learning Farm – an unassuming family homestead and small diversified farm with a particularly special mission: to connect children and families to nature and food in an inspiring, accessible way. The Learning Farm, led by Christa and Pete Núñez, achieves this in two ways: with on-site programming and with juice!

“We provide stable agriculture and natural world education to children and families,” explained organization head Christa Núñez.

This education takes many forms. Weeklong camps and family learning intensives are presented in partnership with like-minded community organizations. Equal respect is given to free play in the fields and gorges as well as lab-based lessons on the science of composting or the chromatography of beverages.

“We did a whole segment on comparing wild grapes with cultivated grapes and cultivated blackberries with blackcaps and how people have influenced that over centuries,” Núñez said. “And you can’t do that in isolation. … Really allowing people to explore those things in a really wild, natural area and compare that to what they see in stores.”

The programs are designed for youth ages 5 to 12.

“We bring kids in from all different backgrounds, all different experiences, kids that are used to being in nature and kids who really have not been exposed or given any access to the natural world,” Núñez said. “We’re really about making the natural world, the beautiful area in which we live, open and inclusive to everybody.”

The Núñez family moved to upstate New York in July of 2016. They had developed an immersive and practical outdoor education curriculum while living in northern California, spurred on by Christa’s desire to foster a relationship with the natural world for both herself and her children.

Unfortunately, purchasing suitable property in California to host the programs was prohibitively expensive, so the couple turned their attention outside the state.

At the same time, they noticed a lack of healthy kid-friendly beverages – most were high in sugar and contained only fruits – so they began to test recipes for a fruit and vegetable juice blend. It was this that led them to Cornell AgriTech, where they learned how to develop, test, package, and market their recipe for wholesale.

“It was a really great place to start out as someone who had passions but no real connections or education around it,” Núñez said.

The Learning Farm Juicery’s flagship beverage is a grape beet blend that is carried by GreenStar Natural Foods Co-op, the Lansing Market, P&C Fresh, Brookton’s Market and a few other outlets in Syracuse and Rochester.
The Learning Farm’s curriculum is simultaneously broad and nuanced: encompassing tech-forward agriculture, life sciences and conscious consideration of our food systems. The latter is where the juice comes in.

Now that they have successfully launched the product, the next step is to bring production in house at the farm so it can serve as a learning tool.
Núñez recalled a transformative childhood field trip to the Kellogg’s factory where she saw how cereal was made; the excitement she felt then still influences her today.

“It’s important to know where your food comes from, and it’s important to feel a part of that process, to pull back the curtain and really understand it is to be able to make sound choices around what you put in your body,” Núñez said.

On a grander scale, the juice is also a representation of what anyone can accomplish with the right support system.

“We didn’t grow up farming, our families are not business owners, but we learned … and we want to use our products and services to teach people that anybody can do this,” explained Núñez.

Her background is in marketing and advertising, while Pete’s experience is counseling and youth development. Following their desire to empower others, The Learning Farm is currently fundraising to build a welcome center with sleeping areas and an outdoor kitchen so they can host families overnight and a teaching area so they can teach guests how to create their own products.

Núñez’s desire to empower others is rooted in her family history.

“The Trans-Atlantic slave trade interrupted a really vibrant, agricultural culture that was inclusive of my family before they came to this country,” she said. “Having family who was forced to be farm laborers without being able to reap the benefits of those labors resonates with me.”

In the 1910s, her ancestors had purchased land in Mississippi but were forced to leave it behind upon threat of loss of life. Her great-great-grandparents settled in Gary, Indiana, and took up work in the steel mills.

“I feel like it’s sort of being able to return to the land,” Núñez said. “Being able to create an organization that supports other people having a connection to the land, especially families and children of color who have been cut off and who now live in cities and downtown areas where there isn’t much greenery, is empowering for me.”

Núñez sees how the displacement from the land affects the family members of her generation.

“I feel like there’s just a huge gap in education,” she said. “I’m starting from scratch.”

She recounted how her initial efforts to build nesting boxes for the chicken coop weren’t successful.

“I had to rip them out and do them again because the chickens weren’t wanting to roost in there,” she said. “I learned how to build them with my own hands, I feel good about it, but that connection of having a parent or grandparent be able to say ‘hey babe, this is how you do this’ was missing, and a lot of my farmer friends, they had that.”

Those experiences motivate her to share all the resources she’s collected.
While their summer camp programs have ended for the season, there is still plenty of activity on The Learning Farm’s lush 16 acres. On Aug. 31, they are hosting an International Community Dinner and Family Movie Night, during which they’ll unveil a new section of their garden.

“Every year, this part of the garden will be devoted to three different cultures that we see represented in Ithaca,” she said. “Our first one is the Haudenosaunee indigenous peoples of this region so we’ll have corn, beans, and squash – the three sisters – growing. … And then we have honeybeans and different plants growing from Nigeria. And then lastly but not least, [for] the Karen people of Thailand and Burma, we have peanuts and sesame growing.”

The community is invited to attend.

“We want people to bring a dish from their culture and then bring bowls and plates to enjoy everybody else’s dish, and then we’ll have a movie under the stars in the amphitheater!” she said.

For more info, please visit LearningFarm.org. Please visit  KhubaInternational.org to donate to support this programming.
 
Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.

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