COOPERSBURG, Pa. — For Kathleen Fields, sharing her life’s work on her farm and teaching its visitors how to be stewards of our land, water and air gets her out of bed each day.
Fields is the owner, president, farmer and volunteer at The Flint Hill Farm Educational Center and Flint Hill Farm in Coopersburg, Lehigh County, a 26-acre preserved farm since 2001.
The operation was not always open to the public. The farmstead dates to the 1850s and was home to the Cisson family and Hassick family for nearly 100 years combined before Fields purchased it.
When Fields took ownership, she developed a vision to share her passion for agriculture through education, and approached the families to ask for their thoughts.
The Cissons and Hassicks each gave their blessings on what is being done with the farm today with education.
“That meant a lot to me,” said Fields. “I always give the original families credit when introducing others to the farm. I also acknowledge all farming families within our county and surrounding areas for the hard work and dedication they have to this lifestyle.”
Fields has been in her current position on the farm since 2001. Before retiring in 2013, Fields was a certified nurse midwife and filled many other roles with ties to healthcare and nursing.
Field said that coming to the farm “really wasn’t a career switch for me as I was running the farm (while I was) a midwife. I worked and continue to work through Jesus, the bank holds my mortgage, and I am a steward of the land and the farm. As a midwife, I was not in control of many things and that holds true today on the farm as well.”
Fields purchased the farm while working full-time in the healthcare industry. As a way to reconnect with the land and labor that accompanies the farm, she used horses to do all of the labor until just a few years ago. Although she has not always been a farmer, it was something that felt like a natural fit to her when she was purchasing the property.
The operation run by Fields has two components. The Flint Hill Farm is a for-profit farm and the Flint Hill Farm Educational Center is a nonprofit center for learning.
The for-profit farm is part of the Pennsylvania Farm Stay program. Revenue from visitors who want to experience a farm vacation pays the mortgage. In the main farmhouse, Flint Hill Farm staff and volunteers host people from across the world.
“I learned of the PA Farm Stay program through an article in Lancaster Farming,” Fields said. “Because of the program, we are able to welcome people who may need a change, or they want to see and experience the joys of farming, and life on the farm, because they may not otherwise have that experience.”
When the farm-stay guests arrive, they can relax and rest, or be a farmer for the day.
“Farming is universal, and no matter one’s culture, work on the farm blends us all in a wonderful manner. Simple work that allows us to produce food is something we all crave and even binds us together,” Fields said. “It is the best seeing families come to us who want to show their kids how they grew up visiting their grandma’s or auntie’s farms. Our facility allows their children to have the same experiences.”
For Fields, the Flint Hill Farm Educational Center is a passion. The center is run 80 percent by volunteers. Fields and two part-time employees are the only true staff on the farm and the educational center.
Volunteers come to the Flint Hill Farm Educational Center in myriad ways. Through one program, a judge in Coopersburg, Daniel Trexler, assigns first offenders to volunteer at the farm. In addition, volunteers come from local colleges and corporations looking for work days There also are teachers, artists and others, said Fields, who donate their time and energy. According to Fields, they keep coming back because they love what they are doing. She said it is hard for her to calculate exactly how many volunteers assist at the farm each year, but Fields can account for at least 120 or more.
The Flint Hill Farm Educational Center also recruits volunteers to serve on its board of directors. Seven different individuals sit on the board for a four-year term. Today, the board has representation by a surgeon, a vet, an art instructor, a special education educator, a literacy specialist and a chef. This broad spectrum of people helps to guide the center and bring different perspectives to help meet the needs of the community, Fields said. The board was established in 2006 when the center became a nonprofit.
All of the work that Fields, the board, and the volunteers do at the educational center is with the mission statement in mind: “Bridging the gap between the urban/suburban community and the farm.”
The farm’s educational center offers the public many classes and activities, such as school tours, community outreach projects, and farm tours for students with special needs. In addition, there are animal projects, woods and pasture walks, greenhouse classrooms, and community garden lessons. Cheesemaking and breadbaking are popular courses on the farm. Sheep and fiber arts, beekeeping, canning and preservation classes round out the selection.
Each year about 3,000 students, teachers and parents visit the farm as part of the school tour program and two community open house events. In the fall, Fields and her team collaborate with Penn State Extension. In the spring, they host a farm tour and open house with at least 800 people visiting during those two events.
School tours run from March through October and offer ways for teachers to engage their students outside of the classroom while still meeting education requirements. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mandates incorporated into the session provide a way for educators to meet Pennsylvania agriculture education requirements and teach social skills, history, science and math in new ways the students may not have experienced before.
In November, the Flint Hill Farm Educational Center collaborated with Elizabeth Conrad of Moravian College to develop two 15-hour sections planned to give Act 48 credits. Act 48 credits are required for continued education for teachers, according to Fields. One of the sections is on Colonial American farming and the other on present-day farming.
“Teachers are so stressed in their school year that to add another educational opportunity without credit is too much, so we are waiting for the approval of our Act 48 credits that we sent in to the Pennsylvania Department of Education,” Fields said. “Grants could then be offered to students, and provide families and schools educational opportunities for students.”
The Act 48 credit courses and other farm tours and events are focused on the students and families of inner-city schools in nearby Allentown and Bethlehem. The Hoch Foundation, Trexler Trust, and Wells Fargo are some of the sponsors that work with the farm’s educational center to reach these communities and beyond.
A farm store on site, using the “honor system,” also brings some funding to the center. Dairy products — milk, cream, buttermilk, butter, yogurt, kefir, smoothies, and cow and goat cheeses — contribute 50 percent of the income that allows the educational center to be sustainable. The farm also sells at two farmers markets and to the Philadelphia Common Market, a wholesale distributor that sells fresh farm products to chefs, stores and institutions like schools and hospitals.
“The farm store profits go back to the educational center; it is a component of the educational center,” Fields said.
Flint Hill Farm Educational Center continues to expand its opportunities.
“In 2017, we are rolling out our expanded blacksmith’s shop with an all-purpose educational area,” Fields said. “I am excited to roll this four-season room out to schools, community groups, teachers for Act 48 credit training (during) all 12 months. We have not been able to reach all groups successfully at all times but now we can with this new work area, more effectively serving our community and offering a wider scope. (It) is huge for us.”
“We are currently seeking artists, teachers, bakers, potters and others who would be interested in using the area,” she added.
Fields places few limitations on who can learn from the farm.
“I was inspired many years ago by an Amish man who had a farm. His family had young children, senior citizens, a son with disabilities and more, but everyone had a place on his farm, just as they do on ours,” she said. “Young people come to us with mental and physical challenges, medical issues, and we incorporate these individuals. The farm gives all (individuals) job opportunities and opportunities for involvement. We are developing a program that would incorporate young people into learning experiences through different farm animals and their chores.
“The farm has evolved. The education center has evolved to be a sustaining entity, thanks to the skills of many people,” Fields added.
The Flint Hill Farm and Flint Hill Farm Educational Center provide something for everyone. From classes to camps and tours to farm stay vacations, a vision for agriculture education is allowing people to reconnect to the earth and the foods that they are consuming on a daily basis.
Alicia Keller is a freelance writer in western New York.