Chelsea O’Brien drove past Independence Elementary School in Clarkston each morning while taking her children to school and working in education herself.
Next to the school was a nearly 7 acre piece of land, previously used as a farm and now owned by the school district. O’Brien — who was passionate about health care and teaching young people — saw an opportunity to transform the space into what is now the Clarkston Family Farm.
“The more I talked about this crazy idea with my friends and connections in the Clarkston Community School District and the local decision makers … it seemed to be a viable option to take this property that used to be a farm … and make it a place of learning again,” O’Brien says.
Officially founded by O’Brien in 2017, the Clarkston Family Farm is a nonprofit organization which uses hands-on learning to teach young people about growing and cooking healthy food.
The farm’s team includes certified educators and teachers, a beekeeper and community volunteers.
More than 10,000 children have visited since it opened. Visitors can do everything from making fresh cider to learning about ecosystems during their stay.
Along with hosting schools for learning adventures, the farm offers a sunflower market and a variety of workshops, cooking classes and camps. In the fall, winter and spring, the farm hosts a garden club which meets once a week. Young people can also take a cookbook class, run by two local teachers who have an interest in nutrition and inspiring kids to cook with healthy food.
O’Brien calls the farm a “grassroots community effort,” noting the support from the Clarkston community. It took about a year and an “enormous amount of work” to get the farm going, O’Brien says, but she was willing to put in the work. O’Brien’s passion for the farm stems from a view that being in and learning about nature is valuable for young people.
“I have noticed that the kids that are happiest, the kids that do the best … emotionally and academically are the ones that spend time in nature,” she says. “And they also seem to make better food choices, which is something that’s near and dear to my heart after having worked with diabetic patients and cardiac patients.”
The farm has added eight new learning spaces over the past couple of years including an outdoor cooking lab, giving tree orchard and pizza garden. Each of those spaces was funded by grants created with the help of young people themselves.
“We start with just observing and working with them and how they utilize the space,” O’Brien says. “Then, we have them help us brainstorm about what they would like that space to look like.”
The Clarkston Family Farm often submits the young people’s drawings along with their grant applications, O’Brien says. Those drawings and ideas are the most useful way to find out what they need.
The kids have initiated ideas that O’Brien and her team actually used, like growing rainbow carrots in the garden. The young people are also the reason the outdoor cooking lab has lower tables with containers, useful for self-teaching and mixing foods. Those small changes are things the adults never would have thought of, O’Brien says.
The farm’s curriculum model focuses on allowing the children to be active and involved. In any given session, students spend only 10 percent of their time receiving traditional teaching instruction, O’Brien says. The other 90 percent comprises “turn and talk” and “move and do” time.
“As an educator myself, I know firsthand that kids learn best when they are doing the work,” O’Brien says. “The Clarkston Family Farm is exactly the place to be able to do that.”
School districts and teachers can also align their students’ experience at the Clarkston Family Farm with what their students are learning in school, O’Brien says. Students learning about volume in math class, for example, can come to the farm and practice filling raised garden beds with foil. The farm also has its own portfolio of large adventures based on curriculum that they know works, O’Brien says.
The young people apply their lessons when they leave the farm, too.
“They come home and they are making better food choices,” O’Brien says. I get so many phone calls from parents who will say ‘My kid wants to have carrots now,’ or ‘I had no idea Olivia would ever have spinach.’”
For O’Brien, harvesting remains her favorite part of teaching the young people. And while she says she probably shouldn’t be, she admits she’s always surprised at how hard the kids work while at the farm.
“They really want to help. They want to do the work themselves,” she says. “I think that’s one of the things that has both surprised and inspired me.”
The farm now aims to make its space more accessible for everyone. O’Brien says its Garden Dinner Gala, Sept. 13, raised money for Clarkston Family’s Farm’s “Pathways to Pastabilities” initiative. With those funds, Clarkston Family Farm plans to install a wheelchair ramp and a gravel pathway.
Going forward, O’Brien says she anticipates growth for the farm. She hopes to one day look back on her work and see a lasting impact and fulfillment of the nonprofit’s mission. For her, that means inspiring generations to come to understand where food comes from and to make healthy choices.
To learn more or get involved, visit clarkstonfamilyfarm.com.