by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Parents seeking daycare and summertime educational enrichment crave more options for their children. That’s where farms seeking an additional revenue stream can offer day camping. But it takes some preparation before farmers can open their acres to eager young campers. Food Animal Concerns Trust presented “Planning Ahead for Farm Camps for Kids” as a recent webinar. Samantha Gasson, co-owner of Bull City Farm in Rougemont, NC, and Ana Skemp, co-owner of Deep Roots Community Farm, presented.
Structuring your camp
Gasson said structuring how to do camp sessions is an important starting point. Farmers need to decide how many sessions they plan to offer and when.
She ends camp toward the end of July because of the heat; however, in different parts of the country or where one has facilities to accommodate children comfortably, this can vary.
Gasson takes up to 40 children per camp for a 5:1 ratio of children to camp counselors. Farmers should also plan how many hours per day they want to offer camp.
Operating the camp overnight means much more time, responsibility and available infrastructure to house the campers. Gasson offers only day camps.
“I basically did how many hours I could tolerate,” she laughed. “It sounds terrible, but it’s a good place to start.” She offers camps from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Gasson structures the day but remains flexible. She also plans different activities each week of camp so that parents and children feel more inclined to participate in more than one week of camp per summer. In general, Gasson, staff and campers meet up, feed the animals, have lunch, spend more time with the animals and participate in some enriching activity in the afternoon.
“You need to put some thought into how the day will run or it will get chaotic,” she warned. She also plans camp themes, like cow camp, how to train farm animals and fun on the farm.
She takes only children age 5 and older so they’re accustomed to spending the day away from home and are used to taking directions from a teacher.
“We have cows, pigs and horses – large animals – and a lot of things that could hurt them,” Gasson said.
She focused on elementary-aged children when she started 20 years ago; however, as her children grew older, she began to become comfortable with older children and started to integrate them into her camps.
“Older kids help younger kids and younger kids learn from older kids,” Gasson said.
From her campers she recruits junior counselors (experienced campers at least 13 years old) and senior counselors (older teenaged experienced campers) to help out. They receive a discount. For regular campers, it costs $280 per week.
“I want to make as much money as possible but I also don’t want to price out kids,” Gasson said. “I offer a scholarship for each week’s camp.” If a scholarship isn’t used in a particular week, she rolls it over to a subsequent week to use as the need arises. She also offers discounts for siblings and for multiple camps.
Gasson said the two biggest keys for farm camps are to be involved and to set the tone.
“If you’re not comfortable with children and educating children, the instinct is to hire people,” she said. “But it’s your farm and you need to set the tone of what you want it to be. We’ve seen so many farms that try to do it and they’re not comfortable with kids or not comfortable with farm animals and they’re not successful long term.”
She hires only people with similar standards: they must enjoy both children and animals.
“The farm can feed the camp and the camp can help promote the farm,” Gasson said. “All of my camp pamphlets and T-shirts have the farm logo on them.”
Gasson’s operation was a hobby farm when she started the camp. The camp income helped her farm take off and now farm products make more money than the camp. The camp helps drive more business to the farm since it helps promote the farm’s branding and builds relationships with the camping children’s families.
Keeping the operation going depends upon protecting it through the proper insurance. “This is the most important thing you can do,” Gasson said. “Don’t think you can have 10 kids out to your farm without researching permits, insurance and liability waivers. Make sure you’re protecting yourself and their children.”
Realize that these standards can change in time. For example, 20 years ago, her county didn’t require permits for afterschool care. Ten years ago, the law changed and she had to purchase a permit.
“Keep up to date with everything,” Gasson advised. “Make sure you have insurance. It’s so easy for an accident to happen.”
She also maintains a liability waiver. As another layer of protection and as required by law, she posts the waiver so everyone visiting the farm can read it. Parents sign individual waivers as well. “They have to sign the liability waiver or the children cannot come to camp,” Gasson said.
Despite the hassles of planning, insurance and waivers, Gasson truly enjoys offering camp – and she believes that’s key to operating a successful camp.
Presenter Ana Skemp co-owns Deep Roots Community Farm in La Crosse, WI, and is a mother of five. She has been on a farm for 12 years, and previously worked as an elementary school teacher. Deep Roots offers seven to eight weeks of farm camp.
“It’s very easy for us to get people out to our farm,” she said. “Farm camps are a way for us to give back to the world. It’s something we can do with our kids to get money. Their friends come and register. It’s a good income stream on a small, diversified farm. Something we didn’t realize when we started is it would help us grow a loyal customer base.”
The campers engage in the real work of farming, learn seed-to-table gardening, learn about handling animals, receive environmental education and enjoy free time in nature. “No activities are required,” Skemp said, “and there are always options.”
Skemp found that most of the children want to spend all of their time with the animals; however, their parents tend to want them to learn gardening. The camp receives grant money because of its educational efforts, so grantors want the camp to emphasize education. “We try to balance it,” Skemp said.
The camp accepts children ages 5 – 18, but offers parent/child education for younger ones. Most campers are students from the local public schools, but Skemp has also hosted boys’ and girls’ clubs, ESL students and children whose mothers are at local women’s shelters. Grants from North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) have allowed Skemp to offer some free camp sessions.
Skemp partners with the school district, which handles all the registration and pays teachers to instruct at the camp. Skemp receives a wage for farm maintenance by Grow La Crosse, another local organization. The curriculum meets Core Standards. She maintains a ratio of six to eight children per teacher.
The fee-based sessions are three to five days, five to six hours each day. Fees range from $150 to $250 per session.
“This is so dependent upon where you live,” Skemp said. “Look at your expenses and see what other camps in your area are charging.”
She advertises camp through farmers market flyers, social media and ads in local magazines. She has parents sign liability waivers, which she makes available online.
She recommends starting small by offering a one-day “farm day” for $50 each quarter, or field trips for $6 for two hours.
“It’s a great way to gauge interest, build your curriculum and decide if you like it,” Skemp said.
Hosting college students for internships and independent studies can bring help to a farm camp, along with people involved with community education, health education and environmental studies. She runs a background check every single person who will work with children.
She also said it’s a good idea to run plans by an attorney, check with the Small Business Development Program and obtain an insurance policy, telling the agent exactly what you plan to do.
“It’s really important to tailor the risk to your situation and be honest at what goes on at your farm so it’s a good liability waiver,” Skemp said.
Some farmers let the fear of liability stymie their ability to open a farm camp. Skemp encouraged them to “trust the world and trust what you have to offer the world,” Skemp said.
She reminded farmers to be aware of mandatory reporter laws for child abuse and neglect; obtain medical histories that require attention, including allergies; learn how to safely deal with blood-borne pathogens; become CPR and first aid certified; and make an emergency plan for things like lost or injured children and weather.
“I absolutely love farm camps,” Skemp said. “It’s my absolute favorite thing on the farm.”