garden

Poop In The Garden

By: Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

insect on tomato in garden
Photo: Wes Kline, Rutgers University

Over the weekend, before the most recent snow, I looked out my kitchen window to see my dog squatting over the chive patch in our vegetable garden. It was too late to stop him.

I spend a lot of time with Connecticut farmers, talking about producing safe fruits and vegetables. We always talk about how animal feces can affect food safety. Animals and birds are often the source human pathogens or microorganisms that can make us sick. Some examples of those pathogens include E. coli O157:H7 (associated with many outbreaks tied to meat, poultry and fresh produce, most recently lettuce); Salmonella (eggs, poultry, pork, sprouts, cucumbers and cantaloupe); and Listeria monocytogenes (all types of foods, including processed meats, cheese, cantaloupe, apples, and frozen vegetables).

Wildlife can spread human pathogens by depositing feces in fields or water sources and spreading fecal contamination as they move. This is very difficult to control. Complete exclusion may not be possible, depending on the species of wildlife. It can be a tough job for farmers to exert any kind of control over geese, other birds, deer, or rodents.

Generally speaking, a home garden is a more manageable space. There are things you can do to discourage the presence of wildlife, though nothing is fail-proof. The first thing you may have to do is to identify the pest. Once you know which animal is eating the lettuce or leaving droppings around, knowledge of their habits and food needs can help you choose the best method to deter them. The University of Connecticut www.ladybug.uconn.edu site has fact sheets that give advice regarding control of wildlife in your yard. In addition, take a look at http://npic.orst.edu/pest/wildyard.html for additional suggestions on specific species.

Here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Fence your garden. Fences can make for good neighbors, they say, and this is certainly true of fences that keep animals away from your tomatoes. The fence can be as simple as a strong wire mesh. You may have to bury the fence several inches into the ground to prevent creatures from burrowing under the fence. Some animals are perfectly capable of climbing the fence to get to the other side (did someone say, “squirrel”?). A metal shield at the top of the fence might be useful.
  • Be careful where you hang your bird feeders/houses/bird baths. If birds are feeding or nesting at the bird feeders or houses you have purposely added to your yard, they will be more than happy to poop on your plants as they fly back and forth. This is a lesson easily learned as our birdhouse attracts lots of birds and their droppings on our patio furniture and patio tomatoes alike.

In addition, do not let garden trash build up—dropped fruit and pulled weeds can feed and shelter small animals. Cover trashcans, compost bins and other potential sources of food.  Remove pet food or birdseed from the yard.

  • Use decoys or other deterrents. While these can be effective on a variety of wildlife, it is important to move the decoys every few days. Deer, birds and rodents may be smarter than the average bear: they can figure out when a fake coyote is fake.

One of the most difficult “pests” in the backyard vegetable garden can be Fido or Fluffy—resident dogs and cats. Fencing is most likely to help keep the dog away. Of course, you need to remember to close the gate. An open gate turned out to be how my dog got into the chive patch.

Cats love the soft soil of a garden and WILL use it as a litter box. Of course, the best course of action is not to let your cat out at all. There are too many ways they can get injured, sick, or worse whether you live in a city, suburb, or on acres of land.

If the dog gets through the gate or over the fence and poops on your edibles, there is little you can do. If it is early in the season and the plant has no edible parts, you can wait 120 days to harvest, treating the feces like raw manure—feces from another species. If harvestable or close to harvestable produce is affected, it is best to leave it on the plant. Do not harvest, do not eat; do not harvest, wash and eat. It is just too risky.

This would be true if you see signs that indicate the presence of other wildlife as well. Bird poop on the tomatoes or lettuce leaves; mouse droppings in the herb bed; or evidence that rabbits have been gnawing on the cucumbers. You really should not eat any fruits or vegetables that have been pooped upon. Washing is not necessarily going to totally eliminate any risk from human pathogens that might have been left behind. Do not toss affected produce in the compost bin either. Animal feces should never be added to compost that will be used on edible plants.

This advice is especially important if you have kids, seniors or others in your family who might have a compromised immune system. It is just not worth the risk.

For more information about food safety and controlling wildlife in your back yard, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out some of the links in the article, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Garden Master Classes Available

FANs gardenGarden Master Classes are offered through the UConn Extension Master Gardener Program. For Certified Master Gardeners they provide continuing education as part of the Advanced Master Gardener certification process.

These classes are also open to the general public. Anyone with an interest in gardening and  horticulture is welcome!

The UConn Extension Master Gardener Program is an Educational Outreach Program that is part of UConn Extension. The program started in 1978 and consists of horticulture training and an outreach component that focus on the community at large. Master Gardeners are enthusiastic, willing to learn and share their knowledge and training with others. What sets them apart from other home gardeners is their special horticultural training. In exchange for this training, Master Gardeners commit time as volunteers working through their local UConn Extension Center and the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford to provide horticultural-related information to the community.

For more information and a class listing visit: https://mastergardener.uconn.edu/garden-master-classes/.

Join Us at the CT Flower & Garden Show

garden show image

FREE Soil Testing and Gardening Advice at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, February 22 – 25, 2018 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. The University of Connecticut Soil Testing Laboratory will offer free soil pH testing each day of the show. Bring in ½ cup of soil and we will test it and let you know how much, if any, limestone you need to add for optimal plant growth. Master Gardeners and staff horticulturists from the UConn Home & Garden Education Center will be on hand to answer all of your gardening questions. Free gardening handouts will help you make the most of your lawn and gardens this year!

New London County Master Gardener Signature Projects 2017

garden at Riverfront Childrens' CenterMaster Gardener Signature Projects 2017 

Camp Harkness for the Handicapped, Waterford. People with disabilities spend time at the Camp during the summer months. Master Gardeners assist the clients with gardening activities and maintain the wheelchair accessible plants. In the winter, they work with seniors in the greenhouse. This project has been ongoing for a long time with a regular group.

Connecticut College Arboretum, New London. Another long-time association. Master Gardeners lead tours, give lectures, and work on maintenance of the Arboretum’s conifer collection.

Gay City State Park, Hebron. This project is a collaborative effort amongst the Master Gardener Program (MG), the State of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), and the State Park Service (SPS). It is funded by the Salmon River Estuary Coordinating Committee (SRECC) and the Connecticut Master Gardener Association (CMGA). A water quality problem, identified by DEEP, was brought to the attention of the New London MG office by the SRECC. It was agreed that the water quality problem could be addressed with a habitat restoration adjacent to the swimming area that would discourage nuisance geese. The project design has been approved by the SPS and planting will begin in spring, 2018.

Riverfront Childrens’ Center, Groton. The Center received a grant from the Ledge Light Health District for refurbishing the Center’s raised bed gardens. The grant required oversight of the project by a master gardener, who has been educating the Center’s staff on gardening and involving the children with the planting and harvesting of vegetable crops. This project will be an ongoing program and fits well with the Extension Nutrition Education Program, which was already in place at the Center.

Cold Storage: A Sustainable Way to Preserve the Harvest

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

cold storage procedure at home for fruits and vegetables
Photo Credit: NAL/USDA

A young couple I know if looking to buy their first house. She prefers older homes with character, he wants space for a big garden. They came upon an older home with a dirt basement floor….I immediately thought that it might be a good candidate for a root cellar. In earlier times, when many people grew their own food, lived miles from the nearest grocery store, and did not have the benefit of electricity or refrigeration, they often stored some fruits and vegetables for the winter in root cellars or outdoor cold storage areas or pits.

Today it can be difficult to use the basement for storage as many of us now use our basements as living spaces. We may have furnaces, boilers or woodstoves in our cellars—instead of dirt floors and cold storage shelves. We do everything we can to keep out the dampness. And houses are built to retain heat in order to save energy. And, of course, in general, Connecticut temperatures seem to be warmer longer into late fall and early winter, than they used to be. All of this means that we just have to be a bit more creative if we want to store our late summer/fall crops into mid-winter.

You should recognize that “ideal” storage conditions for many vegetables are not attainable around the average home. Commercial cold storage options often involve a modified or controlled atmosphere, reducing the oxygen and increasing the carbon dioxide level, while high humidity is maintained in an air−tight, refrigerated storage room. It is important to understand that these conditions cannot be achieved at home…your home-stored apples will not be equal to the quality of a store-bought apple in January or February.

That said, there are many lower-tech options for storing apples and other foods at home. You just have to remember to follow the rules!

  • Pay attention to and monitor temperature, humidity and air flow;
  • Keep fruits away from vegetables (fruits release ethylene which speeds the ripening process of vegetables);
  • Minimize the effects of strong smelling vegetables such as onions, cabbage or rutabagas.

Outdoor Storage

Some vegetables can be stored outdoors—or even remain in your garden, if well protected. Root crops including carrots, parsnips and turnips can remain in the garden, if rodents are not an issue. A well-drained location is essential as a muddy puddle does not do much for your stored carrots. Once the ground is cold, or begins to freeze, protect the vegetables from frost and fluctuating temperatures with insulating materials such as clean straw, hay, dry leaves, corn stalks, or wood shavings, and some soil.

Mounds or pits are a good way to store cabbage and root crops, such as carrots, beets, celery root, kohlrabi, rutabagas, turnips, and winter radishes. Use a well-drained location, and cover the ground with insulating mulch. Vegetables keep very well in pits and mounds, but once these storage areas are opened all the produce should be removed. After it’s removed, the produce will keep for 1 or 2 weeks at most: use it up quickly or cook and freeze for longer storage. If rodents are a problem, try burying a 20-gallon trash can in the ground. Several small holes should be made in the bottom to allow for drainage (keeping in mind that rodents may be able to get through a dime sized hole).

Indoor Storage

A Connecticut home—especially an older one—offers several options for winter storage of fruits and vegetables. You could use a breezeway, a shed, a Bilco-type basement door area or a garage that is not used for storing your automobile, lawn equipment or chemicals that may affect the flavor of your stored produce. You may be lucky enough to live in a house with an old root cellar or a cellar that does not warm up too much when the furnace gets turned on. Check the room temperature to make sure that the area is cool enough (32˚F–60˚F) and be sure that the temperature does not fluctuate too much. The relative humidity (moisture in the air) of these locations will also affect what type of produce can be stored. Some produce (garlic, onions) store better in dry conditions, while others (apples, root crops) prefer conditions to be more humid.

A pantry, attic, or unheated room is useful for short-term storage of potatoes and onions as long as there is no danger of freezing. Low storage temperatures extend the shelf life of dried foods, such as dried beans, herbs, dried fruits and vegetables. A warm storage area, such as an attic, can be a good environment in the fall for drying herbs, beans, walnuts, or hickory nuts.

A well-ventilated basement with central heating is generally dry and has a temperature range of 50˚F to 60˚F. It may be used for ripening tomatoes and for short-term storage of pumpkins, winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions.

Managing your storage area

Once everything is stored away, you will need to monitor your storage areas, paying attention to temperature (can be made cooler or warmer with ventilating windows that can be opened and shut); humidity (a relative humidity of 90%–95% is very moist and good for storage of potatoes and other root crops. A relative humidity of 60%–75% is dry and good for storage of pumpkins and other squash). Check the storage area at least weekly. Look for evidence of rodents. Check to see that produce is still dry. Remove and discard anything that is rotten or moldy.

Food safety and cold storage

Exploding pressure canners and botulism scares can keep folks away from canning, but cold storage is pretty much risk free. If it doesn’t work, you will see, feel or smell that your food has spoiled—and you will not eat it! Cold storage temperatures also slow the growth of spoilage organisms and enzymatic action (causes over-ripening and rotting). However, there are a few food safety hazards you should pay attention to.

First, be sure to use storage containers that are food-grade. Never use drums, garbage cans or containers that might have held garbage, pesticides or other chemicals. Be sure that the insulating materials used are not contaminated with pesticides or manure. These should be new materials and should be used only once as they will become contaminated with mold and bacteria.

An important risk to consider is that when using cold storage, particularly outdoor storage options, you need to be wary of the presence of rodents or the pesky neighborhood raccoon. Be sure to inspect the inside and outside of the root cellar. Look for gaps (even very small ones) between the ceiling and walls, walls and floors and around any air vents or windows. Search areas around vents, joints between the walls and roof and the area under the cellar. Patch any cracks or gaps around pipes or plug openings with steel wool. Use storage containers that animals cannot chew through, such as metal, plastic or tightly woven mesh with openings smaller than ¼ inch. Secure the top of the containers in the cellar or the lids of buried containers so that they cannot be opened by animals.

When you are ready to use your fruits and vegetables during the winter months, inspect everything you take out. While small amounts of mold can be removed from hard fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, generally, if there is mold, we recommend tossing it out. Mold toxins have been associated with allergic reactions and some are cancer causing agents. Wash everything thoroughly with water and a scrub brush before eating.

Finally, at the end of the season, be sure to clean all containers and the room itself in order to reduce the presence of molds and bacteria.

For more information about managing a cold storage area and a storage chart for specific fruits and vegetables, search for the following article, which was used as a source: Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home, from Washington State University Extension, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Windham Master Gardener Program

By John Lorusso

FANs gardenWe have had a great year educating our new crop of Master Gardeners in Brooklyn this year. The group began classes in the dead of winter in January and have been diligently working on their plant identification and diagnostic abilities all summer. In addition to those actions, they have been very busy fulfilling the outreach requirements at incredibly worthwhile, important, and noteworthy projects in the community.

A partial listing of some of those community outreach projects: the Palmer Arboretum in Wood­ stock, People’s Harvest  Sustainable Community Farm in Pomfret, Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Goodwin State Forest & Conservation Center in Hampton, Camp Quinebaug Rainbow Garden in Danielson, CT Children’s Hospital in Hartford, Dennison Pequot-Sepos Nature Center in Mystic, Camp Harkness in Waterford, the Belding Butterfly Garden in Tolland, the Emerald Ash Borer Surveillance Program of the CT. Ag Experiment Station, and Natchaug Hospital courtyard gardens. Over 2200 hours have been logged by our Master Gardeners and interns at these crucial programs in the community.

We have exhibited and engaged the public this year at The Woodstock Fair, Willimantic’s third Thursday street festivals, The Killingly Great Tomato Festival, Children’s programming at the Sterling Library, and Celebrating Agriculture.

Upcoming events this fall and winter to include Garden Master Classes on growing giant pumpkins, evergreen identification and wreath making, and beginning floral design and miniature boxwood tree holiday arrangement. We also hope to organize a few movie nights in partnership with the Connecticut Master Gardener Association. We are tentatively scheduled for late Octobe1 to show Hometown Habitat, Stories of Bringing Nature Home, a 90-minute environmental, education documentary focused on showing how and why native plants are critical to the survival and vitality of local ecosystems.

Next year’s Master Gardener class will be held in Tolland county, with the class returning to Brooklyn in 2019.

If you or someone you know is interested in taking the class, or any of the other opportunities listed in this article, please feel free to contact John Lorusso at john.lorusso@uconn.edu.

Join the Big Bug Hunt to Beat Garden Pests

mealybug
Obscure mealybug (photo credit: J. Allen, UConn)

Major citizen science project tracks garden bugs to identify when and how they spread
Key points

  1. The Big Bug Hunt is an international research project to track when and how garden bugs spread.
  2. Participants are helping to create a pest-alert system that will warn gardeners when pests are heading their way.
  3. Anyone can take part and reporting a bug takes seconds. The more reports received, the quicker the pest-alert system can be developed.
  4. Now-in its second year, The Big Bug Hunt has already identified patterns in the way some major pests spread. Additional reports will improve accuracy and speed development of the pest-alert system. BigBugHunt.com

Getting Ready for Home Preservation Season

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

As the end of June looms, back yard gardeners and farmers alike are beginning to see the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. Already we are enjoying locally grown spinach, lettuces, herbs and other greens, peas, and perhaps locally grown broccoli and cabbage. Asparagus season is over, and strawberries, thanks to a later season, may be around for a few more weeks. But as we go through July, we can look forward to blueberries, summer raspberries, green beans, beets, cucumbers, peppers, and the holy grail of fresh sweet corn and field tomatoes. So far the growing season has been blessed with sufficient rain and good weather, crops are happy and will likely be very productive.

So, now is the time to begin preparations for safe home food preservation, whether you have a garden or a favorite farm or farmers’ market.

First, determine what method of home food preservation works best for you. Your choice may depend on your preference for the resulting product (frozen vs canned green beans, for example, are very different in taste and texture); your storage space; the tools or resources you have at your disposal (Canner? Pressure canner? Separate deep freezer? Refrigerator freezer only?); and, perhaps, the cost of the process. Since most folks think that preserving at home will save them money, a recent article from the University of Maine, The Cost of Preserving Food in Maine (https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/4032e/ ), might make a good read.

They looked only at the costs of energy (in Maine) and equipment used to preserve food as the cost of the food itself varies depending on where it is purchased. When freezing, the most expensive part of the equation is the freezer itself. After that, they factored in the cost of energy and the container, which in this case was a reusable container. One time use containers and freezer bags will add to costs. Freezing was estimated at 38 cents per pound of food.

The cost of pressure canning is $1.14 per pound, while using a water bath canner will cost approximately 73 cents per pound. The difference here is the cost of the canner. A pressure canner is over three times the cost of a water bath canning pot when amortized over 20 years. (Using these figures and assuming the cost of a pound of fresh tomatoes is $3.50, and 91% of the pound is useable, the cost of a pound of home canned tomatoes is approximately $3.92. The cost of a pound of commercially canned tomatoes is about 92 cents.*)

Finally, dehydration is a rather costly operation in this part of the world at 99 cents per pound. You must use an electric dehydrator to be successful as the climate (some heat, more humidity) will not allow us to use the sun alone.

The differences may not seem significant unless you are putting away large quantities of food. I had always thought that freezing was the most expensive option. Not according to this study. The efficiency of modern freezers has probably changed this.

Once you decide which method you will use, then start gathering your supplies. As someone who likes to procrastinate, local sources can get depleted over the course of the summer season. Online sources are more reliable as it gets closer to September.

If freezing:

  • If you need to purchase a freezer, keep in mind that a full freezer is more efficient. Buy only the space you need, do not overbuy. An upright is less efficient than a chest freezer, but I find it very easy to lose things in a deep chest freezer!
  • If you own a freezer, eat what you can out of your freezer to make room for the new crop.
  • Stock up on containers. Reusable are best. Make sure they are appropriate for the freezer. Some plastics will crack when frozen. Rigid containers stack more easily. If using freezer bags, again, make sure they are freezer and not simply food storage bags.
  • A permanent marker and freezer tape or labels are essential as well.

If canning:

  • Purchase a new or check the condition of your water bath canner. The water bath canner or large pot should be clean, have a lid, and a rack to hold the jars off the bottom. Be sure you can locate all the pieces and replace what might be missing.
  • Purchase a new pressure canner or, if you already own one, keep in mind that a pressure canner with a dial gauge needs to be tested yearly. Have that done now. We do pressure gauge testing here at the office (hirsch@uconn.edu) or call 203.407.3163. If you cannot make it here, you can send gauges to your canner manufacturer to be tested. That will take some time, so get it done as soon as possible. Be sure to check your gasket and other rubber parts to make sure they are not dried out or cracked. If they are, replace them. Make sure there is a rack to keep jars off the bottom of the canner.
  • Check your supply of jars, lids and rings. The sealing compounds on lids can dry up and crack. Check the date on the box. If older than two or three years, it would be best to buy new. If jar rings are rusty, you should replace them. Check your jars. If the rims are chipped or cracked, replace with new. A chipped rim will prevent a good seal from forming.
  • Find or replace your other tools: timers, spatulas, jar lifters, ladles, funnels, etc.

If dehydrating:

  • Purchase or check on your dehydrator to make sure that it is working and that you have sufficient racks or screens.
  • Purchase your storage equipment, whether it is freezer bags, canning jars or other air tight, food-safe containers.

Of course, when you get ready to can, freeze or dehydrate, be sure to make sure all of your equipment is cleaned with detergent and hot water prior to using. Follow instructions for preparing canning jars and lids.

Last, but not least, update your information regarding safe home food preservation. Check with the National Center for Home Food Preservation http://nchfp.uga.edu/. In addition to safe processing methods, they also have a blog that provides timely information and advice: https://preservingfoodathome.com/. The Ball Blue Book, generally recognized by Extension food safety professionals as safe, is updated regularly.

*Based on figures from USDA/ERS Fruit and Vegetable Prices, 2015

For more information on home food preservation, go to foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Going Back to Your Roots, or Tubers

Going back to your roots…or tubers…or bulbs…or corms

Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator

 

vegetablesCorms? What are corms?

This time of year, those of us who make an attempt to eat seasonally, “root” vegetables are a mainstay. Though most are available year round, roots are something that you can continue to find at your local winter farmers market—grown in Connecticut. At my New Haven market, I have seen carrots, beets, radishes, all types of potatoes and even celeriac or celery root.

But, after doing a bit of research, prompted by an article sent to me, I discovered that what most of us know as root vegetables, may not actually be root vegetables as a knowledgeable botanist could tell you.

True root vegetables include taproots and tuberous roots. Taproots grow downward into the ground. They tend to be drought tolerant, sending out roots 20 to 30 feet long in search of water, if necessary, in dry climates. Typically they are tapered in shape: a main root with other roots that sprout off the sides.

Taproots include beets, parsnips, carrots, turnips, radishes, rutabaga, jicama, salsify, celeriac, and daikon radish. This list is not exhaustive and does include several taproots that appear to be shaped more like a ball than a tapered carrot. Tuberous roots are modified lateral roots, many of which (sweet potatoes, cassava) look just like taproots: others look more segmented such as ginger or turmeric.

Corms, rhizomes and tubers (different from tuberous roots) are really stem structures, not true roots. But many a roasted root vegetable recipe will list them as ingredients. Generally speaking, they are referred to as roots in agriculture as well as culinary uses.   Corms, constructed of vertical underground stems, include Chinese water chestnuts and taro. You no doubt have seen taro chips in the snack food aisle in your local grocery store or fancy food shop. They are often used by higher end restaurants as a garnish as well. They are an off-white color with dark striations and have a nutty flavor. In Hawaii, taro is cooked, mashed and made into poi, a thick liquid, often eaten with the fingers.

Rhizomes are also stems, not roots. Not all rhizomes grow underground, but ginger, ginseng, turmeric and lotus roots do. When growing, they look like a mass of horizontal roots (though, again, they are NOT roots).

Finally, tubers are a class of root-like vegetables that include potatoes, and some varieties of yams. They are formed from thickened underground stems.

Historically, because they are inexpensive to grow and store, root vegetables were often considered to be food for the poor. But the richness of a diet high in colorful beets, carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes, flavored with garlic or shallots (which are bulbs, not roots), turmeric, ginger or radishes is something we can all benefit from.

One thing that all of these true root vegetables, corms, rhizomes, and tubers have in common is that they serve as storage organs for the plant. They are a major source of carbohydrates, the nutrients that provide energy essential for plant growth and metabolism. Often these vegetables are placed on a do not eat list for those trying to cut down on carbohydrates. This would be a mistake, though. These carbohydrates generally digest more slowly and contribute to the energy needs of the human body, just as they do for the plant. Not only that, but they are also great sources of fiber (for heart health and gastrointestinal system health) and phytonutrients, which are not vitamins, but chemical compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in humans.

If you have a backyard garden, consider adding root and root-like vegetables to your “to plant” list this year. They are not difficult to grow if you pay attention to soil quality. They grow best in a deep, loose soil that can hold moisture, but is well-drained. Root crops do not grow well in very acid soils. So, don’t forget taking a soil sample so that you will know if you need to treat with fertilizers or lime. Planting of root vegetable crop seeds generally begins early in the season—as early as the beginning of April for most in Connecticut.

For more information on growing, preparing or storing root vegetables, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

CYFAR Summer Experience at Auerfarm

By Sherry Gray

student in gardenThe Auerfarm is a 4-H Education Center with 120 acres located in the northwest section of Bloomfield, Connecticut. The Farm was deeded to the non-profit Connecticut 4–H Development Fund in 1976; however; has a rich history dating back to the early years of the 20th Century. The farm served as a model farm to other farmers in the 1950’s and hence, grew into a place that values education, outreach and engagement. The farm currently houses livestock including cows, goats, alpaca, donkeys, sheep, rabbits and chickens. It also has several large vegetable and flower gardens, an apple orchard, and a blueberry patch. Extension supported the building of a greenhouse on the property that is heavily used by school groups and master gardeners. Each year 14,000 children and 5,000 adults visit and access educational programs at the farm.

CYFAR’s Tools for Healthy Living grant partnered with Auerfarm this summer to provide multiple weeklong day programs for low-income youth from Hartford. Each week twelve to fifteen 8-12 year old low-income youth from Hartford participated in a program designed to enrich their understanding of food, health, and agriculture through hands on learning. During this time, University of Connecticut (UConn) staff presented two lessons about issues related to food safety; these lessons are part of the Tools for Healthy Living curriculum that was developed as part of this grant project. The first lesson was a lesson on hand washing and the second was on how to avoid food related illness. Students also spent time in the gardens, visiting animals and preparing the food they had picked.

The summer program was a highly positive experience for students, many who had not attended a summer farm program before. Students were very excited to go to the gardens and the blueberry patch.  Several students made statements including “we get to pick berries!” The students also indicated that “this is a new experience” for (most) of them and upon the announcement from the teacher that berry picking time was over several made comments that they “wanted to do it again.”

The children were very excited to be in the garden. One day, the UConn Master Gardener trapped a groundhog that she then showed to the students. The animal intrigued them all, but some had differing opinions about it. Some thought that it “looks mean” while others thought it “cute.” Educators explained why they caught the groundhog noting that they “eat eleven pounds of vegetables a day.” The children were assigned tasks to pick vegetables, weeds or get grass for the animals to eat later. The children really seemed to enjoy the garden experience stating “I want to have my own garden” and “this is the best day of my life.” This garden supports the Foodshare organization by producing 2 tons of produce annually for hungry families in Hartford. Extension Master Gardeners are active with the Foodshare garden ensuring we give back to the community. One student notes that, “she doesn’t even like carrots, but she is happy that she gets to help pick them so that people who are hungry can eat them.” The students were enthusiastic about taking the vegetables from the garden into the kitchen to prepare their lunches, including, salads, roasted beets, pizza, and tacos.

All of the youth attending this summer program loved the experience, particularly being in the gardens, blueberry patch and in the kitchen. They interacted during the food safety lessons and showed increased awareness for the need to do thorough handwashing and minimize food safety risks. The animals and gardens throughout the property served as platforms for interactive learning. One student exclaimed “I can’t wait to come back to camp next year.” Another stated, “I just really like the fresh air and mountains.” As a result of this project, our grant team strengthened our partnership with Auerfarm and provided many youth with a farm experience that they would not have otherwise had the opportunity to attend.

 

Sherry Gray, PI Tools for Healthy Living

Mary Margaret Gaudio, co-PI Tools for Healthy Living

Jen Cushman, 4-H Extension Educator, Hartford County Extension

Miriah Kelly, Project Evaluator

Christine Smith, CYFAR Program Assistant

Angela Caldera, Hartford EFNEP

Marilyn Diaz, Hartford Administrative Assistant