I think we’re probably all in agreement that taking kids to farms and farmers’ markets are great ways to show them where our food actually comes from and to get them interested in healthier eating.
Even though we’re inching toward summer — the season here in Florida when most of us would like to live in an air conditioned bubble — I’m hoping you’ll still take your kids or grandkids to local farms. Although the Sunshine State’s most robust growing seasons are winter and spring, there’s still a bounty of greens, peppers, corn, watermelon, and other items to buy from local farms — not to mention jams, honey and year-round goodies.
With that said, you’ve got to keep a close eye on your little ones on the farm. There can be a false sense of security because you’re in a pleasant, fun outdoors setting. I should know — as you’ll read later in this column.
Here are my suggestions to keep your farm visits safe and engaging for the kids.
1. Watch them at all times. When my now 10-year-old son was 3 and we were still living in the Washington, D.C., area, we made our annual trek to my aunt and uncle’s farm in central Virginia. After a four-hour car ride — and with my active 3-year-old practically bursting out of his car seat — he and I took a few minutes before going inside to look at the cows from afar. I wasn’t holding his hand, and I took a few seconds — that’s all it takes — to turn my head and enjoy the hilly, green view. Next thing, I heard a loud clunk and my son crying.
He had pulled an unchained cattle fence panel onto his body and ended up breaking his leg. I know it could have been worse if the heavy panel had landed further up his body.
This led to six weeks in a cast and three surgeries - one to insert pins in his leg and then two surgeries to remove the pins. While we’re no worse for the experience now, this taught me that farms can have dangers we city and suburban folks can’t always expect. So, keep the kids close, and have the really young ones hold your hands.
2. Have them wear sturdy shoes and long pants or shorts. The farm isn’t the place for budding fashionista wear. Because of safety dangers — not to mention possible weeds, thorny things, or insects — keep legs and feet covered appropriately with pants or longer shorts and long-sleeved shirts.
3. Slather them with sunscreen. Living in Florida, I shouldn’t even have to state this tip. With every farm I’ve visited, I can clearly see my family or me standing in a field right out in the hot sun. You don’t want to come home and have to soothe sunburned skin, so bring your sunscreen, reapply, and use hats and sunglasses, too.
4. Check the farm’s hours in advance. Now here’s where I can start to address the more practical advice instead of just safety. There have been a couple of times when I’ve had my son with me to visit a farm for a story, only to arrive and find it’s closed for the season, closed for the weekend, and, even in one case, closed indefinitely. Oops. Try explaining that to kids who have a pretty structured view of what they’re doing that day. Call in advance to find out the farm’s hours; many farms are even now on Facebook and will post their hours there as well. Hours often change by season.
5. Monitor how much the kid’s picking. If you follow my advice, you already have the wee ones surgically glued to your side, so you’ll see what your charges are getting if you’re at a u-pick farm. You also can see that they’re picking produce that’s ripe enough versus items that need a little more time to grow. Now that my son is older, I recently let him and his friend wander somewhat freely at a u-pick strawberry farm. When I saw them a mere five or 10 minutes later, they had picked pounds of strawberries and were ready to eat them. “That’s enough, thanks guys!” I said. So, love the enthusiasm but make sure you’re ready to buy and use all that the kids pick.