Little foodies

01 May 2019 | 12:11

    With five kids of their own, a farm family invites the whole school over

    By Becca Tucker

    Steve MacLean walks fast around his farm, his daughters Cooper, 4, and Calla, 2, running to keep up with him. Parents are already milling about, holding coffee cups and babies, peering into fridges stocked with pastured pork, beef, chicken and eggs. In a few minutes two school buses will disgorge about 60 pre-schoolers for an hour-and-a-half long field trip. A second wave is coming in the afternoon.

    The MacLean girls peel off to press their faces up against the window of the brooder that holds 435 chicks and 32 ducklings. The window is reinforced with chicken wire and reaches all the way to the ground. “The brooder, we built it purposefully for the kids to come out and walk right up to chicks,” said MacLean.

    Steve and Candice MacLean bought this 170-acre farm four years ago and got to work. Between restoring the old barn and bringing in a food truck with a full kitchen, they quickly established a connection with the high school across the street, providing food for a culinary program. Last year they expanded that relationship, inviting local preschoolers for a field trip at the farm at Glenwood Mountain.

    “We have five kids: three in the school system, two about to enter. We wanted to be involved,” Steve said. “We’re trying to teach kids where food’s really coming from.”

    The buses pull up and Steve welcomes the kids, then splits them into two groups. One group will head up to the greenhouse to plant tomato seeds in pots, while the other gathers around the brooder to hold and “help feed” the chicks and ducklings.

    “Do you guys know what chickens eat?” Steve asks the latter group.

    “Corn!” hollers a little boy.

    “Corn, oats and soybeans,” says Steve.

    “Hey I said corn!” the boy objects.

    “And it’s all non-GMO, parents,” says Steve. He has set out three metal buckets full of the individual ingredients that go into chick feed, for the kids to scoop up and let run through their fingers.

    Four-year-old Cooper is busy inside the coop, collecting chicks like a pro and handing them out to her mom, Candice. Candice kneels down, helping her daughter’s classmates take turns holding the fluffy yellow birds in cupped hands – a highlight from last year, said Meredith Varela, mother of four-year-old Liam.

    The MacLeans have been farming for close to a decade, but neither Steve, who’s from Vernon, nor Candice, from Wantage, grew up in farm families. “But once we started having children we wanted to provide them with good food,” said Candice. “It started with pigs, Steve’s favorite animal.”

    Steve was working as a sous chef in Manhattan when he was hired to be executive chef of a farm-to-table restaurant in Princeton, NJ. “The restaurant wasn’t done so I started hanging out with the farmers – and the pigs,” he said. “They’re so smart, like dogs.”

    Now his own breeding stock of 10 pregnant sows is expecting a total of 60 piglets. Plus there’s a pig named Wigdor in a pen near the chick brooder. “He’s kind of our mascot,” said Steve.

    Like most farmers, Steve, 42, has an off-farm job too. He owns a construction company, but he’s hoping that with the addition of weddings in the restored barn and a series of farm-to-table dinners, the farm will be sustaining itself within five years.

    In the meantime, Steve wants to be working with every grade in the Vernon Township School District. “I think the food system in this country is horrible,” Steve said. “I’m trying to teach them at a younger age: this is a plant, this is a chicken. I think they need to be more face to face with their food. It’s sad, you can hold up a tomato or an egg in a classroom and some of ‘em don’t know what a tomato is, or where an egg came from.”

    He envisions letting high schoolers who are interested in hotel management or culinary careers get experience in the food truck kitchen or at the front of the house.

    Walnut Ridge Principal Joe Piccirillo likes to get the preschool kids – along with their parents or grandparents – out to a communal event at a local business at least once a month. The field trips serve multiple purposes, not least of which is reassuring young parents by letting them see what their three-, four- and five-year-olds are up to. They’ve been to Price Chopper to learn what happens at a grocery store, cross country skiing and apple picking. The farm is a natural fit, he said.

    “We can get kids thinking about agriculture, which is a big part of Sussex County – still – and having an impact on the environment,” said Piccirillo, whose son was on the field trip. “The farm covers so many different areas, from science to nutrition to overall wellness to managing a business. Having them see, that’s how a flower grows, how vegetables grow. Or baby chickens, they grow just like I do,” he said. “It might never have occurred to them before.”