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Move over ComiCon, here comes AgriCon

How one educator’s egg obsession cracked open a hub of agricultural education

| 13 Apr 2023 | 11:14

Eggs are having a moment. “You paid what for a dozen?” But for Christine Hutchinson of Newburgh, NY, a veteran teacher and self-described tinkerer, an egg lies at the core of her journey into growing the next generation of young farmers.

“Relax, it’s just an egg,” said Hutchinson to her co-workers when they would rave about the eggs delivered by a local farmer to their school building in Newburgh, NY. But when she finally brought the famed eggs home to try, it was a life-altering epiphany. “I wanted that type of egg in my life,” she said, “and I was never going to eat regular eggs again.”

When she was transferred to another building and could no longer buy eggs from the farmer, the tinkerer’s mind went to work. How could she deconstruct the ultimate egg experience and recreate it for herself? Thus was born Pugh Farms Poultry. For the next six years, the small-scale poultry business would be Hutchinson’s side hustle. The experience gave her not only real-world farming experience, but also a hard look at the very real issue of land sovereignty – which ultimately took front seat and caused her to put a pause on chicken keeping.

The inspiration Hutchinson gleaned from the farm moved beyond the chicken yard into her classroom. We all remember that teacher who did things their own way, right? That was Hutchinson: exposing her English students to hatching chicken eggs, creating scientific notebooks, even raising a guinea pig. “I’m always concerned about how young people have empathy for other living beings, other humans, other animals, and even the non-living beings,” she said. How to educate students, Hutchinson wondered, “to come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t throw their plastic bottle into the gutter... and maybe shouldn’t even get a plastic bottle.”

When she wasn’t farming, Hutchinson was busy seeding her community with these life lessons. In 2018, a local initiative that Hutchinson had founded, Girls to Ladies, was starting to outgrow its original mission of character development, life-skills building and community service programming for teen girls. So Hutchinson founded OurCore, a hyperlocal nonprofit dedicated to empowering marginalized Newburgh youth to uplift themselves and others through experiential and academic education. Today, OurCore comprises three foundational programming areas: Girls to Ladies, Funding Academics and AgriCultural Education.

“I love the idea of making farmers, especially among children who are of color and Black children and girls,” said Hutchinson. But the mission goes well beyond the idea of career options. It’s about exposing hundreds of kids to life-changing experiences, their egg moments, whether caring for an animal or eating something they’ve grown themselves.

“A good chunk of them have gone on and thought more about their food, changed the way they eat, treated the animals around them and the the earth under their feet a little differently,” she said. “Those little nudges are just as important as turning 17 kids into farmers, because the change that we need to have in our society and even in Newburgh is something that has to be pushed by a number of people.”

Last year, as part of her role with the Farm to School team at Newburgh Free Academy North, Hutchinson galvanized her students into planning and launching AgriCon, a two-day, college-fair type experience where students are exposed to several aspects of agriculture during the school day. Instead of college reps, booths are manned by people “involved in growing food, moving food, rescuing food, caring for soil and so on. We [even] had someone there with sheep,” said Hutchinson. The reps were truly a who’s who of Hudson Valley food and farming educators and influencers.

It’s this type of movement-building energy that Hutchinson has infused into all her work, be it as executive director of OurCore, education coordinator for Downing Park Urban Farm (a working community farm), or through her board and council memberships with Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Global Village Farms and Glynwood Farm’s Food Sovereignty Fund.

If you’re thinking, how does she do it all?, take a good look at her “why.” “As I was exposing kids to this agriculture thing, I knew the reality of what they faced once they tried to get into it,” she said, “because I’ve been through it.”

As she looked into the history of land access issues, she was surprised to find that the same policies and drivers that “pulled Black people in particular off of their land down South actually moved up here,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that right here in New York there would be space and support, and I know that our city should be taking a leading role in making that happen.”

If a good egg can inspire that sort of change, maybe $7 a dozen isn’t such a high price after all.

“I wanted that type of egg in my life, and I was never going to eat regular eggs again.”