The lanky 7-year-old in a red fleece matching, Adidas red-striped track pants and a red trucker hat, stands out among the rows of potatoes, kale and broccoli on Ridgeway Farms in Kenai.
Nonetheless, the joy on his face is palpable when he spots a potato in the recently tilled soil and he drops to his knees to snatch it out of the ground.
“Look,” he said, lifting it up into the sunlight and squinting at farmer Abby Ala who crouched nearby.
The scene replayed itself over and over again as Abby helped a small group of the more than 70 students from four classes at Kaleidoscope Charter School that descended on her farm for a day of harvesting.
“I’ve never been on a farm before,” said Jacobee Chapman after he finished showing Ala his handful of potatoes. “It’s pretty fun doing it.”
He stopped to pick up another small white potato laying in the dirt as he made his way over to a large plastic container containing all of the potatoes the group harvested.
He didn’t mind getting his clothes dirty, he said.
“It’s kind of like at the Nikiski Pool. It’s a pool, you get wet. Only, here you get dirty,” Chapman said.
His favorite part, he said, was seeing the livestock up close.
“There’s a pig, sheep, horses and cows,” he said. “My favorite one was the chickens. The eggs are different than white eggs, they’re skin color.”
Nicole Sheldon, Abby’s daughter and a teacher at Kaleidoscope said that in the decade that she has been bringing students out to her family’s farm, the thing they consistently connect with is the food.
“It’s the plants that they eat,” she said. “Earlier in the class, the kids were talking about the different parts of the plants that they eat and it was hard for them to understand that you eat the root or the stem or the leaf and they totally get it now as they’re eating the leaf of kale and walking along.”
Small groups of first and second grade students walked around the farm harvesting vegetables, learning about composting, feeding livestock and collecting eggs from the chickens for most of the day Thursday.
“Tomorrow is pajama day and they’re going to make a stew with all of the vegetables,” said Megan Smith whose second-grade son was among the students running around the farm. “It’s truly form the ground to the table.”
Smith said she was happy to see the community support field trips for students and the chance to get the kids outside.
“We need to enjoy the last little bit of our fall before winter,” she said.
Nancy Lafferty, a Kaleidoscope teacher, stood in one of the farm’s high-tunnels teaching groups how to recognize ripeness and harvest tomatoes.
As she walked through the overgrown rows of plants, occasionally stooping to remove a batch of weeds so the kids could get a better look at the tomato plants, Lafferty stopped several times to glance at 6-year-old Ava Gruber who proved to be the best in her group at finding the tomatoes.
Gruber found a bright red tomato on the ground and held up the whole group so that she and fellow 6-year-old Mackenzie Fann could admire it.
“You’re good and finding those,” Lafferty said to the giggle duo.
For many of the kids who have never been on a farm, Lafferty said the experience brought them closer to their food.
“So many kids now don’t see where food comes from ... have not seen it growing before,” she said. “It’s a real life experience. It’s hands-on. It’s meaningful.”
Abby and her husband Harry “Tinker” have hosted several hundred students on the farm over the past twenty-years and the two were hand helping the kids choose vegetables, puzzle through the difference between edible plants and weeds and hop onto the tractor of a hay ride.
“Abby is really good about letting the kids be kids,” Lafferty said. “If the kids break anything or do anything, she doesn’t care.”
Sheldon watched the groups of students as they spread out, tracking mud all over the place and poking at the plants, tools and anything else that was available for inspection.
“The kids are making up their own songs as they’re picking vegetables,” she said. “They’re making up their own songs and they’re doing it and just finding complete joy in it. I think that would be the thing that I take back is that whole love for the world around you.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org