What “life skills” do our children need to be able to navigate successfully in this world of ours? Leigh Merinoff, of Meadows Bee Farm in Vermont, is empowering children to explore their role in the wonders of regenerative farming, food production, herbal medicine and the traditional farm arts. Through her Meadows Bee Young Farmers Program, children learn how to milk & care for cows, how to tend sheep, grow food, sew, prepare ferments, and more. Along the way, they grow in their observation skills, critical thinking and compassion for and understanding of nature. These are the kind of life skills that promise a bright future for humanity and the planet.
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
Our kids may have good hygiene, solid respect for themselves and others, decent money management, and more, but what do their life skills should make the list to equip them to successfully navigate and succeed in this world of ours? This is episode 307 and our guest is Leigh Merinoff. For 25 years, Leigh was a sculptor and now, she is operating Meadows Bee Farm in Vermont. On the farm, Leigh and her team are sculpting our future as they equip the next generation with skills that help them explore their role in the wonders of regenerative farming, food production, herbal medicine, and the traditional farm arts.
Leigh describes their Meadows Bee Young Farmers Badge Program and how it’s empowering children and farming skills like milking and caring for cows and growing food in a non-toxic way. She describes her badge system that the children earn from sewing, fermenting, and even building fires. All the while, the children grow in their observation skills, critical thinking, and compassion for and understanding of nature. Honestly, these sound like the kind of life skills we could all benefit from.
Welcome to Wise Traditions, Leigh.
Thank you, Hilda. It’s great to be here.
It’s been a couple of years since we connected and when we heard you speak at the Wise Traditions conference, we’re like, “We have to get Leigh on the show,” because you’re doing something special with kids, farming, and education. Take us back to that moment when you were walking on Meadows Bee Farm with Aaden. What happened with that little kid?
One day, we are walking down the road giving one of our tours and we had about 4 or 5 little children aged about 4 to 8. As we walked by this garden shed, Aaden picks up his head, looks to the left and he says, “I built that.” He puts his head back down and continues to walk. For me, what was so special about that moment is Aaden had integrated into his young body that he had the capacity to build something. He had done it and now he was moving on. To me, that showed that what we were doing was worthwhile.
Did you start out with this intention of wanting to have a kids and farming program kind of thing?
No, I did not. I had no interest in doing any of that.
What sparked this shift? You have a whole Young Farmers Badge Program.
We have an extensive Farmers Badge Program. I was a teacher, so I did like to teach, but I didn’t understand at what capacity little kids could learn. After taking my own children, we spent a lot of time in the developing world when they were growing up. I began to see all the things that American kids didn’t know how to do and I didn’t know how to do either. As I learned, I naturally wanted to pass it on and adults weren’t that interested. I looked at kids and they enjoyed it a lot more, so I stuck with them.
It’s funny that you mentioned that because I’ve been thinking about how schools don’t often educate our kids with the most practical things. Maybe kids learn, let’s even say coding for software. How does that serve you in the real world if you have to survive and feed yourself?
I wasn’t looking to teach the kids resilience. I was more trying to make them happy. What I found is that when I taught kids how to do things, they became happy. I backed into teaching kids how to do things, but I always was interested in food. I wanted to teach kids how to eat and how to grow, and then how to cook.
Describe to us some more this Young Farmers Badge Program. How does it work?
We want the children to be five, but that rarely happens because when the four and the three-year-olds see that their older siblings are coming to the farm program, they start to mount a fight to get out of their car seats. We now even have two-year-olds at the farm program. We focus on children 5 to 10. We teach 31 subjects based on ecological farming. We teach livestock integration, farm crafts, and then all kinds of farming with fruit and bushes or wildcrafting. The children need four visits to get a badge. We make the concentrations difficult.
We find that the more the kids have to struggle to learn, the more excited they are when we finally award them with a badge, so we never cut corners. We teach things like how do you milk a cow? To milk a cow, you have to know how to feed a cow. You have to learn all about minerals, nutrition, and hay. You need to know how to use the milker, take it apart, reassemble it, and chill your milk. We do not use any cides, no pesticides or herbicides, so the children have to learn how to use garlic. Anyway, they take the milk and they then learn how to make yogurt and smoothies.
In the end, they all get to eat it. They get to eat what it is that they make, but it might take several sessions to be able to get the milk into the smoothie. We teach the whole thing. With 31 subjects, we’ll teach how to make a corn cake. You have to get eggs, make maple syrup, harvest the corn, grow it, catch a fish because we bury the fish with the seeds, mill the corn, nixtamalize the corn, and cook it. We let the children as young as five, cook the corn cakes. They can either do it in the teepee or in the house and they present it then to all the other kids.
Leigh, we’re talking about how the younger siblings want to be a part of the program. I bet adults want to be a part of this program, too.
They do. Since COVID’s come, we do let the parents join just to make sure that they’re comfortable with the children. Generally, the children are required to pay it forward, so they have to go home and teach the parents. Even though the parents can’t come to farm school, the children will then go home and teach the parents how do you make yogurt? Why do you need to make yogurt from raw milk? How do you make a smoothie? The parents get to learn.
Of course, as we teach, we understand better what we’re teaching, so that’s a great idea. How did you get the idea to use badges? Because you said, there’s a sense of satisfaction and happiness that kids get just from being outside and learning. Why did you institute the badge reward?
We wanted the children to keep coming back. In order for them to keep coming back, they could never complete their task. If they had to learn how to milk the cow and then process the milk into jars, it’s still raw, of course, that would take several sessions. We told the children that each time they’re there, they check off a couple of things on their card. Most of the cards have about twenty different activities they have to do in order to get the badge. The kids like that because they see that progress is being made.
One of the final things in the dairy one badge is they have to draw a picture of the cow with all the stomachs so they have to know that the cow has four stomachs. That’s one of the last things they do and they look forward to that. The kids want to come back, and then of course, once they start to get a bunch of badges, they can carry them around in a bag or their backpack. They talk about it at school or wherever they are and that keeps them wanting to come back and get more badges.
Who makes these badges?
I have a friend. She helps design and gets all the badges made for us. We have a large group. I’m not doing all of this myself. We have a lot of support and we use a professional designer.
Talk to us about the support. Who is on your team and how big is it?
It’s getting bigger all the time. We have one person in livestock who does the education in the barns. We have somebody who is in the gardens. We have another person who helps run the education. We have a woodsman, blacksmith, ceramist, and then we always have WWOOFers. In 2020, we had twenty different WWOOFers. We have interns that come in from all over the world, but those are our pillars. The livestock, gardening, and all the farm crafts. We have someone who also does all the wool arts.
Have you thought about replicating this? Can people do this on their farms as well?
We’re glad to help people. We are willing to share the curriculum that we’ve been building. Yes, anybody could do this on their farm. We are more than happy to show them. Even if they made 1 or 2 badges that might have their farm name because these badges do have our farm name on them. We’re happy to share anything because our goal is to get kids to learn about growing things and to become happy and joyful. Anyone that wants to do it, we will support them.
Are you hoping the children will become farmers in the long run?
It’s interesting, in my travels, I’ve seen that a farmer can be a smallholder and they can have an eighth of an acre and still have a full farm with bees, chickens, and sheep. It doesn’t have to be what we think farming has to be. We’re not talking about row crops. We’re talking about swapping every bush out you have and putting in blueberries, elderberries, and apricots. Where you might have grass, you can have raised beds. Where you might have a basketball hoop, you can have a chicken coop. Yes, we can all be farmers, but I also think Hilda that instead of being farmers, we can have families connected to farms. We can have children be able to leave school and go be on a farm and learn how to work it. In the future, children are going to be much closer to their food.
You mentioned, Leigh, your experiences traveling the world. Tell us a little bit about those. Where did you go and how long ago was that?
It’s funny. I first started in East New York, where I worked with a group called Heifer International. They were teaching gang members how to be smallholders, start farmers’ markets, and learning to grow, so I started right here at home and it was extraordinary. That’s where I got the bug. I saw these kids and there was nothing. There was no land because they only had asphalt and there was no money. A gang member can be a good farmer. They’re organized, show up on time, and wear the right clothes. That’s where I first learned. I was able to go all through Eastern Africa. I’ve been through Asia and South and Central America. Hilda, everywhere I went, I saw people were growing food and raising animals. Frankly, I thought they looked a little bit happier than us. Even though I understand the downside of living without financial resources, they had something we didn’t have, so slowly, I got the bug.
I’ve noticed several times in this conversation that you’ve said your goal is for children to be happy. You noted that the people on their farms in other parts of the world were happier. Why is that important?
2020 has shown us a lot about why we need to be happy. When a child doesn’t have happiness, they don’t have any hope. If they don’t have hope, they don’t have what they need to make it in this world. When you can teach a child the tiniest thing like to sew a little bag or we were making dream pillows, you can flip that around immediately. When the child learns to do something for themselves, they see that they can bring the hope from within. They don’t need to get it from somebody else. That is important not just to me as a teacher but for all teachers. We are inspiring kids to want to be here and participate. That’s extremely important. I am thrilled that my farm and I can be part of that.
What comes to mind for me is that you are teaching kids and equipping them to be creators, not just consumers.
Yes. I live in Vermont and there is not much consumption. We just about make everything that we have. There aren’t even any stores. If you want to buy something, it’s almost impossible anyway. Internet is lousy. You have to entertain yourself. We have enormous amounts of musicians and everybody grows food. They hardly noticed anything different in 2020.
Apart from happiness which you’ve made a strong case for, what are some other benefits that you’ve noticed among the children or their families?
One, it’s a lot less expensive when you learn to grow your food. The kids get off of sugar, so their moods are much more stable. They grow and they get larger because they’re getting a lot more nutrient-dense food. They see that they can take care of a lot of their needs themselves.
Can you give us an example of that? Can you think of a story of a kid who came to your farm and somehow you saw that?
I have so many. Many of the children, when they get there, they don’t talk. They’re withdrawn and they don’t eat anything. They’ll bring a little plastic box of Cheerios. We’re garbage in, garbage out, so you can’t leave any trash with our farm. I will have kids that will be walking by the linden tree and will start eating linden leaves. They will go home and tell their parents how we made linden leaf pizza, for instance.
The parents are shocked because the children, A, don’t talk and B, they don’t eat anything. We often get the children to eat all kinds of foods that they’ve never eaten before, but they are talking and describing them. They’ll go all over town because they have these badges and people are always asking them questions. You’ll find them somewhere describing to a table full of elders and talking about the food they made or how they got this badge. It’s extraordinary.
It sounds beautiful and idyllic, but certainly, there must have been some bumps along the way, or even now, there are some bumps. Can you tell us what the hurdles are to this kind of program?
A lot of kids get hurt. They might get bumped by the cow in their head or they might cut themselves with a knife because we’re taking down trees or they might burn themselves. In Vermont, parents are easygoing about that. They get stung by a lot of bees and the parents are okay. The kids are tough. Generally, they just shake it off if they can. We’ve had a couple of broken bones, which needed some care, but it never stopped the kids from coming. The only hurdles are sometimes, there’s too much snow and the kids can’t get there.
What about programmatically? Was there ever a badge that you instituted and you’re like, “Nobody wants this one. Nobody likes this one.” I’m just curious.
The scholarship badge is the hardest because the kids have to turn the pages of books. They have to sit in the library and there’s no internet, but they get through it. We allow them to make a cup of tea and we give them a snack. Once they get into it, they do like the books. That’s the hardest badge because most children seem to want to be on their computers and we try to stay away from that.
What is the scholarship badge for? What are you trying to equip them to learn in that little category?
We never tell them what to learn. We allow them into our agrarian library and we ask them to read a certain number of books that they just flip through. They’re not allowed to read the text. They have to find a subject that they’re comfortable with, and then they do research on it. They finally have to read and review a few books and say if they think that author wrote the book the way it should have been written. They critique it, and then they come up with their own thesis.
Leigh, what do the families say about their kids and the transformations they see in them?
We have families who come from far away. We have some kids that drive 2.5 hours and they have to be there by 8:00. That’s one of the families that have a 2.5 and a 6-year-old and they’ve been coming for years. We have kids who come from New York City and Boston. We even had kids from Mexico. The interns that come, come back again and again. The families are happy.
That’s one of your goals or hopes, so that’s a beautiful thing. I heard that you wrote a comic book for kids about this whole program. What inspired that?
We wanted the kids to be able to tell the story and share it with others. We know children love comic books so much. One of the grandparents of one of the farmers happened to be a comic book illustrator and he had done some of the Marvel Comics. He offered to help us, and then we all worked together. That was it. It was just about getting the kids a voice because that’s another way to create happiness. Children have a voice and they’re not always just told what to do, but they can help design it so they can co-create. We always ask the kids what they think about it and they help to write it.
You mentioned COVID and these times. How do you cope with that on the farm and in the midst of this program?
Frankly, it was startling when the whole thing started. We had to step back a second and think about what was happening and analyze it. We are biodynamic farmers, so we do work with viruses and bacteria, keeping them in balance. We’re raw milk yogurt producers, so our thing has always been about growing bacteria. This was at odds with what we believe, but we want it to be respectful. We move the farm program outside. We moved into the woods. When we weren’t with the livestock, we went into the woods and we started cutting down trees.
We made a road and we made a woodland shelter. We taught the children how to make mallets by cutting down the tree, skinning it, cutting a branch, and putting that together. We tried to keep the kids six feet apart, which you can do if you’re cutting down trees. You have to be far away from each other. We saw how it went. That’s when we invited the parents back and we said that they could follow the children because that way, they could make sure they were socially distanced. We kept all the windows and doors open if we had to go inside as to the school in Vermont, even though it could be zero degrees.
I was thinking about that. I was like, “If it’s cold, you guys are hardy up there.”
They think the worst problem was, “Don’t let out the cat. We’ll leave the doors open.” The police kids make sure the cat stays in the house. We did it and now, it seems to be ebbing. Our farm school is much fuller. We try to not be afraid. If we’re afraid, it was okay, but we try to work through it and carry on. We had so much work to do with all the cows, sheep, turkeys, peacocks, and honeybees. You don’t get that much time to yourself anyway. That was helpful.
Leigh, were you ever afraid?
I was in the beginning because I was caught by surprise. Frankly, I’ve been to so many countries and I’ve seen so many people go through these different things. I’m used to death and I worked through it. My husband helped me. We worked through it. I started doing graphing and I learned statistics, and that made all the difference. Learning what a graph is, how do you graph 100 or 1 million or 10 million at what our actual statistic is, that helped a lot. After that, I wasn’t afraid at all.
It reassured you when you saw the numbers on the page and maybe realized your odds of contracting anything were low. The kids, of course, have a low rate of infection and/or mortality.
People always fight me on this. We live in Southern Vermont and we haven’t seen a cold or a sniffle or the flu or COVID the entire year. We don’t know anyone that’s had it, but I want to be respectful and I know that’s not the case everywhere. I’m not saying that people aren’t sick. I’m just saying that nobody around us was sick. We were outside the whole time. We barely went inside for the entire year except to sleep.
That’s called adaptation to the max. We talked to some people on the show about these things and you’re living it in a functional way, which is amazing.
We’re cold and we’re fine. We’re cold-adapted.
It sounds satisfying and encouraging. I’m wondering, what if other people wanted to help kids learn on their farm? What are some things you might recommend that they do for the first steps?
You should make a list of what is it that you do. Do you have farm animals? What do you do with the farm animals? Where could kids come in? In the beginning, you teach them, but they will come in and help you with your work. Where could you offer that to the children? What else do you know how to do? Do you know how to cook? Can you use knife skills? Do you know how to make cheese or yogurt? Can you sew? Can you build? It’s about offering to let children come in and help them. Don’t do it for them. Show them and let them do it for themselves and not be afraid that they might hurt themselves. I would then record it and tell the children that if they finish, make a certificate or make something up. If they do this certain amount of things, you’re going to give them a reward.
I was thinking about a video a friend of mine posted on Instagram. He was in Africa and there was a little girl handling a large knife. She was peeling some vegetables and she did it with such ease. Clearly, no one had ever told her, “Don’t do that. You’re going to cut yourself.” There’s a sense in which we need to equip better our children who maybe have gotten too accustomed to words of caution and fear.
We teach knife skills to three-year-olds on a regular basis. The point is that everybody has something to teach. We can all mentor a child, and then we can encourage that child to mentor a child. Under your supervision, you never should be alone with just one child because, in our society, we look down on that. That’s why it’s great to have a group of children and get a helper but encourage the children to then go teach. That’s how we heal.
I know people are going to want to explore more, so we’ll make sure they can find out more, check out the curriculum that you offer, and even your YouTube channel.
Thank you, Hilda. I’m excited about the channel. It’s only going to show how to do things, what we do, and our suggestions. We’re looking for other people’s suggestions and together, we can all learn.
We’re all teachers and we’re all students at the same time. Leigh, let me pose you the question I often ask at the end. What can the reader do to improve their health?
Stop washing the soil off your food and make sure your food is grown in soil.
Isn’t all food grown in soil?
No. Less and less every day. We want things clean. Clean means it should have soil on it. That is what clean food is.
That sounds like another topic for another episode for another day. Leigh, thank you for your insights. It’s been encouraging and I feel happy, so thank you.
Thank you, Hilda. It’s great to be on.
About Leigh Merinoff
Leigh Merinoff, a community organizer in rural southern Vermont, is dedicated to reinvigorating ecological farming and encouraging healthy eating. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Hunter College in NYC with undergraduate and masters degrees in the fine arts, Leigh had a 25-year long career as a sculptor.
Her interest in smallholder farming developed with field study trips in Africa, Asia, Central, and South America as Ambassador for Heifer International. Learning from indigenous farmers along with studying biodynamic agriculture encouraged her to shift fields and farm full time.
Today, Leigh owns and manages Meadows Bee Farm Young Farmers Badge Program in Windham, Vermont and The Field House Eco-Farm and Learning Center where she engages children and adults in learning the basic skills of biodynamic farming, gardening, and traditional farm crafts. In addition, she has created Leigh’s Bees to provide high-quality, wildcrafted, biodynamic health, and beauty products.
- Weston A. Price Foundation
- Bordeaux Kitchen
- Wise Traditions – Apple Podcasts
- Meadows Bee Farm
- Young Farmers Badge Program
- Heifer International
- YouTube – Meadows Bee Farm