At a Farm Camp for Girls, Learning to Grow Food—and So Much More

Young women from Providence, Rhode Island, get work and life experiences at a new summer camp.
(Photo: Girls Farm)
Aug 22, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

A crew of high school girls from Providence, Rhode Island, three women farmers, two acres, one CSA, 95-degree August heat, 100 percent humidity, and a truckload of potatoes—welcome to farm camp at Sidewalk Ends Farm.

“Being outside and using your body outside is a really powerful, important experience,” farmer Sarah Turkus said in an interview with TakePart. It can be even more powerful for those who love the outdoors but grow up in the city—especially teenage girls. “It can be such a volatile and weird, confusing time for you and your body. We wanted to cultivate that positive experience,” Turkus said. Women make up a greater proportion of the farmers in the Northeast than in dominant ag regions such as the Midwest and the South.

Inspired by rock ’n’ roll summer camp Girls Rock, farmers Tess and Laura Brown-Lavoie and Turkus launched Girls Farm this summer to provide just that kind of positive experience. The two-week-long program caters to girls (and gender-non-conforming people) between the ages of 15 and 18 who attend public high school in Providence, where 80 percent of the student body is nonwhite.

The eight campers in the inaugural session were selected through an application process that targeted anyone excited by “being outside in the summer time, working with their bodies, getting dirty, eating cookies in the shade, learning how to grow food, thinking about the food system, and having fun with other women.” Though Girls Farm was a camp in spirit, complete with chocolate and marshmallows, the organizers also treated the hands-on program as something else: a job. In addition to the camp being free, participants also received a $200 stipend for their work, which was made possible by a Go Fund Me campaign.

At 8:30 each morning, campers met at Sidewalk Ends Farm’s 5,000-square-foot urban plot in Providence, carved from a formerly vacant lot, and rode a bus to the two-acre sister plot in Seekonk, Massachusetts. Mornings were spent on farmwork: harvesting and washing vegetables such as tomatoes, leeks, and green beans for CSA boxes; weeding and prepping beds; digging potatoes; and preparing for the Thursday farmers market in Providence. Like a sewing circle, fieldwork isn’t just productive—it can provide a forum for conversations both silly and essential.

(Photo: Girls Farm)

“Fieldwork is a time of visioning,” Laura Brown-Lavoie said. “We spend a lot of time talking about the world we want to live in, and we wanted to be able to share that experience with younger women.” They sang songs together, talked about how they would get along with their first-year assigned roommates when college started in the fall, and shared strategies for coping with menstrual pain.

“To me the field conversations...are actually all enacting a deeper vision, in which people who are united by a common physical labor and challenge, bounce ideas off one another, and learn from each others’ wisdom in a non-hierarchical way,” Brown-Lavoie wrote in an email to TakePart. “By the end of the week, we were all really connected and fond of one another.”

In the afternoons, special guests—all women—arrived on the farm to give talks and lead the girls in activities. The campers were “sponges” for everything they could learn, Turkus said, and the farmers wanted to expose them to as many sources of knowledge as possible. They took guided herb walks and learned about plant-based medicines, created botanical prints with leaves, concocted refreshing flower essences, and sewed reusable menstrual pads. They also ventured off the farm on field trips to the farmers market in Providence, where Turkus sold the vegetables the girls had prepared, and to visit a farm that raises poultry, including chickens and emus.

“The farm that we visited was not a woman farm,” Turkus said. “He’s a man, but he’s a queer man, so we gave him a pass,” she said, laughing.

“We did want to foster an environment of woman community,” she continued. “Our farm is very much largely populated by women—95 percent of the people who pass through here are women, so we wanted to give them that. Also, it is so rare to have time that is intentionally just women.”

The campers took turns preparing lunch for the group and were eager to share their mothers’ and grandmothers’ recipes for tomatillo salsa, Asian noodle bowls, mouth-scorching spicy potatoes, and Haitian legumes made with eggplant and other vegetables.

By 4:30 each afternoon, the bus was pulling back into the real world in Providence, but roots for the future had begun to spread. Several girls expressed interest in returning to Sidewalk Ends Farm or being connected with other area farms for work or to volunteer. At Friday night’s final cookout, one girl showed a passion for shucking bicolor corn that Turkus recognized in herself.

“She pulled back the husk on one of the ears, and her whole face lit up: ‘It’s so beautiful! It’s so beautiful!’ ” Turkus said—a response she herself feels when picking a perfect tomato. “I couldn’t help myself. I said, ‘Please tell me you’re going to be a farmer. Not everyone has that reaction to vegetables, and if you have that reaction to vegetables, then you should be a farmer.”

It’s the kind of experience the farmers, for their part, are also not willing to see as a one-off.

“Witnessing the resilience of these girls who do not generally spend their time working outside—they really blew me away with their enthusiasm and energy,” Turkus said. “We have to do it next year.”