Chelsea O’Brien is a longtime educator. She’s also a parent.
When she and her family moved to Clarkston seven years ago, she would pass an old horse farm each day as she drove her kids to school and think about how it would be perfect as an educational farm for children.
The idea of running an educational farm had been percolating in her head for some time. O’Brien grew up on a farm herself, and had previously run an outdoor educational program in Ferndale.
“The more I worked in public schools and in a more formalized teaching setting, the more I saw a need to allow teachers to add relevance to the rigor in the classroom,” she says. “As a teacher myself, I saw again and again the wonderful teachers who wanted to do more for their students and who saw the value in nature-based education and hands-on learning in a
nature-based setting, and were looking for ways to support that.”
Field of Dreams
The horse farm was located on 26 acres that had been sold to Clarkston Community Schools in the late 1990s. Independence Elementary, where O’Brien’s kids went to school, was built on a portion of the property, but otherwise it mostly sat empty and underused.
On one corner, there was an old farmhouse with big barns, a beautiful pond and old growth cedar, maple and black walnut trees. O’Brien knew it was the perfect spot for a nature-based educational program, and she also knew that like-minded people would agree with her. From there, it was just a matter of finding and convincing them.
It took several years of talking to anybody who would listen: sharing her idea, developing a business plan and cultivating “Friends of the Family Farm” who were willing to help her manifest her idea of creating a space for kids.
“It was something that as a mom, as an educator and as a former farm girl, I always had a passion for the outdoors — and certainly research supports how valuable it is for kids to spend time in any green space,” she says. “So it felt like it was meant to be.”
The Clarkston Family Farm officially incorporated in January 2017 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with 10 board members and O’Brien as executive director. They lease the property from Clarkston Community Schools, do all their own fundraising and even have a farmers market on-site that provides another means of funding for the rigorous, science-based educational programming for kids of all ages and abilities. Most programs and workshops are low-cost so that they are accessible to as many families as possible.
Farm Takes Root
In a little over two short years, the farm has come a long way. O’Brien started running summertime nature camps at Independence Elementary before the farm was even operational. Its Camp Wild program will start its fourth year in July, offering both full-day and half-day programs, with each day focused on a different ecosystem including wetlands, soil, forests and meadows.
The final day of the camp is conducted in collaboration with another local farm. On that morning, the whole group walks the quarter mile to the neighboring Bittersweet Farm, where they all help “plant a row for the hungry.”
“I feel serving the community and giving back is a very important part of what we do,” O’Brien says.
This year also marks the Clarkston Family Farm’s second working with Clarkston SCAMP, a seven-week summer day camp for kids as young as five and young adults into their late-30s with special needs.
“Our farm is in perfect alignment with their mission,” O’Brien explains. “Once or twice a week, they come out for three hours for a lovely day of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.”
The Clarkston Family Farm runs a seasonal after-school Garden Club in which children get to plant and harvest produce, take care of farm animals, participate in farm-to-table cooking labs and sell the produce that they grow at the farm’s Sunflower Market. In addition, the farm hosts workshops on such topics as canning, beekeeping and building birdhouses. They’re led by people in the community who want to share their knowledge.
“Our mission is to educate and inspire the next generation about healthy food, sustainability and the value of nature,” O’Brien says.
The farm also works closely with Clarkston Community Schools, supporting “Next Generation Science Standards.” When a teacher calls wanting to bring students out on a field trip, O’Brien helps design a learning adventure to reinforce lessons specific to the group’s classroom.
And with support from grants, legacy sponsorships and individual donations, the farm now has a “Giving Tree Orchard” with apple, pear and peach trees; a “Heritage Garden” of native plants where they do educational work on pollinators; and a “Rain Garden” of native flora with deep root systems where kids learn about how certain plants can absorb water runoff and tolerate drought.
In a video filmed for Independence Television, which serves Clarkston and Independence Township, one young farm helper named Lars Wilson said he likes how the farm has so many different varieties of animals and plants, and also how many classes there are and all the different things they do at the farm. He added, “I really wish there were more cooking classes. We don’t really do a lot of cooking at the farm. We have tons of ingredients but we never do the actual cooking.”
The young chef will soon get his wish: Clarkston Family Farm already has an “Outdoor Cooking Lab” with maple syrup evaporators and a cider press, but soon it will add a full outdoor kitchen for classes on healthy eating and farm-to-table cooking. This year they will plant a “pizza garden” (peppers, basil, tomatoes, garlic and onions) and build a pizza oven as part of the new outdoor kitchen.
The farm’s first project was the “Hopeful Hoop House,“ built with fifth graders as part of a service-learning project. The Hopeful Hoop House was sponsored by the Clarkston Area Optimist Club. Without the group’s early support, O’Brien says, the farm might not have ever happened.
Jim Evans, founder of the Clarkston Area Optimist Club, says that Optimists support “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” and O’Brien epitomizes that.
Each year, the Clarkston Area Optimist Club distributes $50,000-$60,000 to the community and has also provided support to the Clarkston Family Farm’s Sunflower Market, a “green room” classroom, and most recently, the outdoor kitchen. O’Brien says that the spaces they have supported through their grants are “integral” to supporting the farm’s programs.
O’Brien would next like to build a “Healing Hoop House” for people with special needs “to truly be a place of healing and growing.” She is also focused on a new project called “Pathways to Possibilities,” which will involve creating paved pathways for people with mobility issues.
O’Brien estimates that the farm has served close to 7,000 kids since January 2017, though she adds that it’s truly a space for all ages. Workshops and events are open to everyone, as are volunteer opportunities.
“The lifeline of this farm is the people who come volunteer their time,” she says. Anyone interested can contact the farm and volunteer to join the Bunny Brigade, Hoop House Helpers or the Chicken Tenders — the name O’Brien’s 14-year-old son came up with to describe the volunteers who tend to the farm’s 27 egg-laying hens.
“How fortunate am I that I get to do this every day?” she asks. “I’m very honored to have been able to spearhead and champion this project.”