When 15-year-old Kiara Perkins came from Queens to spend the summer working on Dellavale Farm in Pattersonville three hours north of the city, she brought 10 pairs of overalls with her. “I didn’t know what farming was like,” recalls Kiara, now 20, with a chuckle. “I found out that actual farmers don’t wear overalls like that. It’s a stereotype.”
Kiara, who is heading into her senior year studying animal science at SUNY Cobleskill, gives Dellavale credit for teaching her far more than the fact that real farmers don’t wear overalls. As a student in the agricultural program at New York City’s John Bowne High School, she had had some exposure to animals, but nothing like what she experienced living and working on the farm to meet her school’s 300-hour, hands-on requirement. “I really became a completely different person that summer,” Kiara says.
“I was super-excited to go, but as my dad drove me up, all the buildings started to disappear and I started to get a little nervous,” Kiara remembers. Then she met Terri Phillips, a warm and welcoming fourth-generation farmer who manages 500 crop acres and a herd of 46 cows with her husband, Tom Nelson, and the help of extended family. “I’ve always had a passion for dairy cows,” Terri says, “and I’ve always wanted to give people the chance to view the farm. If we don’t get out there and tell people what we’re about and what we do, we won’t exist anymore.”
Dellavale has been hosting students from John Bowne for a decade. The youngsters who come have a proven interest in animals and agriculture, but experiencing the daily rhythms of a farm takes it to another level. “You can learn from books, but you learn so much more by doing,” Terri says. “You move them in and treat them like one of your kids.”
“Some are a little squeamish at first,” Terri continues. But that wears off, she explains, as they help with milking twice a day, haying, feeding calves and animal care like shots and breeding. She arranges for the teens to visit a neighboring farm to get another view of farming; they also attend a farm show and most stay for—and some even show cows at— the county fair at the end of the summer. It’s not all work, of course. Downtime includes activities many of the city kids experience for the first time: drive-in movies, swimming, regular trips to Stewart’s for ice cream and milkshakes, and star-gazing. “When they first get here,” Terri explains, “they can’t believe how dark it gets at night and that you can see the stars.”
Terri’s niece, Erika Gogis, a recent Cobelskill graduate herself, spent her summers growing up working alongside the John Bowne students, some of whom have become close friends. “It’s an eye-opener,” she says, for both her and the New Yorkers. “I thought I was open to the world but everybody grows up differently, has a different point-of-view on the world. I’d ask what they did for fun in the summer in New York and they’d say they sit at the computer playing games.” Erika says her aunt deserves huge credit for making every student feel welcome and part of the operation: “She’s really, really patient with them. You can’t learn everything in one day. She’s so hands-on with them. She’s all about being there for the kids. It’s really good that they can come to our farm.”
Kiara Perkins agrees wholeheartedly. Her experience at Dellavale helped cement her college and career plans. This summer she’s teaching New York City middle schoolers in an agriculture and animal science camp and she hopes to get a job working with dairy genetics and reproduction when she graduates. “I love cows. I got really attached to all the cows at Dellavale,” she says. “I loved the birthing and feeding the calves. I even got to show at the fair at the end of the summer.” The value of the experience also went beyond farming. “I definitely grew a lot of responsibility and became very independent that summer,” Kiara reflects. “We did a lot of hay. I was so proud of myself. I’m not an athlete, but I had muscles on my muscles.”
The family is still in touch with the dozen students they’ve hosted over the years and several have come back to visit. “They know they will always have a place here where they can get out of the city,” says Terri. “As much work as it was, this is still a happy place for them. They become part of the family. It’s always hard when they leave.”
Learn more about the longstanding, nationally recognized agriculture program at John Bowne High School in Queens, New York.
As described on the school’s website: The Agriculture Program at John Bowne High School actually pre-dates the school. During World War I, young men and women were recruited from New York City to work on farms upstate in order to fill positions of men fighting overseas. Many upon returning requested to learn more about agriculture. By a happy coincidence a New York City reform school with a farm was being closed in Queens and so in 1917 the Agriculture Program began.