Got a curious kid who wants to know more about food and where it comes from? The best way to learn about the incredible journey from the seed to the dinner table is to see it in action -- and you don't have to go far to do it. Local opportunities abound to teach youngsters about the various methods of cultivating land, producing crops and raising livestock.
"There are so many options in the New York area that people don't even realize," said Shaina Robbins, public programs manager for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills. "There are tons of farms, CSAs and incredible farmers' markets in the New York area, Westchester and the Hudson Valley."
Letting children experience the various steps in food production can be especially helpful for parents who want to pique a picky eaters' interest at mealtime, Robbins said.
"When a kid participates with growing and cooking the food, they eat it," she said. "And the flavor is different when the food is seasonal and fresh-picked," she added.
She recalled a formerly finicky boy whose grateful mother reports that he now calls vegetables "candies that grow," thanks to his experiences at the farm. "It's really about trying to connect them to where their food is coming from," Robbins said.
Here are five local spots where kids can get a taste of farming.
Look to the left as you drive in -- you may be treated to the sight of dozens of fluffy sheep grazing in the pasture. Little farmers can get their hands dirty at this 80-acre, nonprofit working farm and educational center, which promotes sustainable, community-based food production. An assortment of hands-on children's programs -- such as gardening, cooking and egg collecting -- lets kids learn firsthand about the organic farming and preparation of crops and livestock by seeing, asking, touching and tasting. (Don't worry: There are hand-washing stations to use in between the touching and the tasting.)
For a self-guided tour of the farm, download Stone Barns' app or click on one of three 30-minute walking tours from the website, or pick up a hard copy at the visitors center. After a program or tour, grab a bite at the Blue Hill Café -- the fresh-picked flavors will knock your socks off, and the kids will have a whole new appreciation for what's on their plates, now that they know what it takes for the food to arrive there.
Fun to try: Hands-on egg collecting
An activity available year-round at Stone Barns is egg collecting, where guests of all ages can learn about the life of a hen at the farm, then pitch in and collect some eggs ($10 per person, advance registration is strongly suggested). The chickens are in elevated "eggmobiles" -- movable chicken coops on wheels. Little kids can climb up a stepladder, reach right in among the fluffy fowl and gather the eggs -- an activity they may not want to stop, as 3-year-old Stella Long of Jersey City attested.
"I wanna go get some more!" she squealed after filling her basket with about five smooth, brown eggs.
"I wanted an outdoor activity on a beautiful day," said Laurens Long, Stella's mom, who made the trek to Westchester County because she recalled the farm's beauty from a visit six years earlier. "I wanted Stella to have Mother Nature around her for a little while."
Farm hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday year-round. Public program days and times vary; visit the website for the complete schedule of programs and events.
THE SCIENCE BARGE
When someone mentions farming, most people picture a field out in the country -- and words like "volcanic rock," "barge" and "fish poop" probably don't spring to mind. But on the Science Barge in Yonkers, kids can see these and other alternative agricultural solutions in action without leaving the city. This surprisingly compact, sustainable urban farm, originally designed as a prototype for rooftop farms, packs a ton of science, education and fun on a small barge floating in the Hudson River.
You can take a "tour" -- really you'll see the whole barge in a few steps -- and young volunteers will explain how crops such as tomatoes, melons and lettuce are grown hydroponically in the greenhouses without soil. Instead, they use clay pellets or "rock wool," a porous material made from molten rock. The sun and the wind provide all the energy needed for the system to operate.
"What I thought was really cool was the moving solar panels," said Logan Taveira, age 10 (reporter's son). "It follows the sun automatically. No one has to change it."
Youngsters will get a giggle out of the ickier side of sustainable living: They're tickled to learn how a system of tubes carries excretions in water from a fish tank -- yep, the fish poop -- to the plants as fertilizer. There's also a demonstration compost bin where they can watch wiggly worms turning food scraps into soil.
Fun to try: Art & Science Sundays
Info: 12-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 31; The Science Barge, 99 Dock St., Yonkers; 914-375-2151; www.groundworkhv.org/programs/science-barge; $3 suggested donation for walk-on visitors, free for kids 10 and under.
Farm hours: Walk-ons are welcome from noon-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Field trips and educational programs can be scheduled on weekdays.
Historic buildings, shaded grassy spots and meandering paths create a charming and serene setting for picnicking and strolling, making Muscoot Farm in Somers a popular destination for families with strollers and toddlers, as well as group tours and school field trips. Visitors can check out the farm museum, take a walk to the gazebo or the duck pond and visit the assorted animals that live here.
Feeding and petting aren't allowed, but kids will get a kick out of a nearly nose-to-nose encounter with the cows in their stalls. The farm also offers programs and summer camps where kids can get hands-on experience with the animals. Depending on the program, activities may include crafts, gardening, collecting eggs, milking cows and grooming animals. Kids also may try hand-cranking ice cream or baking traditional Muscoot recipes.
Fun to try: Public hayrides
Little ones love to bump along in a wagon pulled by one of Muscoot Farm's big tractors ($2 per person, free for kids 2 and younger, no advance registration required). The 25-minute hayrides are available to the public on Sunday afternoons, weather permitting, May through October.
Info: Muscoot Farm, 51 Route 100, Somers; 914-864-7286; muscootfarm.org; free admission to the farm and the exhibit.
Farm hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
MCENROE ORGANIC FARM
Don't be intimidated by the size of this sprawling, 1,000-acre farm: There's a kid-friendly way to see all the types of organic produce grown here.
"The Victory Garden is our educational demonstration garden that is adjacent to our farm market. It allows visitors to see a full range of what we grow in a walkable area," said Suko Presseau, farm educator for McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton.
Families can take a self-guided farm walk and kids can try the learning activities, she said. "There is a stamp-collecting activity and map that teaches about various farm practices such as composting, livestock and strip cropping," Presseau said.
Afterward, sample the farm-fresh finished products at the McEnroe Market Kitchen, which uses the produce and meats from the farm and other local organic sources to prepare sandwiches, burgers, soups, baked goods and more.
Fun to try: Family Farm Days
On Saturdays through October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., McEnroe Organic Farm offers free children's activities and crafts, such as garden scavenger hunts, cooking demos, farm-related coloring pages and seasonal farm activities such as pick-your-own berries. The next one is Tasty Tomatoes, on Saturday, Aug. 18; the event will include 45-minute guided farm tours, tastings of peppers, cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes, and seed saving.
Info: McEnroe Organic Farm, 5409 Route 22, Millerton; 518-789-4191; McEnroe Office, 194 Coleman Station Rd., Millerton; 518-789-3252; www.mcenroeorganicfarm.com; free admission; contact the farm for tour details.
Farm hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday through Thursday, and 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. on Fridays (until early November); 9 a.m.-5: p.m. Saturday through Thursday, and 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. on Fridays (November-March).
This Yorktown Heights working crop farm and environmental educational center is a former dairy farm dating back to the 1600s. The farm offers tours, classes and field trips for scout troops, schools and other groups on healthful and sustainable food production. Touring visitors can see demonstration models for backyard farming, rainwater harvesting, composting and green-roof technology. The farm is also planning to schedule "Tween Cuisine," a children's cooking class, starting in September.
Although there are no ongoing weekend classes for kids this summer, there is a family activity that Hilltop Hanover Farm is known for, said farm manager Lucille Munz.
"The big thing is 'U-Pick Vegetables' on Saturdays. It's something that families can do together," Munz said.
Guests are also encouraged to hike along the farm's 3.5 miles of woodland trails and picnic on the grounds. There are crafts available at the picnic tables or in the classroom for parents and kids to do together, Munz said.
Fun to try: Farm Quest
This family-oriented hike highlights the history of the farm and the importance of weather in farming using quizzes, clues and activities. "It's like a scavenger hunt," Munz said. The free, self-guided tour traverses pastures, streams, a bird blind and the vegetable fields.
Info: Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center, 1271 Hanover St., Yorktown Heights; 914-962-2368; www.hilltophanoverfarm.org; free parking and admission; U-Pick vegetables cost about 50 cents more per pound than the farm stand prices.
Farm hours: Summer hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. U-Pick takes place during farm hours on Saturdays. Trails are open daily.