September 26, 2023

Week after week, something special is growing in Franklin this summer.

Kids who had never planted a vegetable garden, known how to tend to plants, or seen cows, horses or chickens up close are getting those experiences. They’re raising their own produce and seeing agriculture in action all over the county.

Even kids who have experience on the farm are learning.

“I love coming out to see my chicken. I love working with chickens, working with animals, and planting in the garden,” said Julie Sloop, 10, one of the campers.

At Purdue Extension Johnson County’s annual garden camp, experts are cultivating young people who love getting their hands dirty. The Growing Healthy Roots Summer Camp gets kids digging in the dirt while learning about nature, livestock, growing food and all kinds of other topics.

The camp is expanding in exciting ways, including implementing field trips and having campers plant and oversee their own garden plot.

“They really are excited to get dirty, run around, stick their hands in the dirt and know it’s OK to play in the dirt. You almost have to pull them out of there,” said Sarah Hanson, county extension director. “It’s nice to see them discovering this new thing for them to do.”

The Growing Healthy Roots Summer Camp is a partnership between the county extension office, Franklin Community FFA, Johnson County Master Gardeners and Trafalgar Country Gardeners, a community group focused on activities such as maintaining the demonstration gardens at the Johnson County fairgrounds and providing free public talks by gardening experts throughout the year.

When it was created, the idea was to provide an educational camp for budding gardeners ages 8 to 12 to discover the science of plant development. Kids would learn about everything from dirt to plants to bugs, with programs built around those different topics.

Those core ideas remain central to the camp, even as participants have been exposed to new experiences.

“We really want to teach the basics, even if some of the kids come from farms. All of the kids come from different levels,” Hanson said.

Every Thursday in June, campers have met at Franklin Community High School for a new lesson. Activities range from discovering the science of plant health and development to identifying soil pests to planning menus based on garden-to-plate nutrition.

Each camp day has been stocked with crafts, team-building activities such as weeding and tending to the garden, and snacks that the campers make themselves.

“The people who already know gardening and ag, we take it for granted that they know what it is. When there’s something the kids don’t know, we stop and explain it to them — how else would they learn, if somebody doesn’t tell them?” Hanson said.

At different intervals, the kids go out into the Franklin FFA’s garden plot, where each kid has been given a small section to plant whatever they want. The trade-off is that they need to be the ones to weed, hoe and water the budding plants.

The kids planted tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers and more throughout the gardens. Seeing everything grow has been one of the best parts of the camp, said Katherine Lanier, 9.

“We thought it would be really fun to garden,” said Katherine, who is attending the camp with her brother, Karl.

To help the kids with the different camp programs, members of Franklin’s FFA serve as counselors. The camp is a chance for them to pass on their own interest in agriculture.

“I just really love interacting with the kids and getting them around agriculture and more involved, because then when they get older, they love it,” said Breaunna Lapier, one of the FFA counselors. “It’s starting them young, and then working them up.”

Area master gardeners also help lead, sharing their knowledge and love of planting.

“I love planting, I love playing in dirt, I love animals,” said Joy Rieger, a master gardener assisting with the camp. “It’s really fun to see them learn.”

Organizers decided to extend the camp by two hours this year, giving them more opportunities to plan bigger programs for the kids to try. That has included field trips to agritourism sites and farms around the area.

They’ve learned about working apple orchards at the Apple Works in Trafalgar, and had a chance to see a newly born foal on a Franklin horse farm. Other trips have involved excursions to a tree farm, and they’ll visit Dollie’s Farm to see a flower-growing operation later in July.

“When we were planning, we got so excited about all of the different places we go. So almost every week, we’re doing something, even if it’s just for a couple hours,” Hanson said.

Through education and hands-on experience, organizers hope that the kids have a better understanding of food and farming, laying the foundation for nutrition habits that last long after the final camp day on July 20.

“It’s always good getting kids to smile, and seeing them do something new and try something new. That, in return, is such a good experience,” said Katelyn Chapman, one of the FFA counselors.

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