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Junior farmer-campers at work: Anya Champion, 14, daughter of Cindy and Chris Champion, Palmyra, and Chloe Tregea, 12, daughter of Laurie and Steven Tragea of Mt. Joy, team up to water trays of green bean seeds.

This is the fourth installment of an ongoing series with a focus on small independent farms and creative use of farmland. We hope it serves as a reminder that the food grown and raised in Lancaster County is both diverse and extraordinary and that the people tending the land have stories worth telling. Join us in saluting our neighbors.

When Cindi Hughes was growing up in a New Holland housing development, she didn’t know she wanted to be a farmer, but those metaphorical seeds had already been sown.

“I grew up running barefoot helping my parents in the garden,” Hughes said. “My mother would encourage my brother and me to go pick what we wanted from the garden for dinner. We didn’t live on a farm, but we were homesteading in a way in a little development.”

During those formative years in the 1970s and ’80s, she’d watch her grandparents, who lived nearby, preserve and put up the garden bounty. “From an early age, I was exposed to these rituals and being connected to food,” Hughes said.

Without a doubt, she says, that exposure is what led her to where she is today. At 53, Hughes is head farmer, mastermind and mother hen at Heritage Creek Farm Camp and Education Center in Mount Joy, which she started in 2012. “We provide an authentic experience for children to learn where their food comes from,” Hughes told me on a recent visit to the farm.

As a young mother with two small children, Hughes and her husband, Ed, bought land in 2002 with the idea of growing their own food and teaching their kids along the way. Nearly 20 years later, what began as a personal homesteading mission has morphed into a working farm with a small vegetable CSA and farm education programs for local school-age children.

In its third season, the CSA features 25 chemical-free crops over a 24-week period for more than 50 shareholders. Hughes and part-time farmer Darby Schock oversee two acres in active production, along with a newly installed 1,800-square-feet greenhouse, built during the pandemic lockdown.

The rest of the 29-acre property, which includes woodlands and a stream, is devoted to growing/cultivating of another kind: the future farmers of America. Since 2012, Heritage Creek has been hosting weekly farm camp sessions for 7- to 12-year-olds on summer break. In 2015, Hughes added a Junior Farmer program into the mix for tweens and teens with a deeper interest in working the land, available both during the summer and throughout the year for homeschooled students.

In a typical school year, Hughes is busy either hosting school groups for field trips or bringing a little bit of the farm to the schools. But last year, the pandemic effectively shut down Hughes’ contact with the outside world. All education programs in 2020, including summer camp, were canceled.

“It was extremely sad not to have kids on the farm last year,” Hughes said.

The pandemic, said Hughes, “forced me to wake up and diversify.” She points to the new greenhouse, an idea inspired by the pandemic that ultimately became a silver lining. “This is my Mount Joy Bahamas,” she said, leading me into the steamy structure, where peppers were growing.

“Winter is not my favorite time of year,” she explained. “I tolerate the cold. But with the heater going and the sun coming through, I spent all of my days in here [the greenhouse], and I set up a desk and visited with friends. It was the first winter I didn’t become sad. But now, we also have a space that allows us to grow 11 months out of the year. It’s an additional meeting space and classroom.”

In fact, because of the greenhouse, said Hughes, they now have the bandwidth to supply produce for Blade & Spade Coffee Apothecary in Lancaster city as well as St. John Neumann School for Children and Families, a new preschool in Columbia.

But in every conversation, Hughes always circles back to the kids. After a dark year, 100 campers came to the farm this summer. Whether she resumes her traveling farm show in the schools remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is much work to be done and much to be thankful for — and there’s always next summer.

“This is my dream job,” she said. “I get to be outside, be with children and teach them without the stresses of academics. Working in the soil feeds my soul.”

 

 

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