Urbane Byler remembers the time when a teacher on a field trip to his Slatington-area farm asked her young students what products come from chickens.
He recalls: “One of the kids said, ‘We get eggs and Chicken McNuggets.’ ”
True enough, although in the McNuggets’ case, I think you could argue any resemblance to chickens living or dead is purely coincidental.
In a day and age when kids have to put down their X-Box controls to check a text message on their Smart Phones while Skyping a pal on their laptops, Byler’s Farm is a revelation.
Every October since 1987, this low-tech operation has been teaching school children about where their food comes from with the help of a cow, a flock of chickens, goats, apple trees, a cider press and pumpkin patches. Byler and his wife, Janet, realized the need to reconnect kids to agriculture when they were co-directors of the Hill Street Children’s Center, now in Walnutport.
“We have gotten so far away from the reality of the bare facts of where our food comes from,” he said. “For the most part it comes in packages.”
I spoke to him after Sunday’s Lehigh County Open Gate Farm Tour – an annual pilgrimage for my kids and me. We’ve been going since I was carrying them around in baby backpacks. Even now that they’re teenagers, when we missed last year they acted as if I’d shot Santa.
Byler said even the most sophisticated city kid delights in milking a cow and letting the greedy goats nibble feed from their outstretched palms. They love coasting down the 30-foot slide into hay and taking a hayride to pick their own pumpkin. Byler’s is open for school groups through Oct. 31.
The farm entered the Lehigh County Farmland Preservation program three years ago so the land won’t be turned into tract housing or a strip mall.
Jeff Zehr, county Farmland Preservation director, said it has preserved 243 farms, for a total of 20,268 acres. Another 70-75 farms remain on the waiting list.
The county expects to get about $500,000 from the state for preservation but hasn’t allocated any of its own funds in the proposed 2012 budget, according to Glenn Solt, director of operations. At roughly $4,500 an acre, that $500,000 can preserve about 100 acres of farmland. If the county matched that, it would cost the average homeowner about $3.50. I spent more than that on a pumpkin Sunday.
Zehr and Byler said the county has some of the best soil for farming in the nation and both believe it’s important to have local sources of food. Farmland also puts fewer demands on municipalities for services and schools than do developments – which save taxes in the long run.
Those are some of the practical reasons to preserve farmland but there’s also this: When you drive over those rolling hills, past the glistening pastures on a crisp fall day, you feel lucky to be alive. That – and it’s good to know where McNuggets come from.