Volume XVII, Issue 32 # August 6 - August 12, 2009

Raising Good Kids is Like Raising Good Beans

The lesson of Spruill Family Farm Day

by Sandra Olivetti Martin

Emmanuel Faulkner Jr.’s arm shoots up.

“I’ve got a question,” he says. “Does that bird eat humans, too?”

The peregrin falcon in question is stuffed, but its powers have been compellingly evoked by Pete Bendel, Southern Maryland’s man on wildlife and heritage for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. A youngster needs to know more about the fastest animal on the planet, able to dive on its prey at 200 miles per hour.

More comforting are the cows, a pair of black and white Holsteins trucked in for the day by Anne Arundel County 4-H, and introduced by their diet and temperament.

“I liked the cows,” says Sloane Walker, nine and three-quarters.

“I’m not a farm person,” says Mikayla Walker, Sloane’s 13-year-old sister. “But I like to farm with animals.”

Learning about life on the farm — from how many worms make your soil good to what grows in the ground and who flies above it — is the mission that has brought the Walker sisters, Faulkner and dozens more kids to the country on a summer day.

“Farming teaches you about life situations, situations you cannot control but hope come out favorably,” says Spruill Farm manager Wallace Williams.

On the front 40 acres of Spruill Farm, campers from five area churches visit seven learning stations, ride a hay wagon, walk the fields and picnic on the hamburgers and hotdogs adding their aroma to the smell of dust and the sunny stew of vegetation simmering in Harrell Spruill’s fields.

One of the stations is the cool barn, where the kids hear big, strong men — mostly Spruill’s younger brothers in the Eta Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity — urge them to keep focused.

“Farming teaches you about life situations, situations you cannot control but hope come out favorably [if you take the right actions]. Farming is the same. This is what it’s all about,” says Spruill Farm manager Wallace Williams of Annapolis.

Another big, strong, confident man, Williams hops off an old farm tractor to loft the campers onto the hay wagon. “Sit close together,” he urges. “We’ve got lots of people on this trip.”

Through the fields, between big gardens behind deer fencing, full of vegetables despite the dryness of the yellow soil, he drives the wagonload of kids, counselors, ministers and one reporter.

“This program is what attracted me to the farm,” he tells me after he’s lifted and handed the wagonload down to the shady spot at the hedgerow, where they’ll meet the peregrin falcon and other stuffed, endangered species.

Spruill Family Farm Day is the heart of a program bigger than the sum of its parts. Family Farm Day — this year with the help of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Center and the Anne Arundel County Soil Conservation District — is one day of 30 summer days at camp. Five churches sponsor the camps: Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church of Arnold, Franklin United Methodist Church of Churchton, and three Annapolis churches: First Baptist, Mount Moriah AME and Mount Olive AME. Each church enrolls about three dozen campers, ranging in age from five or six to 12 or 13.

At Spruill Farm, campers from five area churches learn of farm life, ride a hay wagon, walk the fields and picnic on hamburgers and hotdogs.

All those days for all those kids is the project of Harrell Spruill, who supports each church with $15,000 from his Har-Pearl Foundation.

Born on a farm in North Carolina, Spruill went to college at Hampton Institute. He taught auto mechanics in Anne Arundel County for 28 years, first at Bates High School and after integration at the Center for Applied Technology. He made his money, he tells me, when his home was targeted for pricey commercial development. In 1988 he returned to his farm roots, buying this 89.9-acre farm on Franklin Gibson Road in Tracys Landing, in Southern Anne Arundel County.

He does all this, he says, “to teach kids the importance of work. They see that as plants grow, they need attention, and the same follows in life.”

“We want them to strive to do all they can do early and have a set goal, college or a trade school,” adds Harrell’s wife Annetta, a teacher for 30 years, 29 at Huntingtown Elementary in Calvert County, and coordinator of Spruill Family Farm Day.

Encouraged kids are only one crop that flourishes at Spruill Farm, where the seeds of good works are the routine planting.

Spruill has donated 40 acres of his farm to Sojouner-Douglass College, which owns the fields where farm manager Williams, mechanic Earl Jones of Huntingtown and all the help they can recruit grow vegetables.

The beans and greens from these fields help fill the food pantry of Bread for the City in southeast D.C. More is sold at Anne Arundel County Farmers’ Market on Riva Road and the Jones Station Market in Severna Park.

Another garden is worked by Robert Brooks, fraternity brother and retired teacher, who sells his vegetables at Piney Orchard Farmers’ Market to benefit his church.

Jones unbends from picking lima beans to tell me about the farm’s “real work: teaching kids about real people and how hard they work to get vegetables to them.

“They try to do something positive,” he says of the Foundation’s purpose. “How can you make a decision,” he says of the kids, “when you don’t know what’s happening?”