Farm to table: Camp Twin Lakes is sowing the seeds of sustainability

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Camp Twin Lakes farm staff (left to right) Ann Turner, Nichole Nuckols, Nathan Fussell and Lee Turner show off some of their summer harvest. Photo special

Camp Twin Lakes farm staff (left to right) Ann Turner, Nichole Nuckols, Nathan Fussell and Lee Turner show off some of their summer harvest. Photo special

By Leila Dycus, Intern

The seeds have been sown, sprouting the farm-to-table initative at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge.

What started out as a small organic garden at the camp has blossomed into a full farm program, with even more room to grow. The farm-to-table initiative is part of Camp Twin Lakes’ move to be more sustainable.

The camp hosts people of all ages year-round and, just as the campers and their families are constantly changing, so are the crops available on the farm.

The idea for the initiative started when the camp built a small organic garden comprised of 12 to 14 planters used for mostly strawberries and lettuce. Campers were able to visit the garden and pick the organic produce.

“It was kind of getting tight in there and everything was getting too full and our maintenance guys were like ‘Heck! we’ve got some land out here; let’s mow it down and start planting some stuff here,’ and it went well,” Camp Twin Lakes Head Chef Jeffrey Hinkle said.

The thought of a larger farm appealed to the camps’ directors and the farm-to-table initiative took root. And over the past two years, the program has grown.

Camp Twin Lakes is designed for children, teens, and their families who are dealing with or have previously faced serious illnesses, disabilities and other life challenges. When people come to camp they find numerous different activities that they can take part in. The camp has a gym, pool, rock wall, tree house, zip line and much more. Now the farm has become one of the activities that campers can take part in.

Picture this– a plot of land filled to the brim with fruits and vegetables, two metal farmer sculptures inviting people of all walks of life into the garden, a green house and newly built planters that allow children with disabilities to access hanging produce, and an outdoor kitchen that looks out over the farm. All of these aspects come together to make up Camp Twin Lakes’ farm.

The Camp Twin Lakes Farm Facebook page states that the farm “grows all natural, healthy produce for campers and provides a fun and educational environment for them to learn about farming and agriculture.”

On the farm, children are encouraged to try new things. Farmer Nathan Fussell told a story about a child who came to camp talking about how he didn’t like tomatoes. After a visit to the farm the child tried a tomato later, telling the camp staff that he was going to have to explain to his parents that he now really loves tomatoes.

This generated an idea for Nathan: to have a rock garden that allowed campers to paint rocks and place them under signs to mark their experience of new foods on the farm.

Fussell describes the goal of the farm, to provide clean and healthy food through a fun, positive learning experience.

Part of the experience is learning about the different products grown on the farm. Head Chef Jeffery Hinkle spoke about how often times children come to camp and have no clue where their food comes from, and how on the farm they are not only able to witness it but also to take part in experiencing picking their own food.

For many of the children that come to Camp Twin Lakes, what they eat can make a huge difference in their lives.

“The whole goal of the program is to make sure that we are serving clean food because these kids deserve it,” Hinkle said.

The farm is just half of the farm-to-table initiative at Camp Twin Lakes. The food that is produced at the farm is then brought to the camp’s dinning hall where Hinkle creates ways to use the foods in healthy, kid-friendly meals.

“I try and make everything kid-friendly, but not everything can be kid-friendly, and you know you can’t serve chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese every day, so I’m trying to teach the kids that real food actually tastes good and trying to serve them real food,” he said.

Because Fussell likes to find alternatives to generic produce, and using Hinkle’s knowledge and experience to make the dishes, some of the foods that the kids try when they come to camp are ones they have never seen before.

“He tells me what will grow, and I tell him what I need,” said Chef Hinkle.

Hinkle will often tell Fussell what he needs and then Fussell determines how to meet that need in a creative way. One of the aspects of the farm that is unique is the use of different varieties of produce.

“He’ll take my needs and turn them in to a more programmatically acceptable food product,” said Hinkle.

This allows campers to be introduced to many different versions of the foods they see often while teaching them about the produce, leading back to one of the major goals of the farm– education.

What visitors to the farm will find depends on the season. Education plays a role in the farm-to-table initiative and often shapes what is produced on the farm. Visitors may know what a tomato is, but they haven’t necessarily tried a Cherokee Purple Heirloom tomato.

This past summer the farm produced over 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables.

But, “The hardest part of the initiative is the cows,” Hinkle said.

Produce is not the only type of food that comes from the farm. The farm also raises livestock. Camp Twin Lakes farm raises grass-fed cattle, as well as goats and chickens. The beef is USDA-certified. When the menus are posted, the staff simply marks the beef as “CTL-raised.”

“We try and waste as little as possible and instill that good stewardship in everyone that’s here and explain to everybody that we’re trying to teach these kids how to live cleaner, because a cleaner lifestyle is going to help them get better in the long run,” said Hinkle.

The farm and the initiative have evolved a lot over the past two years. Over the next three to five years, the camp hopes to add an orchard and many other projects.

“Like everything at Camp Twin Lakes, it always starts as just a small seed and then, once it’s planted, it just blossoms,” Hinkle said.

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