FarmWise Education Teaches Kids Real-Life Skills
Bente Goldstein, founder of FarmWise Education, in Elkhorn, grew up as the child of intellectual parents in Oslo, Norway, that were primarily city dwellers. Yet, she also became familiar with sustainable, rural life. Her family lived in several locations along Norway’s west coast, and as a teen, Goldstein worked in mountain pastures, called seters, where she milked cows and tended to animals.
“Some rural children were encouraged to work themselves away from farm life and become successful in the city,” Goldstein reminisces. “But I was encouraged to embrace both city and farm life.” Even with packaged, processed food rapidly entering the mainstream at midcentury, her mother held true to organic food, farming and recycling.
Now, Goldstein incorporates the experience of small farm life into a unique learning program for kids that applies the principles of Waldorf education, with which Goldstein is thoroughly acquainted. After studying at the University of Oslo, in Norway, she attended Emerson College, in England, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in the humanistic teaching philosophy and approach developed by Waldorf pioneer Rudolf Steiner.
There, she met her husband, Walter Goldstein, who was studying organic and biodynamic farming. After marrying, the couple settled in East Troy, Wisconsin, where Walter began his career with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. Their three sons, Bendik, Elias and Hans Kristian, are now all classical musicians.
Goldstein taught at several Waldorf schools and was instrumental in starting Prairie Hill Waldorf School, which was founded in 1987, in Pewaukee. Shortly afterwards, she and her husband bought a 35-acre hobby farm in Elkhorn. Convinced that children of the technological age needed more interaction with the environment, Goldstein started bringing students out to the farm to learn and experience sustainable farm life firsthand. “The kids left with a sense of accomplishment after a day of fresh air and getting their hands dirty planting seeds, fixing fences or kneading dough to bake bread,” she affirms.
After Goldstein retired from teaching, she heard from teachers that wanted to bring students to the farm to engage in enriching homesteading experiences. Convinced that she could offer a comprehensive educational farm program for kids, Goldstein, along with a friend, veterinarian Dana Burns, applied for a grant from Martina Mann, the co-founder of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, to start a nonprofit called A Week on the Farm. They transformed a barn on Nokomis Farm, in East Troy, into a school barn to teach livestock care to children.
One program encouraged participants to use their farm chores as an opportunity to strive in the areas of reliability, integrity, stamina and ethics, from which the acronym and program name RISE was derived. Upon completion, students earned a certificate. “Then we went to area businesses whose owners complained that they couldn’t find good workers, and we asked them to sponsor the kids,” Goldstein recalls. “Some children received training from the businesses and became good workers.”
A Week on the Farm ran from 1999 through 2006, when it became too costly to operate. In 2008, Goldstein started FarmWise Education, a farm-based learning center, on her own Elkhorn property. Students experience a day of life on the farm via four categories of tasks: aspects of animal care; growing produce from sowing to harvest; preparing lunch from scratch; and doing maintenance work, such as repairing barns and fences. The children learn and sing folk songs from all over the world while working, Goldstein says, reminiscent of when people sang to help lighten a day of physical labor. She estimates that several hundred kids from Waldorf, Montessori, public and home schools throughout southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois have participated in FarmWise Education’s day programs and camps.
With high-tech gadgets dominating today’s society, Goldstein holds a firm belief that staring at rectangular screens all day can make kids lose interest in things in the actual world. “Life on a screen moves faster than real life, and sometimes can be more captivating; but engaging in the real world, doing salt-of-the-earth work, give kids a sense of meaning and accomplishment,” reflects Goldstein, who was a workshop presenter at the parenting conference, Weaving a New Web: Education and Parenting in an Era of Technological Change, that was held at Prairie Hill Waldorf School on March 1.
“When kids arrive at the farm in the morning, they are often glued to their iPhones, or they appear bored,” Goldstein observes, “but they leave at the end of the day with a different attitude, totally excited about life. They feel like they matter, and what they did meant something, like making nesting boxes for the chickens so the eggs don’t roll away, or fixing a fence so animals don’t escape. They learned how to solve a real life problem.”
FarmWise Education is located at W2331 Kniep Rd., in Elkhorn. For more information, call 262-642-9738 or visit FarmWiseEducation.com.