Cidermaking classroom
Teenage students turn apples to cider in the Kurn Hattin cider shed, under the supervision of Farm Manager Patrick Barry, seated, and Tom Fontaine, the school’s science teacher.

Cidermaking classroom

For Kurn Hattin students, it’s more than about pressing the apples

WESTMINSTER — On this mid-September day, the morning's tart coolness is burning off and long sleeves are no longer required. The Kurn Hattin campus is quiet for the moment as farm manager Patrick Barry, a.k.a. “Mr. Pat,” picks fresh flowers for lunchroom tables and administrative offices.

Dressed in farmer blues, he is smiling and emanates a calm common in people who work the land for a living.

Barry, a graduate of the University of Maine Landscape and Agriculture program, is a first-generation farmer and also works two other farming-related jobs as well as managing the farm program at the school.

The school, established in 1894, is a charitable residential school for students ages 6 to 15 who have been affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship, or other disruption in family life. Its 280-acre campus sits on a hillside overlooking the Connecticut River Valley.

Kurn Hattin was always a farm school from the late 1800s, and more recently, Christopher Barry - Patrick Barry's father, who recently retired as executive director - made efforts to expand and incorporate the farm program into the curriculum.

“Children are natural investigators; they learn by asking questions. Tactile exploration and observation are two valuable skills in understanding and making sense out of what they see,” Christopher Berry believed.

The tactile exploration of farming has been part of the school's mission for years.

“The children in the 1890s worked and lived here and went to public school,” Acting Executive Director Connie Sanderson says. The school originally raised pigs, thus the name “Piggery Road” - the road that connects the campus to Route 5.

“They also grew the crops that fed the children and staff,” Sanderson says.

“Over the years, it developed into a very large dairy farm until about 1992-93,” she continues. “[It was] was a very traditional New England dairy farm. The herd [was sold off] and was switched over to sheep, chickens, and into the evolution we have today.”

“When [Christopher Barry] took over as executive director in 1995, he developed what is now an outdoor classroom with hands-on learning growing food, delivering it to kitchen, cooking and learning about organic farming, as well as in classroom,” Sanderson explains. “The kids learn about what it takes to put food on the table.”

Now, “Mr. Pat” Barry says the process of sowing the seeds, transplanting, weeding, caring for and watching the plants as they mature and bear fruit, then harvesting and eating the food they have grown, gives the kids “a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.”

And “being able to grow things” means none of these kids will ever go hungry again, he says.

Teamwork and cooperation

Barry waits for science teacher Tom Fontaine to bring the 13-year-olds down to make cider, a group of students who have a bit more experience with the task than the others.

Fontaine notes that Barry teaches revolving labs that are extensions of the farm program, including preparing grafts for the fruit trees.

“They learn how food is grown in all its aspects,” he says. “Then they learn how it tastes. Pat has a real rapport with the kids.”

Fontaine notes that both the kids and “Mr. Pat” get something out of the farm program, which serves the 100 kids in the school.

The cider making teaches them teamwork and cooperation, Fontaine says.

“They see the usefulness of the apples they have helped grow,” he explains.

The kids - not a glum face among them - appear around the corner of the large, red, slate-roofed barn that sits above the cider shed, chattering and waving.

“It's time,” Barry says, as he waves and starts toward the shed.

At the entrance, the cider shed is lined with boxes filled with gourds of every shape and color that the kids have grown and picked. Inside, the sounds of the cider press have already started.

Approximately 10 kids have arranged themselves, from the feeding end to the cider end of the locally built cider press.

Fontaine oversees the process and keeps the kids focused. Barry operates the press, which squeezes the McIntosh apples (acquired locally, as the school's own apples are not producing enough yet to make cider).

Fontaine multitasks, keeping the kids focused and safe, as the process does involve sharp, moving parts, while keeping a constant supply of apples going and jugs filling.

Kyler Hella and Kayla Rogstead team up, one emptying the crates of apples onto a conveyor, the other making sure the fruit feeds onto the belt properly.

In the middle, Jahyde Bullard and Thomas Taylor make sure the apples go into the mincer and don't choke the feed.

Several times, the machine is shut down at Barry's command, to clear the chute and return errant apples that got stuck in between to the conveyor.

“Watch your hands. Make sure that is turned off,” Fontaine cautions the kids. They do not argue and do as he says with a will.

David Curtis works the press with Barry.

Veteran cidermaker D'Leanne Solovei, almost 14, is in charge of the mash that has accumulated in flats. She flips the saturated, fragrant, brown cloth over the apple bits, and quickly carries the saturated squares, flat to flat, to the trash barrel, once again empty the cloth-lined flats are ready to be pressed and filled again.

“It's fun,” she grins, her dark eyes sparkling as she casually munches one of the apples she has picked especially to eat.

In fact, all the kids at one point or another either select an apple for later, or sit munching on one. The sounds of crisp apple skins being pierced punctuate the shed and the tart sweetness of apple juice mists the air as Solovei works to clean the machine.

At the end of the line, Krysta Gottfried directs the nozzle, funneling the golden liquid onto a white cotton straining cloth. From there, the juice filters into a bucket and is siphoned into plastic gallon jugs, one after another.

Little, if any, is spilled. Gottfried has done this before.

But it is the first time for her partner Montana Fellows, who watches and helps as Gottfried tells her what to do - the teamwork that Fontaine described earlier.

Jenitza Fernandez keeps the duo supplied with jugs and stores them in crates as they are done. She also sets up cups and fills them. A distinct “cider-y” scent fills the shed.

Fontaine counts off the jugs. “That's seven and we've got 10 more minutes to go,” he says.

The kids dig in, staying focused.

“Let's see if we can set a record today,” Fontaine calls to the kids over the sound of the press.

Quietly, they keep working, a well-oiled team by now.

Gallons accumulate. Fontaine keeps count.

“That's it,” Fontaine says. “Shut 'er down.”

“Twelve!” Fontaine shouts. “It's a record! You guys did great!”

The kids let out a cheer, all smiles, and some head straight over to the bench for their reward of sweet, couldn't-be-fresher apple cider, while others clean up, readying the press for the next class of cider makers.

Not a one of them misses their opportunity to gulp down a cup, and go for more.

“These [jugs of cider] don't last long,” Principal Scott Tabachnick says, sipping a cup. “They pretty much get pressed, go on the table for the next meal, and they are gone.”

The old, traditional ways

Tabachnick thinks the cider-making process is a great teaching tool. Indeed, the whole farm program is.

“It teaches the kids the old, traditional ways Vermonters got their food,” he says, mentioning that by learning the relationships of bees to honey and apples to cider, the children learn about connectedness and sustainability.

Jahyde Bullard, cup in hand, considers cider making a “very special opportunity.” The farm environment, the animals and activities are teaching him something, he says. He isn't clear exactly what - but something, he says with a smile.

Kyler Hella said, “It's really fun,” and with an expression reflecting the seriousness of his responsibility, added, “It's really challenging to get 'em in there,” referring to getting the apples from the crates onto the conveyor to be crushed.

Montana Fellows, who has been at the school only for a few months (“I've stopped calling my father every day to come pick me up”), says shyly that she likes making cider for the whole school.” A smile lurks around her mouth and into her eyes.

The farm program includes learning to take care of horses and riding, vegetable gardens, a fruit orchard, and pigs. Barry is contemplating adding chickens.

“The children are taught about food, the growing of food, the benefits of organic growing, the stewardship of the land, and what that means - not just to their Kurn Hattin community, but what it means to the overall picture of New England, the U.S., and world,” Sanderson says. “What [it takes] for communities to sustain them.”

“And Patrick is very committed to helping the kids' understanding of how critical it is to knowing where food comes from,” she says.

Under the auspices of the current farm program, now two years old, the school maintains three gardens and a greenhouse, which “definitely offsets [food] costs,” Barry says.

He says that this year, the school has served fresh food at every meal, more than they did last year, and “the kids love it.”

“In the last two years, the amount of produce that has been delivered to our kitchen is astronomical,” Sanderson notes. “Our chef says his kitchen budget has gone way down. The children are really proud to serve their food.”

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