Farm combines education, harvest

Published 11:00 am Friday, April 20, 2012

Farm animals are also part of the curriculum at Bertrand Farm. Here from left, Madison Wilkeson, 10; her sister Zoe, 9; Madeline Renfrow, 12; and Julia McKenna, 10; all from Good Shepherd Montessori School, check out the baby chicks. Off the Water photos/Kathie Hempel

Take a drive down Bertrand Road between Niles and Buchanan and Orange Road and Redbud Trail. You will discover a magnificent, red-brick farm house, which is home to John and Theri Niemier and Bertrand Farm Inc., 3575 W Bertrand Rd.

“We’ve been here 16 years,” Theri said. “I had the vision but not the full vision. I was looking for a farm big enough to have a pumpkin patch because I know they are great places for family and kids.”

While her husband, John, works elsewhere, Bertrand Farm is Their’s business and passion. She says he supports her venture and enjoys it, but verifies it is “her gig.”

“I was teaching the pre-K program at Holy Cross Grade School in South Bend at the time, and I also was very interested in growing my own food. I learned a lot about food issues when my dad got very ill and ended up turning to nutrition as part of the answer and he is still going strong,” she said. “I wanted to have a place big enough to grow my own food and have some type of agri-business. Because I was teaching at the time, I brought my kids out, and it all rather snowballed from there.”

This is more than just a family farm; it is an institution of the educational variety:  a university of agriculture. Its mission is to connect people to their food and to encourage farming that honors nature, nutrition and the environment. Programs are hands-on, project-based and interactive.

The first program started was the farm camp in 1996 and, what began as a trial two-week event, quickly grew to “a community of summer friends.”  The day camp program has children ages 4 to 13 working hands-on in all the everyday activities of the farm, be it farm chores, agriculture lessons, harvesting, cooking or nature projects.  All are welcome, and some scholarships are available when needed.

Farm to School allows students to work closely with plant and animal life as they discover where the food they eat each day originates. Nature as classroom allows nearly all areas of curriculum to be enhanced by the program: science, biology, ecology and environmental issues, obviously, but also history, math and even spelling come into play. Intrinsic in all farm lessons are health nutrition and how to be good stewards of the earth.

The day I visited, students from Good Shepherd Montessori School in South Bend were on their weekly visit to the farm.  One group will arrive in the morning and stay through lunch, and a second group, which I joined, comes in at the lunch hour to eat with the first. When the first group leaves, the second begins working for the afternoon.

While many other school groups will arrange to visit the farm, Good Shepherd is the only group attending on a weekly basis, having the advantage of seeing the growing process through from planting the seeds to the dinner table.

Bertrand Farm is also involved in Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) programming, allowing those who want to reconnect to the land and be more directly involved in their food’s production.

The farm’s website,, explains “members participate in every step of farming from planting to harvest. Working members commit to work at the farm three hours each week throughout the growing season (May-September) and optional work and pre-season mini-workshops are held Saturdays in April.”

Non-working memberships gather produce from the farm during the heart of the season  from June through August and half memberships, where participants work or pick up every other week rather than weekly, can also be had and some delivery is available.

“One of the most frequent comments we hear is how good it all tastes and how they find themselves using lighter dressings with the greens because they now enjoy the taste so much,” Niemier said.

Most CSA members also comment on the quantity of food. Usually, this is an overflowing bushel at each pickup which, earlier in the season, will consist mainly of a variety of greens, such as lettuces, spinaches, kales, chards and mustard and collard greens.