For decades, a thriving 4-H club operated out of Fox Chase Farm: a group of city students raising pigs, sheep, and goats.
Now, the club’s existence is threatened, members and supporters say, because the Philadelphia School District — which operates the city-owned farm — started charging the organization “astronomical” fees for services it had previously provided for free, then refused to rent space to the club over insurance and other issues.
District officials say the club has not complied with its policies and procedures.
Marissa Orbanek, a spokesperson, said in a statement that the district has had “ongoing communications throughout the year with 4-H to explain our procedures that ensure safe conditions for facility users, including youth and students. We have also worked to support the group as they transition into our new system.
“The district is committed to providing equitable access to our facilities and will continue to work with organizations in our community to provide access that benefits students in Philadelphia.”
Orbanek said the farm, which hosts 30,000 visitors a year, “prides itself on providing agriculture education to Philadelphia students and families.”
Willette Whitaker, parent of a 10-year-old who raised his first goat last year as part of the Fox Chase Farm 4-H club, called the situation “sad all the way around.”
“I have an African American son, and in the city right now, there’s a lot of trouble kids can get into,” Whitaker said. “He wants to be on a farm taking care of an animal, doing positive things, and we can’t find a way to make that happen? We pay our taxes just like everybody else.”
The club, open to students in city public, private, and charter schools, provided its own animals and supplies but was not charged for using the farm on Pine Road in the Northeast. Members — typically about 20 students a year — had access to the farm seven days a week.
But after a pandemic shutdown and in the spirit of uniform rules, district officials told 4-H leaders that anyone who wanted to use any school property now had to pay fees, regardless of previous arrangements. The cost? $55 per hour. Were the club to use the farm as much as it had in previous years, it would have racked up $60,000 in fees — a sum far beyond its budget.
“We’re good at fund-raising, but not that good,” said Monica Asimos, another club parent. “It’s prohibitive. We had to significantly cut back.”
The club slashed kids’ time on the farm from 40 hours a week to seven. The total bill was more than $7,000.
“From our perspective as an educational program, that really wasn’t sufficient,” said Deborah Dietrich, the area educator responsible for 4-H clubs in Philadelphia and other Southeastern Pennsylvania counties.
The club held its last meeting of the 2021-22 school year the second week in January, at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. It has not been granted access to the farm for the coming school year, first because of the impasse over insurance and then other requirements.
“We have not been allowed on the farm since,” said Louise Kilderry, the assistant sheep and goat leader. “Right now, the kids are getting nothing. Every time we met one requirement, the school district upped it one.”
Dietrich called Fox Chase Farm a “flagship club,” one of only two city 4-H groups to make it through the pandemic.
That it is now effectively defunct — no alternate site in the city has been found — is a great loss for Philadelphia, Dietrich said.
“It was meaningful and impactful to Fox Chase Farm, to the city, to our members,” Dietrich said. “We thought it was a good collaboration. ... It’s disappointing that we’re not able to work this out.”
Nathan Whitaker, 10, loved his year in 4-H, where he raised and showed Morgan, a goat named after his favorite character on his favorite show, Pup Academy.
“I had to feed him, and I had to walk him, and I had to trim their nails, give him medicine, bathe him, and everything else,” said Nathan, who’s a rising fifth grader at Blair Christian Academy in West Mount Airy. If he loses the chance to participate in 4-H, “I would be really sad,” he said.
Nathan had to commit two days a week to unglamorous work — “cleaning the pen, scooping up the poop. It was dirty, it smelled, and sometimes it was cold or raining,” said his mother. But he did it. “Above and beyond the animal experience, we appreciated the skill set it helped produce in him: perseverance, tenacity, commitment. It made a difference.”
Dietrich, who oversees programs in 11 counties, said she’s never run into these kinds of roadblocks. She has worked for Penn State Extension — which runs Pennsylvania 4-H clubs — for more than 30 years.
4-H carries insurance for its clubs and it’s typical for the organization that hosts a club to negotiate with 4-H over terms, Dietrich said. The insurance terms were worked out, Dietrich said, but an additional license requirement has been the sticking point.
“It is so protective of the school district’s interests that I cannot get our volunteer liability insurance carrier to agree to sign,” Dietrich said. “And the fee schedule the district set up was astronomical.”
The club sold its animals after the Farm Show, as it does every year; it has not purchased new ones because there’s nowhere to raise them. In a typical year, livestock season would have begun this month.
“We have the money and the will to feed our own animals, we have the people to do it,” said Laurie Hazelwood, parent of a club member.
Tess Rader, a longtime club member and recent graduate of MaST Charter School, first signed up for 4-H because she loved animals and her mother thought Tess might enjoy the experience. That proved to be an understatement: Tess became president of the club, already works as a veterinary technician, and is headed to Delaware Valley University, where she will begin studies she hopes will lead her to become a full-fledged vet.
“4-H changed my life,” said Rader, 18. She spent time nearly every day with her animals, working them, feeding them, forming bonds with them. Until this past school year, there were community events where she gained public speaking experience and confidence.
But once the district implemented its changes, “it was a huge struggle,” said Rader, who had hoped to continue her involvement with the club, mentoring younger students. “We were constantly worried about whether we had the money to keep the club going.”