Spring Break Camp Day #2: Topsoil Tuesday

Today, campers got the dirt on dirt! Our second day of Spring Break Camp involved a multitude of hands-on activities that centered around our theme of soil, rocks, and minerals. We started the day in the barn by observing various rocks, and sorting and classifying them based on their features. This introductory activity also taught us that rocks are the parents of soil, and that they won’t stay the same forever! Their whole life they go through the process of the rock cycle, and at some point will exist as soil.

For morning garden kitchen, we ate sand/silt/clay overnight oats that the campers prepared yesterday. Ingredients included sunbutter to represent clay, cocoa powder to represent silt, and oats to represent sand as well as rice milk, maple syrup, and a touch of vanilla. This gave us the opportunity to explore how soil is composed of various particles of different size, shape, and texture. We also prepared some fruit leather that campers will get to sample tomorrow.

Animal chores are always a wonderful time as well, especially with Tollgate’s darling 10 lambs that were born over these last two months. We eagerly await the arrival of kid goats as well, and some of them are due in a matter of days! Campers have really taken to the chickens also, and have greatly enjoyed holding and snuggling Tollgate’s friendly hens.

One of our morning soil activities involved learning about compost and why it is so important. Campers learned what material can be composted, what helps it decompose, and how helpful it is for farming and gardening. Additionally, it keeps a lot of waste out of landfills, where it would take much longer to biodegrade! While out at the compost hills, orange pepper campers also had a blast climbing and conquering Mount Woodchip, Mt. Soil, and Mt. Compost.

Campers also helped to care for the EDU garden this morning by pulling weeds in the garden beds and raking the soil. They worked very diligently and did an excellent job caring for the beds and prepping them for seeds to be planted. The red pepper group also explored the German gardening technique of Hugelkultur and built their very own Hugelkultur raised bed using sticks, straw, green plant material, compost, and top soil for planting on Thursday.

Following a nice outdoor lunch where we soaked in the sunshine and played in the children’s garden, campers got started on their STEAM project out in the forest. We explored the woods for two open areas to dig that we predicted would have different soil types based on the elevation, proximity to water, and amount of leaf litter. Kids then got to work digging up the soil and making hills next to the holes they dig. Stay tuned for what happens next during STEAM time tomorrow.

For afternoon garden kitchen, we made black bean hummus with beans, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, garlic, and salt. Campers were extremely helpful with measuring out our ingredients and got to observe as everything got broken down in the food processor to form a cohesive and smooth hummus mixture. Yellow corn tortilla chips were our dipping tool of choice today, but this would also be great with fresh veggies or pita bread!

We further explored the concept of ‘Soil has Parents, Too’ with an afternoon full of hands-on soil science rotations in the upper barn. Pepper groups got to make jelly bean rocks and see them transform from sedimentary to metamorphic to igneous. They also learned how to use a rock tumbler, made their own metamorphic rocks with an assortment of play-doh colors, broke sandstone down to fine sand particles, and observed igneous rock formation with solal crystals.

Red peppers also had some excellent team bonding whilst playing a word game called Contact, engaging in a survival maze challenge, creating their very own Red Pepper cheer, and playing a game called Pick a Path about the size and properties of sand, silt, and clay.

We wrapped up our second day of camp with some final reflections in the barn where campers were also able to take home a souvenir rock that had already gone through the rock tumbler. After another eventful and fun-filled camp day on the farm, we parted ways filled with anticipation for what the rest of the week will bring.

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Spring Break Camp Day #1: Maple Monday

We started off our first day of Spring Break Camp with Maple Monday! As maple tapping season is wrapping up, the timing was perfect to show campers how maple sugaring operations run at Tollgate. March is prime time for sap collection, with temperatures during the day rising above freezing and dropping below at night, and luckily this trend is continuing into early April this year. We have also had the highest yield of sap that Tollgate has ever seen!

We began the day with some fun icebreaker and team building games, as well as the flag ceremony and C.A.R.E.S. skits. Additionally, a morning at Tollgate would not be the same without animal chores, so each group got the opportunity to care for and bond with some of our beloved farm animals. As we proceeded with maple festivities, all four pepper groups got to partake in the four rotations of our maple program: tree identification and tapping a tree, modern day evaporation at the sugar shack, tools through time, and maple syrup tasting.

Campers learned how to identify a sugar maple tree, even without its distinguishable leaves, by looking at the bark and branches. They then ventured into the sugar bush forest to find a tree to tap, and measured the tree to make sure it was suitable for tapping. Using modern-day tools, they drilled into the tree, inserted a spile and tubing, and set a bucket for sap collection.

Campers also visited the Tollgate sugar shack which is where the magic of turning sap to syrup takes place! They witnessed the process of evaporation, where sap is boiled down to syrup. Sap begins being mostly water with 2% sugar content, and we boil off that water until the sugar content is at 67% – the perfect percentage for syrup taste and preservation. Campers were able to observe the water evaporating off as steam through the openings of the sugar shack roof. They also learned that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of syrup. Not an easy process!

We also had a chance to dive into the history of maple sugaring during a tools through time lesson. Campers got to interact with tools from Native American, Colonial, and Modern Day time periods. They uncovered the legends of how maple sugaring first originated in the Anishanaabe tribes, and got to see first-hand how the tools have evolved over time to make syrup production at a much larger scale, but really the fundamental process still remains the same and we have learned much from the people before us.

We were able to incorporate some maple syrup tasting into our morning garden kitchen today. Campers had sampled maple sap and maple sugar as well, and it was very interesting to differentiate between the three! We made popcorn in a stir popper to once again observe steam being produced as water particles inside the corn kernels changed state from liquid to gas, and out pops the starch inside the popcorn seed! Campers had the option to drizzle or dip when accompanying their popcorn with delicious Michigan maple syrup.

In the afternoon, campers visited the orchard to play a fun game called ‘Every Tree for Itself’ to learn about the needs of trees and how competition can play a role when it comes to obtaining the necessary resources to survive: water, sunlight, and nutrients. Campers also enjoyed a lively game of ‘where’s my chicken’, which involved teamwork, strategy, and lots of running!

In addition to all of these incredibly fun and educational Maple Monday experiences, we also kick-started our STEAM project for the week by doing a demonstration with glacial goo. Campers made the non-Newtonian fluid using a box of cornstarch, 1.5 cups of water, and a few drops food dye, and then placed it into various substrates on an erosion table to see how it flowed through the sediment. This visual gave campers an idea for how glaciers once moved through Michigan, and also helped them to understand how different soil types can have an affect on the process of erosion. They will incorporate their knowledge from today into their STEAM project of building erosion barriers in the forest over the course of this week.

The afternoon garden kitchen snack was a delicious one as well, and we of course had to include maple syrup. They were energy balls made with rolled oats, sunbutter, syrup, and chocolate chips. We also got to prepare tomorrow morning’s snack, which I’m sure campers are eager to sample during Tuesday’s garden kitchen.

It was a wonderful first day of camp and we are very excited to see campers back for the rest of this eventful and exciting week!

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2019 MS Farm Sprouts – Week #4 Wednesday PM

Spring has arrived and yet, the sap is still flowing! We’re closing in on having one of our best year’s yet in terms of maple syrup production! With these extended freezing nights and warm days, the sap has been flowing steadily and the sugar shack has been buzzing with activity. It’s amazing to think Farm Sprouts were able to contribute to the process! Not only did they help haul buckets, but they also provided our volunteers with some very important interaction. The heart of what the volunteers do lies in knowing they are passing on a tradition that is as old as time to support the development of the future stewards of our land. We’ve been a part of a beautiful example of a powerful system of education, which includes a love of land, place, and learning which results in the contribution to something that is bigger than us all.

Farm Sprouts signed in by sharing a memory from the season and voting for robin or worm, signs of spring! We are experimenting with ways we can involve Farm Sprouts in the physical creation of our seasonal Wonder Wall, so we look forward to testing out some different strategies during the spring season! It naturally becomes a stopping place for children, especially as we near the end of the season. They also take pride in sharing at the end of the season. Since the maple sugaring season is so short, we do not plan a Celebration of Learning, but do plan on joining us for such a celebration the last day of the spring season! We enjoy the opportunity to interact with our families greatly! Especially since our pick up and drop off times are so very busy!

We had much to do in the classroom area on the last day. Farm Sprouts placed finishing touches on our Sugar Shack and worked to tap a tree, collect sap, add wood to the firebox, and boil down sap into syrup. They made butter, engaged in an ice melting experiment, as the snow has melted away to make way for decomposing leaves and mud. Play dough was available in shades of maple syrup to match the USDA grading system: light, amber, dark, and very dark. Mr. Roy and Mr. Norb were busy bottling maple syrup in the workshop and they accommodated our schedule so Farm Sprouts could have a peak and ask questions about this very important and final step of the process.

Farm Sprouts officially engaged with and supported each step of the maple sugaring process! It was time to celebrate, which meant pancakes! Farm Sprouts helped to mix the batter, add the eggs collected from our chicken coop, to gobble them up with freshly-made butter and maple syrup they had helped produce! We read the story, Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola, now a program tradition. The mix for our pancakes came from Sunflour Bakehaus in Farmington Hills. Jeff Pavlik, the owner, along with his wife, donates his time and energy to support our Maple Tapping and Pancake Feast and Pumpkinfest events each year with rich, engaging historical reenactments for the community. We are so very grateful for all Jeff offers to MSU Tollgate Farm and as a side benefit, his baked goods and other products are delicious! Jeff sourced several of the ingredients in the pancake mix from local Michigan farmers. Hooray for supporting local community businesses and farmers!

It was time to head outside! We visited the Sugar Bush to haul sap and visit Stick A-mazing world one last time this season! We then made our way to the animal barn. We stopped to visit our chickens and enjoyed the special opportunity to interact with our brand new lambs. We observed their funny movements, fuzzy faces, and interactions with their mothers. We giggled at our animals, from balancing chickens hiding eggs behind straw bales to lambs climbing their mom as if they were mountain climbers. Farm Sprouts are developing an understanding of what it means to be a mammal!

Many thanks to Garrett Owen for providing us with the petunias. We hope your Farm Sprouts are enjoying caring for them and that if they are not yet blooming, they soon share do so for you! May they remind you of the farm and springtime adventures coming soon!

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2019 MS Farm Sprouts – Week #4 Wednesday AM

Spring has arrived and yet, the sap is still flowing! We’re closing in on having one of our best year’s yet in terms of maple syrup production! With these extended freezing nights and warm days, the sap has been flowing steadily and the sugar shack has been buzzing with activity. It’s amazing to think Farm Sprouts were able to contribute to the process! Not only did they help tap a tree and haul buckets, but they also provided our volunteers with some very important interaction. The heart of what the volunteers do lies in knowing they are passing on a tradition that is as old as time to support the development of the future stewards of our land. We’ve been a part of a beautiful example of a powerful system of education, which includes a love of land, place, and learning which results in the contribution to something that is bigger than us all.

Farm Sprouts signed in by sharing a memory from the season and voting for robin or worm, signs of spring! We are experimenting with ways we can involve Farm Sprouts in the physical creation of our seasonal Wonder Wall, so we look forward to testing out some different strategies during the spring season! It naturally becomes a stopping place for children, especially as we near the end of the season. They also take pride in sharing at the end of the season. Since the maple sugaring season is so short, we do not plan a Celebration of Learning, but do plan on joining us for such a celebration the last day of the spring season! We enjoy the opportunity to interact with our families greatly! Especially since our pick up and drop off times quite busy!

We had much to do in the classroom area on the last day. Farm Sprouts placed finishing touches on our Sugar Shack and worked to tap a tree, collect sap, add wood to the firebox, and boil down sap into syrup. They made butter, engaged in an ice melting experiment, as the snow has melted away to make way for decomposing leaves and mud. Play dough was available in shades of maple syrup to match the USDA grading system: light, amber, dark, and very dark. Mr. Roy and Mr. Norb were busy bottling maple syrup in the workshop and they accommodated our schedule so Farm Sprouts could have a peak and ask questions about this very important and final step of the process.


Farm Sprouts officially engaged with and supported each step of the maple sugaring process! It was time to celebrate, which meant pancakes! Farm Sprouts helped to mix the batter, add the eggs collected from our chicken coop, to gobble them up with freshly-made butter and maple syrup they had helped produce! We read the story, Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola, now a program tradition. The mix for our pancakes came from Sunflour Bakehaus in Farmington Hills. Jeff Pavlik, the owner, along with his wife, donates his time and energy to support our Maple Tapping and Pancake Feast and Pumpkinfest events each year with rich, engaging historical reenactments for the community. We are so very grateful for all Jeff offers to MSU Tollgate Farm and as a side benefit, his baked goods and other products are delicious! Jeff sourced several of the ingredients in the pancake mix from local Michigan farmers. Hooray for supporting local community businesses and farmers!


It was time to head outside! We made our way to the animal barn. We stopped to visit our chickens and enjoyed the special opportunity to interact with our brand new lambs. We observed their funny movements, fuzzy faces, and interactions with their mothers. We giggled at our animals, from balancing chickens hiding eggs behind straw bales to lambs climbing their mom as if they were mountain climbers. Farm Sprouts are developing an understanding of what it means to be a mammal!

Many thanks to Garrett Owen for providing us with the petunias. We hope your Farm Sprouts are enjoying caring for them and that if they are not yet blooming, they soon do so for you! May they remind you of the farm and springtime adventures coming soon!

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Greetings From the Tollgate Farm Manager

Greetings All,
March is maple syrup season! The 2019 Tollgate maple syrup season officially got underway Saturday, February 23rd with a very successful tree tapping extravaganza! Many eager volunteers came to Tollgate to assist in this activity day. We tapped about 50 trees, all connected to tubing.

For the first two weeks of March, cold weather has severely limited sap flow. According to the weather app., we are on the cusp of greatly improved sapping conditions. Fingers crossed, we are hoping for our usual annual average of 100 gallons. Time will tell whether the vagaries of nature will allow this.

Many groups have visited the Tollgate sugar bush this season. Lots and lots of field trips visit! Tollgate maple volunteers have done a wonderful job helping the kids learn about the magic of the maple season.

Maple volunteers also played a major role in the recent Tollgate Maple Feast. Registrants to the Feast got a hay ride to the woods, saw how trees were tapped, viewed the evaporator and got a yummy pancake and syrup meal. Thanks to the Tollgate maple volunteers for helping to make the 2019 maple season a success for all of our visitors!

Winter is beginning to lose its grip and there are many signs of spring around the farm. Bluebirds, piliated woodpeckers and even a bald eagle have all been seen around the farm. Not wanting to be left behind, Tollgate’s plants are showing signs of life. The daffodils are emerging, buds are swelling, and garden volunteer days are upon us.

Check the Tollgate volunteer calendar and plan to join us in the gardens. You can view the calendar online here. We have had a few warm days and the gardening season is in sight! See you soon around the farm.
-Roy Prentice

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