Brian Kuser is the Education Director and Summer Camp Director at Fernbrook Farms Environmental Education Center in Chesterfield, NJ. In addition to their Education Center, Fernbrook Farm operates a wholesale plant nursery, inn, and community supported agriculture program. Brian lives on the farm year-round with his wife and two daughters while his parents, Susie and 'Farmer Q,' run the farm and inn.
Some may argue that farm-based education is in your blood; your parents, Larry and Susie Kuser, own Fernbrook Farms where you operate the education program. When and how did you get into farm-based education or was it always in the stars?
You could certainly say farm-based education is in my blood as it has always just been a lifestyle for me. When I was a kid, there wasn’t necessarily a name for it, you simply went outside and got your hands dirty either working in the fields or playing in the varied ecosystems of a farm. Learning all time, experiential education at its finest. Today, fewer kids have those opportunities and I feel fortunate that I have the opportunity to share my childhood backyard with so many kids today.
My first official experience with farm-based education was in 2007 when Eric Tadlock, who was the first Education Director at Fernbrook Farms, asked me if I wanted to be a guest staff member during summer camp. Of course, that was an easy ‘yes’ answer as I had just returned from teaching abroad in Thailand and moved home for a couple weeks so the summer camp was right in my back yard. Eric and I spent nearly 10 years working together at Keewaydin in VT (camp and environmental education center) so we were long time friends and colleagues. In 2008, Eric asked me to be the summer camp director and that’s when I really became involved in farm-based education. I was still teaching high-school math during the winters and spending summers returning to the family farm each day. When Eric moved to Maine, he left a huge opening at the education center and it was a natural transition for me to become the education director.
You spent some time living with your wife, Tracy, in Thailand. What work were you doing there and how did your time abroad inform your work at Fernbrook and as a farm-based educator as a whole?
My wife and I were both high school teachers at an international school in Thailand for 2 years. I taught math and my wife, Tracy, taught Spanish. I’m not sure our time in Thailand specifically informed my work here at Fernbrook Farms but it has certainly given me a global perspective that enhances my understanding of others. My tenure at the international school as well as other private day & boarding schools has given me great experiences with leadership, collaborative teamwork, marketing, working with a board, and fundraising to name a few. Luckily, these skills are important to possess to run a small non-profit (as many farm-based eduction programs are) and thus have more directly informed my work at Fernbrook Farms Environmental Education Center.
What was your proudest moment as a farm-based educator and what has been the most challenging aspect of your work?
It’s hard to specify one moment as the proudest but there are two general moments that come to mind that make me proud to be a farm-based educator. The first is seeing the pure joy in a child’s face when they hold a chicken, discover a worm in the soil, or have a cow eat grass right from their hand. These moments are especially thrilling when it happens to them for the very first time in their lives. The other proud moment for me is when I get to work with other farm-based educators to enhance our own programs and thus enhance farm-based education for everyone. The better our programs are, the more people are going to engage in farm-based education. I love that the Farm-Based Education Network works together so much in a collaborative environment.
The most challenging aspect of the work is the same challenge that leaders of all small non-profit organizations face: there is never enough time to do all the things that you want to or need to get done. Now, put that on a farm and there really is something else that could always get worked on. Luckily, we have a great team here at Fernbrook Farms and we’re able to make farm-based education a reality for so many others.
You have two young daughters; how does your experience in environmental education impact the time the three of you spend together?
Since we live on the farm, it impacts them mostly because they have to come to work with their father a lot of the time. But, I love that. I love that I spend a lot of my day outside and I get to share that with my wife and kids.
What advice would you give to a young professional who is hoping to establish themselves in the world of farm-based, experiential education?
Be flexible to move to opportunities in farm-based education. If you look only in your backyard, you may not find what you are looking for. But, if you open up your search nationally, or internationally, there are many amazing programs out there doing many amazing things. In my younger years, I specifically looked for residential environmental education centers so housing wasn’t an issue when I moved to a new job. Granted, I had to move around a lot because so many jobs were seasonal but, it allowed me to gain a lot of valuable experiences at a variety of wonderful places which has helped inform my decisions today.