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Conversations with Mina Choi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mina Choi.

Hi Mina, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Our founder, Spence Dickinson, purchased the farm in 1984 to provide farm-based education to children. Spence was inspired by his uncle’s summer farm camp which he attended during his years growing up in Nashville, TN. The traditional “family farm” which was made up of members of the extended family included work and responsibilities for every age, children included. The children’s jobs were as important as the adult’s jobs, and as kids grew up, they learned their skills from the older and more experienced members. They would find their “specialty” amongst the many areas of expertise on the farm. In this way, it provided them with constant mental and intellectual stimulation, mentorship and support from their elders, physical exercise, a sense of responsibility, self-confidence, and empowered them to be important and essential members of the farm team. Spence realized that the farm environment, where animals and nature exist in partnership with humans, is the natural way for children to learn physical skills, build confidence, develop their intelligence in ways unencumbered by artificial boundaries, learn the skills of teamwork and communication with each other, and in this way, learn to be leaders themselves. This program (Spence’s Farm for Kids) was one of the earliest farm-based children’s education programs in our area. Most of our years of operation have been as a children’s camp and afterschool program, including horsemanship programs. We also host birthday parties, field trips and festivals.

We are now branching out to include more services for the entire community. On Saturdays, we are open to the public and provide farm tours, pony rides, and the opportunity to relax and “hang out” on the farm so that people can explore whichever areas most appeal to them. We have a large garden grown without artificial fertilizers or pesticides, woods with ziplines and fort-building materials, a pond for swimming in the summertime, poultry including many chickens, turkeys and other fowl, rabbits, a pig, and of course horses! All of our activities are fully “hands-on” so the children can hold and feed the animals, do some harvesting in the garden, or even help gather eggs. We are currently expanding our facilities and services to include classes and opportunities for people of all ages and to become a venue for more private events and classes. Our plan is to function somewhat like a town’s community center (hence the name “Community Farm Center”) as well as to be a referral center for those looking for specialty farm experiences.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Farming and maintaining farm facilities is never an easy road, and farming and children’s educational services also do not generate much income. In the beginning, the first iteration was a non-profit foundation dedicated to early childhood education. Due to funding and government regulations, it was not sustainable. Diversifying services by offering a combination of children’s camps, afterschool and horsemanship lessons has allowed for more income to the farm such that it can sustain itself and continue to grow. The pandemic gave us new challenges along with a new opportunity. We had to adapt our facilities and services to the CDC guidelines for infection prevention, which limited the number of people that we could have on site. It did, however, bring about the Distance Learning Camp, a place that children could do their remote schoolwork outside (under our large pavilion). The idea stemmed from the parents of children who were attending our after school programs. They needed a place that their children could be supervised in a safe environment to do their remote schoolwork. Our staff supervised the children and helped them log into their virtual classes. They provided some limited tutoring when needed. During breaks from classes and before and after their virtual school day, the children were able to play and work alongside our farm staff. Now that most schools have returned to in-person classes, we still have a few who chose to remain completely remote and are still attending their virtual classrooms under our watch. The others are picked up at their respective schools and are with us for our after school program. We are currently growing and adding to our infrastructure and programs. We have great staff members who are committed to our mission and vision and are excited to be able to branch out and offer new services to our community.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I was born and raised in Chapel Hill, NC. My parents were scientists at UNC. My training, education and current profession is in medicine. I am an OBGYN at Duke in general practice, so every day, I help women to maintain and regain their personal health. What I am told by my patients is that I really hear them and understand them individually, and tailor their healthcare to their individual needs and personalities. I have realized over the many years of taking care of adults that personal health really starts at the beginning of their life and is shaped by the experiences they have throughout life. The healthiest, most balanced individuals I see often have a life which always included being in contact with nature, whether it was growing up on a farm, outdoor work or hobbies (like gardening), working with animals or just spending time outside most days. I myself feel that growing up in Chapel Hill during the 1970’s gave me the freedom and opportunity to play outside in nature and explore it and learn from it. This sort of environment is harder and harder for people to find for themselves or their families. As an adult, I found myself drawn out of the suburbs and into the country for the opportunity to raise my own food and partner with nature again.

When Spence’s life and my life intersected, it was a natural fit. We became partners in life and in the farm. My interest, work and investment in Sunrise Community Farm Center, LLC (and the Spence’s Farm for Kids Programs) is to provide people of all ages with this resource with which they can enrich their lives, and by doing so, improve their physical and emotional health. Additionally, my experience in medical leadership has given me an awareness of how to build an effective and responsive team. Interestingly, the programs and teachings at our farm include those same principles of good teamwork: Communication, Respect, Acknowledgement, Friendship, Trust and Setting good boundaries (we call it the CRAFTS of Partnership). These principles and teachings are essential to effective teamwork and partnership, whether you are planting crops, managing a medical emergency, or managing your household. These concepts are ever present with activities on the farm and the concepts are very easy to teach in this environment. There is so much potential for farm-based learning to help all sorts of people! I’m excited to see where this road will take us.

Do you have any advice for those looking to network or find a mentor?
Finding a mentor often comes naturally when a person is interested in a certain subject or skill. When you meet people and start discussing topics that are of common interest, you will often discover that there is a chain of connections to those who can serve as your mentors. Attending meetings of local organizations in your area of interest can help you meet a large number of people with similar interests and expertise. They in turn, would have additional contacts that may be shared. For me, it seems that my mentors have always just been right in front of me when I was ready.

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