The Public on Your Porch: On-Farm Education at Windrush Farm
Photos courtesy of Paige Green
It is hard for me to trace back to the first time I yielded to the impulse to throw open the gates of the farm and invite strangers in. Now, some twenty years later, I have had a great deal of experience with on-farm education through school field trips, retreats, family days, weddings, and even social events with my own family and friends, mostly city folk.
First of all, on-farm education is not for every farmer or rancher, as much as herding cats or training chickens to go through hoops might not satisfy their work ethic. And, my advice for any farmers or ranchers considering it - which of course I didn’t think of at the time and so didn’t take - is to visit other places and talk to neighbors to get a sense of whether the experience might be for them.
For example, how would you feel when your visitors bring along a small terrier and explain that they want the adorable Fido to experience sheep, up close, and could they just let it out into the pasture, he loves animals? Or, when you are showing someone the way to the facilities, you hear a shriek, and turn to see three or four children chasing lambs into the nearest fence. Of course, driveways may become a Nascar racing track, fences a climbing structure, and strangers may wander into your farm house because they think it is part of the tour.
The downside of inviting in the public is their total ignorance of farm manners. Urbanites simply have no idea of what is okay on a farm and what is safe behavior around animals. It is the host’s role to kindly help guests understand what is appropriate. On Windrush, we get around this problem with lots of signage: “sheep only,” “no fence climbing please,” “parking here,” etc. We keep events small, have plenty of folks to help with parking, volunteers to chat up crowds, and supervision around the ticklish areas. Rarely are visitors allowed to mingle with the animals inside the pastures, but they have lots of interaction safely just on the other side of the fence. Our goats, behind a fence, are a major crowd attraction, and without supervision, they can be fed all manner of things. A volunteer is stationed there throughout the event.
To the good, though, on-farm education generates income for farmers and ensures that city folks appreciate agriculture. Windrush Farm is a very small holding, barely 25 acres, and I raise long wool sheep to produce fiber and food. The transformation of fleece to yarn is expensive, but I have developed a good market for the yarn through on-farm sales and farmers markets. Still, the expenses of milling, shearing, vet bills, and feed bills mount up. The income from our visitors pays bills and property taxes.
But, into all the logistics, sign painting, and hard economics sneaks the magic. When you see children giggle from a goat kiss, have a child experience a bottle lamb sucking on a proffered finger, or hear the shrill delight when a sheep takes a piece of bread from the tiniest hand, it is hard not to feel good. I know that I am packing real memories into that little - or big person - and that the positive impact may stay with them all their lives.
Our school field trips are arranged by the Agricultural Institute of Marin and draw mainly from Marin, San Francisco, and Sonoma County. We teach children about concepts of domestic animals using our milking goats and our wool sheep as examples, good stewardship of the land, watershed principles, and about the wild animals which also live on the farm. I want every visitor to leave Windrush understanding that farmers care about their animals and are excellent stewards of their land. Every time people come to the farm, there is the opportunity to educate and share that special quality of life those of us living out in the country get to experience every day. Visitors often thank me for “opening up” the farm to them.
Bringing city folk to the farm has taught me how removed people have become from the rural life even though their parents or grandparents might have been raised on a farm. Children crowd around to pat the goats, hungry to touch an animal. We point out her udder, talk about teats and “goatees” and mammals. We ask what the names are for baby goats, sheep, horses, cows, dogs, cats, and llamas. Surprisingly, most children have no idea of the names of much else but lambs, puppies, and kittens, often calling a baby goat a calf, and unable to name the babies of any domestic animals.
Another reason I do on-farm education is that if we, working daily in agriculture, let the vocabulary of farming disappear, then we, the farmers and ranchers, will become invisible. If a child doesn’t know the name of a baby cow, then we are one step out the door to being forgotten and ignored by the urban culture. An urban population uneducated about agriculture will vote to replace our working countryside with shopping centers and condos, accede to lobby groups to place new regulations on farming and ranching, pronouncing many of our ways cruel and inhumane because of their ignorance of good farming practices.
My experience with well-meaning environmentalists has shown me that their urban-funded campaigns can wreak havoc in the delicate structure of agriculture in Marin County. Real exchanges between farmers and ranchers and the urban population can help build the bridges we need to keep agriculture flourishing in Marin County. It is important to remember that the twelve-year-olds who come to the farm this week will be voting in six years. I want them to know we do a good job on the farm, and that they need us around for another century or so. I like to believe that on-farm education makes that evident, and that the almost 2000 visitors we host every year on the farm could make a difference to the future of Marin County agriculture. We fence our animals in, but we shouldn’t fence the city visitors out.
About the Author: Windrush Farm is a working sheep farm in Chileno Valley, California. Founded in 1995 by Mimi Luebbermann, the farm grew from an intention of living simply, farming fiber, and functioning as a quiet space for Luebbermann’s longstanding writing career. With the help of Mimi’s son, Arann Harris, Windrush Farm has since evolved into an educational facility educating and entertaining Bay Area children and adults about farm life, wool, and the real world of animals, grass and sunshine. Biography courtesy of Windrush Farm webpage.