Many kids spent their summer vacation attending camp. Maybe it was the typical cabin-in-the-woods experience, with swimming and archery lessons. Surely you or someone you know was shuttling their young aspiring athlete to and from sports camps of one sort or another. Budding engineers may have headed for science programs.
There are kids, however, who spent a week or two learning to milk a goat, how to brush a horse, and the finer points of feeding a 700-pound pig. They did that and other activities at the Educational Farm at Joppa Hill in Bedford.
My family discovered Joppa Hill when our daughter Kate said she wanted to go to a farm camp. After she attended a week of the program last summer, we became volunteers. Now, every other Sunday, Kate and I get up early and set out for the farm to “feed and turn out” the animals. Horses, a donkey, rabbits, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks, chickens, even a pair of skittish alpacas all call Joppa Hill home these days, but Executive Director Annette Handy says it’s the farm’s big pig “China” that commands everyone’s attention.
“Everybody’s drawn to her, but being 700 pounds, I’m always making sure they’re cautious when they get close to her,” Handy said.
China and her much smaller companion Percy share pen space in the rambling old barn connected to some no-longer used silos.
It’s a little different than it was decades ago. The barn was full of dairy cows back then. You can still see remnants of old milking operations in there. After that shut down, the land sat idle for a while until a developer eyed it for house lots, but eventually the town of Bedford came to own the 35 acres that is now known as the Educational Farm at Joppa Hill. It’s part of a wider tract, some 314 acres that are now conservation land straddling the border of Bedford and Amherst.
Handy says the mission of Joppa Hill is “to create awareness of sustainability — trying to get people to learn about different animals, especially the children. A lot of the children that come through here don’t know an egg comes from a chicken. They’ll look at the goats and say, ‘Do they give eggs too?’”
The Education Farm is a non-profit organization, and the town of Bedford leases the land to the farm for nothing, though Handy points out “we don’t get any taxpayer money to support the farm either.”
Because the barn structure is in need of major repairs, it’s been closed this summer to campers and visitors. The day camp has been held out in an adjacent field under a large rented tent. Camp councilor Abby Langdon said the curriculum is all centered around learning about animals and how they are used on farms and agriculture.
“We also accept anyone with any special needs; if it is too severe for us to handle, we do allow guardians to come and stay with the children and do as much as they can. We have had kids with autism, developmentally delayed, we welcome everyone, and usually by the end of the week everyone loves it,” Langdon said.
“There are kids who basically had their parents sign them up, and they said they didn’t want to come to camp, and at the end of the week they’re begging to come back,” said Camp Medical Technician Kiley Morris.
The animals are the big draw of course, but children also play games, build bird houses, and take guided hikes along the Farm’s extensive trails and hilly pastures. Langdon and Morris say often kids take away something else from the camp: the ability to act as a team.
“A lot of them learn to work with other kids. It doesn’t have to do with animals. They learn to cooperate and communicate,” Morris said.
Annette Handy said the Educational Farm’s camps have seen an increase in enrollment this past season after a decline in recent years following the recession. Even so, an increase in the cost of feeding and caring for the many animals, as well as the fact that the decades-old barn is in need of extensive repairs presents a big hurdle to the Farm’s future.
“We are looking to raise money to repair or rebuild the barn. We’re still looking to see what really needs to be done. We would also like to have an educational building, aside from our barn where we can put on our summer camps, more winter camps, and birthday parties, and hopefully weddings down the road too,” Handy said.
Before any of that can happen, of course, there’s the issue of money — and winter. Michael Scanlon is president and chairman of the board of directors of the Educational Farm. He said they’d rather repair the existing building, so the animals can stay in place. Otherwise, many would have to be sheltered in outdoor structures for the season, and some, like the horses, would probably need to be boarded off the farm. Either way, as soon as the engineers have their final say and a fundraising campaign is done, work will begin.
“What we hope to do is get that started late this fall, early winter, and have most of it completed by springtime. ... [The campaign] is going pretty well. We’re probably at this point, from the numbers I’ve seen, more than a third but not quite half way to where we need to be. We’re hoping to raise about $120,000.”
In the meantime, Annette Handy says the farm could use some help in another way:
“We’re always looking for volunteers.”
There are dozens of volunteers who share the daily responsibilities of feeding and caring for the animals. It’s a chance to get hands-on experience on a working farm, and many make it a point to donate their time as a family, as we have. It’s been a fantastic experience to work next to my 10-year-old as she has developed the confidence to lead horses, round up a wayward sheep, and handle a rowdy rooster. We spent much of our summer building what she calls “Duck Manor,” a new home for the Farm’s four Muscovy ducks. With the help of Mom and Dad, my daughter researched what the ducks needed for a shelter; raised the money for the supplies, and built the enclosure.
It’s a rewarding experience, but volunteers alone are not enough. The fact remains the Educational Farm needs money to run. In addition to donations and revenue from the organization’s day camps, there are sales from chicken eggs; there is a vegetable garden; and Joppa Hill is once again home to dairy cows, bringing the Farm full circle.
“Our gardener, she’s doing a great job; everybody is always looking to expand somehow. Hopefully that will happen with our dairy farmer too. Hopefully he’ll be able to expand his program here with us,” Handy said.
I asked my daughter Kate what she thinks is the best part about the farm.
“Seeing all the animals. Some are sweet, some are funny, some are grumpy, “ she said. “I love them all. Except the roosters.”
Rick Ganley is host of NHPR’s Morning Edition as well as an occasional writer and farmer. A version of this story is also slated to air on NHPR.