A Closer Look at the Animals at Wright-Locke (Part One): Chickens

April 2018

Written by Executive Director, Archie McIntyre

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The economics of modern industrial agriculture means we have fewer family farms. What was once a diversified livelihood is now more often enterprise growing just one thing – a farm of corn, or soy, of dairy cows, or pigs or chickens.  Animals have been separated from crop production and from one another.  Traditionally, a farm was a self-sufficient operation growing food for people and animals, consuming the vegetable, animal and dairy products on-farm and selling some off-farm for income, while fertilizing the soil.

When the Conservancy took over the farm in 2007, we inherited our own monocrop operation:  raspberries.  Picking lasted for about 6 weeks each summer from late August until the first frost.  Just 6 weeks activity out of 52 weeks in a year didn’t seem like enough to sustain ongoing interest and we knew there was so much potential.  So what to do?

The clear choice was to expand our efforts and diversify.  We hired Adrienne, our farmer in 2011 and we began growing a full range of market crops starting in the spring once the snow was off the ground and continuing until the fall frosts set in.  We offered a variety of market vegetables at Farmers’ Markets and eventually through an on-farm CSA.

Creating a full season of diverse crops was the first step in reinvigorating our farm, but nothing brings a farm to life like animals.  At a small community farm like Wright-Locke, chickens are just the trick to add back a little vitality and a bit of chaos, too.

So we created our own flock and found that chickens added a real energy to the Farm.  As the word got out, visitors started coming to check out the new girls in town and volunteers offered their help.  We developed a Chicken Chore program and volunteers took over their care and rotated chicken chores every week.  It’s a big commitment to care for chickens all year long but a week of chores every once in a while is a great way for parents and children to work side-by-side, learning about taking care of living things and contributing to the joint effort of running a small community farm operation.

That’s not to say that maintaining a flock of chickens at the farm is not without some challenges.  Over the years, the size of our flock has gone from a couple of dozen to over a 100 chickens.  We are now back to about 35 or 40 which seems the right number to lay enough eggs for our regular customers while not overburdening volunteers and our limited space for livestock.

It’s hard to get an accurate count of how many chickens we have at any one time.  As soon as you get a number of the chickens counted, they run around and shuffle the deck and you’re back to square one.  Did I get that Barred Rock? Was that the Araucana I just counted or a different one?  They sure look the same to me.

We raise layers, not broilers and that cuts down on the blood and guts a bit.   A few years back, I volunteered to help Pete and Jen at their Backyard Birds operation in Concord.  The day’s activity was to slaughter and process about 400 chickens.  This is just the kind of chicken operation we all want to support – a small, local farm with caring farmers raising healthy chickens on pasture, transparent to the customers who could see for themselves that the chickens were being treated humanely.   The experience was memorable and has stuck with me over the years.  It did drive home a couple of fundamentals:  the meat we eat comes from living animals and no matter how humanely done, death of an animal is not pleasant.  The second lesson learned was I sure wasn’t going into the broiler business, certainly not here at Wright-Locke Farm.

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So we too, at the Farm, have to get our hands dirty.  One time, when we had over a dozen roosters that we couldn’t keep, we had our own backyard slaughter and processing. Volunteers took home a chicken for their pot and a much better understanding of chicken behavior, anatomy, and what it takes to put that protein on your plate.

Well now, I’ve gone on and on about our chickens but we do raise other animals at the farm! Sheep, goats, and bees.  Each has their own story and unique place at Wright-Locke Farm. Stay tuned next week to learn about our sheep.

But, everyone likes a chicken dinner.  Despite our best protective efforts, the occasional hawk or stray coyote swoops in for a feast.  Every year it seems we lose a couple of chickens to predators.  Once or twice over the years we have suffered larger losses to a marauding coyote or perhaps a fisher cat.  We never can be sure who’s the culprit, for it happens in a short minute during an infrequent lull in our activities when no one is around.

Unfortunately, sometimes the death of our animals is intentional. When you’re in the layer business, roosters don’t add too much value.  It’s always good to have one around to strut his stuff and protect the hens.  But too many create havoc not only for the layers but also for the many kids in our educational program who care for the chickens as part of their time at the Farm.  It can be pretty scary if a rooster decides to take a run at you.  Of course, if you’re in the breeding business the law of averages says 50% of the offspring will be boys.  When we buy in day old chicks to replenish our flock, we try only to buy females but sexing a day old chicken is not infallible and invariably we get a few roosters.  Recently, a fully-grown rooster showed up unannounced and uninvited, left behind by backyard bird keeper who couldn’t handle the crowing.

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Confessions of a Biophiliac

February 2018

Written by Education Director, Erika Gorgenyi

Through a series of fortunate events, the widening circles of my life have brought me to Wright-Locke. The beauty, history, organizational philosophy and community of the farm are, collectively, a very special and rare find. Since joining the team just over a month ago, I’ve been ever grateful to be at such a wonderful place, especially as it seems to synthesize many of my long-standing interests.  Here there exists hiking trails, acres of nature and wildlife, chickens and goats, an organic agriculture operation, a rich history, community engagement opportunities, education that emphasizes sustainability, health and well-being, and much more.

On occasion I find myself reflecting on all of the pieces that had to fit together to bring me here, be it schooling, jobs, networking, or other external factors.  But I recognize that one critical component has been internal and is inextricably part of who I am, in fact I’d argue, part of who we all are to varying degrees.  

“I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world”
-Rainer Maria Rilke
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Biophilia

“Biophilia,” is a term that was popularized in the 1980s by local, renowned biologist E. O. Wilson.  It’s defined as “love of life or living systems” and Wilson hypothesized that, as human beings, we are innately drawn to and seek connection with all life, including plants, animals and our natural surroundings.  How many of us have pets, love to keep house plants around, or enjoy flowers?  And who can’t help but stop and investigate when a colossal convention of ants amasses in a sidewalk crack for some mysterious reason? Whether we realize it or not, as living beings we are subconsciously linked to all other life. For me, this was a fact I could never ignore or escape.

Growing up in a city, I looked forward to spending my summers in rural New Hampshire where my biophilic characteristics could express themselves unhindered.  I explored woods and streams, rocks and logs, plants and animals of all kinds. Little did I realize back then just how much these times would inform the trajectory of my life, guiding me ever-closer to nature, environmental awareness, outdoor exploration and a quest for interconnectedness. Drawn to stories and intrigue of times past, I went on to study History and English in college and then dove headlong into the field of outdoor education, bringing groups into the wilderness for adventurous journeys in nature as well as journeys of self-discovery.

Eventually, this love of nature led me to focus on environmental education and to an increased interest in our food system.  As I began to see the vast chasm between us and our food (how and where it’s grown, who produces it, how it gets to us) I wanted to be involved in helping others see, care and be empowered to make informed decisions.  Throughout these experiences and revelations, the common thread that remained was biophilia: the strong affinity for the diversity of life and living things and a desire to connect the links that seemed evident all around me. I do not exist apart from the world but function within it and because of it. I am undeniably linked to every tree, every creature and every shifting of the wind just as I am connected to those who live alongside me.

As mentioned earlier, the biophilia theory asserts that all humans are genetically predisposed to be attracted by and to other forms of life, but the degree to which this is expressed greatly varies from person to person. This tendency can be cultivated or suppressed. Our early years are the most formative and it’s all too common to see children easily and readily drawn to nature, especially animals. Did you have a favorite tree growing up? Even if you lived in a city, as I did, it’s likely you can remember some special outdoor place that felt sacred to you or fascinated you.  Research suggests that childhood experiences in nature greatly affect the likelihood of one’s environmental sensitivity later in life. Conversely, it’s possible to foster fear or mistrust of nature through intentional aversion or a lack of positive exposure to the outdoors and other forms of life: “biophobia.” Therefore, great care must be taken with our experiences in the natural world.  We want children especially to feel connected to, have respect for and curiosity about the amazing life and processes around us.

This brings me back to the treasure that is Wright-Locke.  As Education Director I’m honored to have the responsibility of encouraging youth to discover their connection to the farm: to plants, trees, and soil.  I look forward to engaging people of all ages in meaningful experiences with history, culture, nature, food, community, and the environment…to cultivating the biophilia inside!  I believe that through this endeavor benefits abound; greater respect, understanding, communication and cooperation.

I’m eager to see where the widening circles will reach out to from this special place!

-Erika

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DIRTy Minds (Suitable for all Ages)

January 2018

Written by Community Engagement Manager,              Kim Kneeland

In mid-January, a small contingent from Wright-Locke Farm headed to the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s (NOFA) Annual Winter Conference in Worcester, MA. Many of us have been going to these conferences for years – days packed full of workshops, intensives, lectures, round-table discussions, and (since it’s a farming conference) really good lunch! It is always amazing to be in the same place with hundreds and hundreds of people who are passionate about the same things you are. Of course we’re all going about our passions in different ways and so it is always fun to soak up the creative problem solving and tips and tricks of the trade. I can never help but feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, giggling in anticipation for the next day’s adventures while I flip through the conference program circling all of the sessions I’d like to attend. And there are always so many! This year, I was forced to choose between:

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  • Developing Local Food Production/Education Programs at Jails
  • Balancing Fair Wages, Farm Viability and Affordable Prices
  • Climate Adaptation: Preparing Farms, Communities, and Regions for Climate Disruption
  • Edge Silvopasturing
  • Designing a Suburban Permaculture Homestead

And that was just ONE time slot! One thing that has been really interesting to see over the past seven years (for me at least), is to notice the major themes that take the stage during these conferences. You see these themes thread through the keynote speaker topics, the types of workshops offered, and what all your cohorts are talking about during lunch and breaks. Most recently, the focus seems to be solidly on soils.

Yes, DIRT! Everyone is getting really worked up about that lumpy brown stuff we walk on. And for good reason; the more and more I learn, the more it seems that soil offers some major solutions to the overwhelming problems we as humans are facing, from nutrition, productivity, disease and pest control, to resilience from climate change and carbon sequestration.

This year’s keynote speaker, Gabe Brown, talked about “regenerative farming,” and how focusing on soil health creates abundance, profit, healthy ecosystems, and resilience. Last years’ keynote speakers were the owners of Singing Frogs Farm who practice “No-Till” farming where they reap huge ecological and financial benefits by working with and protecting the soil life rather than destroying it through tillage. There is a HUGE web of diverse biota in our soils and with traditional tillage practices, this complex ecosystem beneath our feet is highly compromised and can be almost completely destroyed with continuous disturbance (picture the “Dust Bowl” – except this is not just a problem of the past!).

We saw the importance of soils pop up in almost half of the workshops, from talking about mycorrhizal fungi, the role of soils in carbon sequestration, linking soil and water to climate change, in holistic animal and land management, cover cropping, to an all day intensive seminar on managing the fertility of your soils. The common thread? Keeping your soils full of life and as close to intact as possible gives any operation a much stronger basis and helps mediate most large temperature, weather, pest, and disease pressure.

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One of the most significant revelations for me this year was learning about the relationship between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. In learning about photosynthesis in school, it had never really sunk in (if it had been mentioned at all) that when plants make their carbon based sugars using sunlight, CO2, and H2O, they actually exude a large portion of those sugars through their roots into the soils around them. But guess who’s hugging tightly to all the plants’ roots? Mycorrhizal fungi! They form their own complex “root” web around the plants’ roots and create a partnership. They get some of the sugars from the plants and, in exchange, they use their own root system to extend the reach of the plants’ roots in order to get minerals, micro and macro nutrients, as well as water. When fungi and plants mingle their systems, the root surface area (and therefore nutrient uptake) increases by 10 to 100 fold! This leads to stronger, healthier plants, more nutritious fruits, and more carbon sequestered in the earth (as the fungi convert the simple sugars into more complex carbon chains). When we break up the soil through physical and chemical means, we also break up the fungi (and plenty more than just them!) and destroy those partnerships in the soil. Without those partnerships, we have to artificially add those nutrients, minerals, and water that the plants need to boost their productivity. And despite our advances in understanding agriculture and soil science, we are far from understanding the ultra-complex natural systems that interact around and beneath us. Which means that it is no surprise that we are seeing the problems in our current agricultural system that we are: disease, pest pressure, less nutritious food, water retention and runoff problems, etc. etc. (Reference = Mycorrhizal Planet by Michael Phillips)

This is grossly simplified, but the overall message remains the same. We’ve got to start thinking long-term and rebuild our soils through the living organisms in the earth to create healthy, vibrant and resilient systems. At Wright-Locke Farm, we continue to learn and try to implement these practices as best we can. We take regular soil tests, we try not to till too often, we rotate all of our crops from field to field each year, we try to use cover crops and soil restoring crops when we can, and we use our own compost in the field to add nutrients and biota back into our soils. But it is a complicated system and our farmer has to balance many different needs all with a very limited amount of time, funds, and staff. We’ll keep on balancing, adapting, and improving as farmers do. One initiative that we will be undertaking that puts the health of our land, forests, and water at the forefront is our Agroforestry Master Plan which you can learn more about here. If you’re interested in being involved with our efforts, you can e-mail Archie McIntyre. (Photo credits to NOFA)

Farm Education for All

September 2017
Written by Education Director, Rebekah Carter

Fall after school harvest (Rebekah Carter 2016)

I’ve spent the past five years of my life serving as Education Director for Wright-Locke Farm, and the experience has been nothing short of incredible. But even now, five years into this journey, I am often asked, “What exactly do you do? What is farm education?” I think many who are not familiar with farm-based programs may assume that “farm ed” only relates to training programs for new or beginning farmers. Though this is certainly one form of it, farm education programs at Wright-Locke and many other small farms are typically geared towards the non-farming population of children, teens, and adults that make up a farm’s community. We may not all be farmers, but we’re all eaters, and the majority of us could use a little guidance when it comes to eating more locally and seasonally. Farm education gives farms a means to communicate to their customers both the knowledge and skills necessary to make better food and lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to growing or incorporating more fresh fruits, veggies, herbs, and other local foods into your diet.

Hosting theMOVE students at the farm (2014)Ideally, one’s participation in farm education will start as soon as possible during childhood, when our brains are absorbing all sorts of new information and we’re starting to develop skill sets, opinions, and habits- some of which may last a lifetime. While the desire to eat more healthfully can occur at any time in one’s life, it is evermore apparent how critical it is to develop these goals and habits when we’re young. Childhood and adult overweight and obesity rates are at an all time high in America and many other countries around the world, and their effects are not limited to clothing size; many chronic conditions and diseases are directly linked to maintaining an unhealthy weight or eating an unhealthy diet, and the ability to reverse or lessen these negative effects is often much more difficult than our ability to prevent them through diet and lifestyle choices. Children who start eating fruits and vegetables at a younger age are more likely to continue to do so throughout their childhood, into their teens, and then during adulthood. Farm education programs serve a crucial link between consumers of all ages, producers of farm products like fresh produce, eggs, dairy, and meats, and the food-consciousness and health of our society.

Looking at frames from a beehive (Rebekah Carter 2013)Wright-Locke Farm’s youth education programs offer children a unique hands-on experience learning about growing food, cooking, and the natural world on a historic working farm. All of our programs include lessons and activities related to agriculture, healthy eating, the environment, or natural science while utilizing the fields, pastures, barns, and wooded trails as our living classroom. Though we spend plenty of time focusing on subjects such as soil, compost, worms, plants, honeybees, Wright-Locke Farm’s domesticated animals (sheep, goats, chickens), land conservation, farm history, and local wildlife, we always include a healthy farm or season-inspired dish during our youth programs. Some days, this might mean simply going to one of our two organically-grown youth gardens to pick and snack on some of the harvest, be it Sungold cherry tomatoes, Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers, or purple, yellow, and green bush beans; other days, it means following a recipe to prepare a healthy dish together, using fresh foods from the garden, our farm fields, or the local farmers market.

Harvesting red lettuce for spring salads (Rebekah Carter 2016)

Whether it’s dehydrated kale chips, raw fruit and greens smoothies, overnight refrigerator pickles, salsa fresca, raw strawberry-rhubarb fruit leather, plant parts salad, or another of our favorite seasonal recipes, I’m always impressed by how much our youngest audience seems to enjoy picking, preparing, and eating these creations or sharing them with their parents (if there’s any leftover, of course). Time after time, I hear parents saying, “they would NEVER eat that at home!” or “I can’t believe my son/daughter ate that.” Even more exciting is when we hear about our youth participants cooking up veggies they harvested at the farm, or cooking up a farm recipe at home to share with their family. They may not realize it, but these kids are developing a taste for health-promoting foods, an opportunity that too few children seem to have but desperately need. In a world riddled with cheap unhealthy foods marketed directly to impressionable youths, it’s our responsibility to teach kids about the many nutrient-rich foods that local farms provide us throughout the seasons and how to include them in our daily meals.

Going into a hive during a beekeeping workshop (Rebekah Carter 2014)Farm-based education provides the perfect outlet for this type of teaching, learning and habit-forming, since program participants get to either directly witness or actively participate in the growing, harvesting, and preparation of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs into a delicious meal, side dish or snack. But this type of education is not limited to youth audiences only. As the saying goes, it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Teens and adults often need just as much guidance as our youngest students when it comes to improving their diets with the inclusion of more fresh foods and healthy cooking techniques. Wright-Locke’s educational workshops for teens and adults are a great way to learn practical skills related to healthy living, small-scale “backyard” agriculture, and the wonders of nature. Though we host a number of programs featuring subjects like yoga, herbalism, home composting, bouquet and wreath making, stargazing and more, the majority of our workshops are directly related to growing, foraging or cooking up local and seasonal foods. Whether it’s fermenting your own sour dill cucumber pickles, kraut or kombucha, cooking and canning some homemade jam or apple butter sweetened to your taste, making nutrient-rich stocks and soups from scratch, raising backyard hens for eggs or bees for raw honey, growing your own gourmet mushrooms, or creating delicious dishes featuring just-picked veggies and herbs… our workshops strive to connect people not only to our farm and its landscape, but to local and seasonal foods of all kinds- from the farmers market, your own home garden, or even the wild forageable areas of your community and beyond.

Making fall wreaths in the 1827 Barn (Rebekah Carter 2016)We have experienced amazing growth in our educational program offerings and audience over the past five years, and we are passionate about our desire to continue growing so that we can offer an even larger variety of programs and reach even more audiences. But the farm’s existing infrastructure is extremely limiting in terms of what we are able to offer in our short but very busy seven-month program season, currently running from April through October (truth be told- we’re so busy, we’re starting to book some programs and events in early November). Between our organic agriculture, education programs, special events, fundraising, and farm stand, we have all functional farm buildings and fields in full use; due to our many activities and increasing number of staff and volunteers, we often have to share workspaces, tools, and supplies. The only sheltered space available for programs and events, named the 1827 Barn after the year it was built, is spacious and gorgeous no matter the time of day, but it’s not heated and does not have a certified kitchen for the many food-based workshops and activities we do. Our current business model has worked to get us where we are today, but cannot sustain the growth we seek. The only reasonable solution to our roadblock is the creation of a year-round program and event facility. A climate-controlled building with a certified kitchen would not only give us more dedicated spaces to utilize for our current activities; more importantly, it would grant us the ability to offer a wider variety of programs for a more diverse range of audiences, all year long.

Ed Center PerspectiveWright-Locke Farm Conservancy has received an incredible amount of support from the community over its almost ten years of existence. Contributions of all kinds- be they monetary, material, or good ol’ “sweat equity”- have been critical in our transformation from a simple pick-your-own raspberry plot to a bustling non-profit community farm with activities for everyone to enjoy. We hope that this amazing farm community, which has already done so much to help us achieve successes both small and large, will continue to work with us towards our goal of establishing a year-round facility to enable further growth of this extraordinary institution. You can learn more about our farm’s vision and how you can help us “Cultivate our Future,” here.

The Helping Hands behind Wright-Locke Farm

August 2017

Written by Community Engagement Manager, Kim Kneeland

I came to this farm in 2014, and now that I’m in my fourth season, it is interesting to look back at my first impressions of Wright-Locke Farm. Hired as a field assistant, and having no familiarity with the area (I’m from Central Mass originally), I came in knowing very little about its recent acquisition by the town and its transformation into a community farm. To the farm’s credit, you could have told me that the farm was in its 20th or 30th year of operation as a non-profit, working and educational farm, and I would have believed you readily. When I came in, the education programs were already thriving, the fields abundant and markets plentiful, the organization had so many strong and passionate leaders, and everyone seemed to plug in with their own unique role.  The truth is that, at that point, our farmer had only been there for three years, and she was the first staff member to be hired. Before Adrienne came on board, the entire operation was run by Wright-Locke Conservancy’s board and many other dedicated volunteers. Of course, the day-to-day was very different than it is now, but they still grew some organic veggies, hosted events for the community, and managed the U-Pick Raspberry crop.

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WL Farm Spring Fling 2010 (142 of 299)

By the time I was hired, Adrienne had cultivated a fully-functional, small organic farm. Rebekah, our Education Director, had a complete line up of adult workshops and youth programs that always seemed to be full of excited participants and Archie, our Executive Director seemed to be effectively pushing the farm envelope. It took me a while to realize how new this was to everyone, and it was astounding to think of how far everything had come in such short amount of time. As I see it, much of the success of the farm came from the early and loving support of many volunteers who were dedicated to preserving Wright-Locke Farm.

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Now in its 10th year of operation, the farm has a strong and passionate staff base manning the helm. And while we still have a lot of volunteer interest and assistance from our board members, the nature of the farm’s volunteer needs have changed. Instead of needing volunteers to plow our fields, plan crop rotation, and fill managerial roles, we need people who can readily plug in under the skilled guidance of our staff and to assist with specific seasonal farm needs. Every year, with more and more interest from the public in our programs, free events, raspberry picking, and farm tours, it is vital that we do have a professional staff to coordinate and manage all of the logistics of welcoming larger crowds to the farm safely and so visitors get the most out of their experience. Each year we continue to explore the balance between staff and volunteers because it is really important to us that we keep a strong volunteer presence on the farm. However, dedicating the time and labor to train  and manage so many new volunteers can be very tricky (and sometimes even counterproductive) . So far, even with our small staff, we’ve been able to meet our volunteer interest, and it is so rewarding, especially when we get people who come back every week (even every day!) all season. We’ve had volunteers who have consistently come to help out each week for four years, and besides creating lasting relationships with those volunteers, they end up functioning like trained staff members and are invaluable to our efforts. It’s a great partnership, really. We are dedicated to the education of our community and, while workshops, classes, and youth programs are a great way to learn, volunteering is another avenue for experiential learning at the farm.

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Two great examples of where volunteers plug-in well to the farm are our U-pick Raspberry Operations and our Chicken Chore Volunteer program. While they are no longer being coordinated by volunteers (many thanks to Donna Wainwright, Susan Ampe, and Berit Ahmad for all of your hard work over the years), all of the day-to-day work is done by volunteers – and that’s no small feat. Once raspberries are ripe and ready to be picked, we open our fields to the public for 5 – 6 days a week. This means we need a constant presence on the farm to greet pickers, tell them where and how to pick the best berries (and what to avoid), help weigh and pack their berries, wash and dry all of the red-stained buckets,  as well as setting up, and breaking down the raspberry station. That’s a lot of volunteer hours over two months! It ends up being a fun time – it’s a great way to enjoy some time outside, interact with other community members, and participate at the farm during the excitement of harvest time. Volunteering with U-Pick Raspberries is a great starter opportunity, with its flexibility and easier time commitments.

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Our Chicken Chore program, while requiring more responsibility and time overall, has been very successful over the years and is such a great way to immerse oneself in “farm-life.” Chicken chores at the farm started about six years back when a local middle schooler suggested keeping chickens. Much like parents say to their children after they’ve asked to get a puppy, we asked “who’s going to take care of them?” She said “We will” – and that they did. The program started with school children caring for baby chicks and then, after they brought them up to the farm once they were old enough, volunteers (some of the same families who raised them) continued to care for the hens daily. The system continues to this day. Of course, it’s not perfect – there are a lot of moving pieces and it’s hard to coordinate between so many people and sometimes we don’t have enough people to cover all slots, then staff members have to cover on top of their already full-plates. But overall, this is a program that thrives because of our volunteers and their dedication to taking care of these farm animals. Many of our chicken chore volunteers are families who do chores together – it’s a great way for children (and adults!) to learn about farming, interacting with animals, working hard, and managing responsibilities. Unless you grew up on a farm or have a couple of your own backyard birds, it’s not an experience that many people get.

We are so lucky to have such an involved community and we are excited to keep harnessing the ideas and efforts of our wonderful volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering at the Farm, check out our Volunteer Opportunities page or contact me at kkneeland@WLFarm.org. We’d love to have you up at the farm!