Most people these days have lost any real connection to farms & livestock. Years ago, most folks at least had extended family living on a homestead...perhaps not farmers, but Grandma or Uncle so-and-so had a garden, or a couple cows, or some chickens. It was a touchstone to where food really comes from that has by and large been lost for most Americans.
Our farm is located in Forest County, PA, which has the distinction of having the highest percentage of seasonal residences to permanent ones in the entire nation. That means there are more summer cottages and hunting camps than full-time homes. So, a good percentage of our visitors in the summer are “city folk”. For many of them, the main reason to come to the farm is for fresh tomatoes, or delicious sausage, or any of the other food we offer for sale. For many others, though, a big part of the draw is just setting foot on a farm. It's like a mini family field trip. They love that they can walk through the front yard and see the turkeys and chickens, or catch a glimpse of the horses and cows in the pasture.
When hosting friends or family with kids, I often have given them a scoop of feed and let them feed the chickens and other poultry. It meant so much to the kids, and their parents as well, that I decided to incorporate it into the farm stand. So, I filled up some paper cups with feed with a handmade sign saying “Feed the birds! $.50 per cup. Chickens, ducks, turkeys & peacocks all love it!”. I have been somewhat amazed by the response. While it's very popular with families with children, it was a surprise that about 50% of the cups have been purchased by adults. (A side effect to this is that now the birds are eternally optimistic that any human may come bearing food, so they run up to just about everyone who gets out of a vehicle now. I've created an army of friendly feathered monsters!) It's easy to think I'm a business genius, that I'm getting people to pay for food the birds need anyways, and doing my chores for me to boot. But, I think, for many of these folks, it's literally pocket change for an experience that they will remember for a long time. The act of caring for creatures stirs something deep within us all. I can't tell you how many times so far someone has come back into the farm stand to return the paper cup so I can reuse it (unasked!) and to thank me for the opportunity.
Farm stand Saturdays are always long. This time of year, we are literally up with the sun picking and washing the veggies, grinding sausage, setting up shop, and then it's 6 hours of nonstop waiting on the public. By the time 4 PM rolls around, I'm eager to feed the critters and then eat a decent meal myself and relax for the rest of the evening. Yesterday, as I'm in the midst of evening chores, a truck pulls up. A woman I've never met before gets out and asks if her grandkids could get out and look at the birds. Part of me wanted to say no, come back when we're open, that I'm hungry and tired and want to get off my feet and just be done for the day. But I said sure, let them out, the birds are eating their dinner but the kids can come into the yard for a look. At that time, Dan had just let the horses out of the barn so they were close at hand as well. So, after I put fresh water in the bird pen, I walked over and grabbed Montana, our Paint riding horse. He loves attention, is very gentle, and is much less intimidating (size-wise) than the work horses. I called over to the group that if they walked over quietly, they could pet him.
Kids without farm experience generally want to run & scream in all this open space, but I'm always pleasantly surprised that just by telling the kids that running and being loud scares the animals and makes them run away, their behavior changes pretty much instantly. So the kids came over quietly, and I couldn't help but notice that the young woman with them was walking on two prosthetic legs. Not that her handicap made her any more deserving of my time, but it kind of helped to crystallize a concept for me. Today's kids (and many adults, too!) are farm handicapped. There has been research into what has been called “Nature Deficit Disorder”...the idea that as a society we're so tuned in to our TVs, our smartphones and iPads that we don't see nature, we no longer understand nature, and we don't value what we don't see or understand. I think the same is ultimately true with our food system. We don't see it, and we don't understand it, which has led to factory farms, high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, Monsanto, and all the other evils of the industrial food system. What will it take for real change to occur? I think it has to start one eater at a time, and it has to be something that is meaningful- something personally experienced. What will it take to take the happy out of a Happy Meal for our kids? I think it has to start with something they can relate to- a flurry of feathers as they feed some chickens, or soft equine breath on a hand as they pet a pony. I don't necessarily think that I'm changing the world a cup of chicken feed at a time, but hey, it's a start. So if you're in the neighborhood, stop by. Feed the birds and see for yourself. And if you're lucky, maybe you can meet Montana, or the Dexter calves, or one of the other friendly beasts that call our farm home. Just remember to speak softly and walk slowly...which, if you think about it, is pretty good advice, no matter where you are...