The rural touch
Life is newborn and cuddly this time of year where children can get the feel of things
PITTSFIELD - Bill Mangiardi emerged from the barn at Hancock Shaker Village to greet the Sunday morning visitors standing in the frigid Berkshires air. "We have a mother pig and three new piglets inside, and they've had a hard night," he said in a soft voice, dropping his eyes to meet the gaze of the children in the group. Two young girls stared back with somber faces.
"It was a difficult birth, and it was very cold, so I want you to move slowly and quietly when you're near the pen," said Mangiardi, director of farm and facilities at the Village.
Minutes later, in the barn, he held up a piglet the size and color of a brick, but a lot more active. "It's a boy," Mangiardi said. The piglet pawed the air with tiny hooves, and his little snout furiously sniffed the air. The crowd greeted the curly-tailed critter with a hushed "Awww!" After his debut, he rejoined his litter, where he and his siblings started a game of "king of the mountain" on their mother's back.
The barn is part of the regular tour of the Village, where historic preservation extends to old-fashioned livestock breeds. The new litter was a highlight of the "Baby Animals" program, a spring celebration inviting visitors to hold and care for lambs, chicks, kids, calves, and piglets.
Hancock Shaker Village is one of several New England farms that encourage visitors to experience what was once a part of everyday life: contact with farm animals. People come for the pleasure of it, especially in spring, when the animals give birth and nurse their young. But for farmers in an age of dwindling small-scale agriculture, more than fun is at stake. For some, opening the barn doors for a modest fee, or launching a full-time agritourism business, keeps them afloat.
"There's no way we could keep the farm going without this business," said Sheri St. Laurent of East Hill Farm in Troy, N.H. Her family runs a family vacation resort on a farm where horses, goats, sheep, cows, chickens, pigs, and llamas are the big attraction for inn guests and day trippers.
At 9 a.m. on a recent weekend, with temperatures in the mid-20s inside the farm's large red barn, more than a dozen children queued up to try milking a patient Guernsey. Adam Majewski, 13, of Syosset, N.Y., straddled the low milking stool like a pro. "I've done it two days in a row," he said. "Once it gets going, it's no problem."
After her turn, Claire Golder, 9, from Manhattan, wrinkled her nose while trying to find the right words to describe it. "It felt kinda shmushy," she said. Then she joined her friends at the rabbit pen, where they scooped up baby rabbits.
A century ago, half of all Americans lived and worked on farms, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Today less than a quarter live in rural areas. "With over 90 percent of the American public now at least two generations removed from an agrarian lifestyle, it is important to educate people about agriculture, the industry that feeds this nation," says Donna Woolam, director of agriculture and education at the Eastern States Exposition (The Big E), a big venue for regional farm exhibits.
Farms that allow children to visit with the animals used to be called "petting zoos." Though some still use it, the term no longer carries the weight and urgency many feel about their role in a society that is largely clueless about where its food comes from, and more farms are adding educational activities.
Mangiardi told a story about a school group that visited on a warm spring day last year. One child cried out as he spotted a calf, "Oh, wow, a pony!" Mangiardi shook his head. "It's not their fault," he said. "They've never seen either one."
"What we do here is becoming more important as suburban people have less connection to land and farming and we have less open space all the time," says Meghan Connolly, education and interpretation coordinator at Weir River Farm, a working farm in Hingham owned by The Trustees of Reservations, a statewide conservation and historic preservation group. The farm is home to pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and a llama.
"We talk about how food is a great equalizer," said Connolly, who launched a 4-H program at Weir River Farm to cultivate a deeper knowledge of animals. "People need to understand that what we do to farmland we do to ourselves. When we maintain land that's healthy, the good grass and clean water goes into animals' bodies, and their healthy meat goes into our bodies."
The educational angle doesn't seem to dampen the fun for kids, who find the Holstein cows as exotic as orangutans. At Adams Farm in Wilmington, Vt., children and their parents recently braved bracingly cool spring temperatures to stroll among the livestock pens. As Nubian goats and Merino sheep craned their necks toward the visitors, children tentatively held out carrots and apple slices. Alpacas, smaller cousins of llamas, were the most popular - and well fed. Outdoors, children lined up to sit astride a gentle old horse that plodded in a circle around an outbuilding, led by a farm worker.
Peter Roland, visiting from Westport, Conn., with his son, Nic, 3, grew up on a farm in the Berkshires and wanted Nic to sample that experience. "I think it's important to have some interaction with animals," Roland said. "Then he gets to realize that there's more than just people on the planet."
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.