When students, their families, and Louis Braille School staff visited the Fairbank “Hands-On” Animal Farm and pumpkin patch in October of 2008, we promised farmers Janet Fairbank and Jerry Jennings we’d be back in 2009.
Last April 15, we kept our word.
Entering the farm this time was just as impressive as last. Our caravan of cars drove along noisy stretches of Highway 99 before exiting into suburban neighborhoods. Then we abruptly came to a dirt and gravel driveway, made a turn, and saw a scene that looked wonderfully out of place compared to the previous terrain.
Five acres of trees and greenery stretched into the distance, with barns, pens, corrals and gardens linked in lines or dotting the landscape.
The farm has goats from Africa, ducks from China and Brazil, and guinea hens from Madagascar.
Spring tours at the farm are very different from the ones given in the fall. Fall is a time when plants are maturing or withering. All the animals are well established. But in spring, everything is new, including livestock.
First we visited the pygmy goats. We remembered they were small last year. But this year there was a baby pygmy goat that looked like legs and horns stuck onto a large loaf of bread.
Past the goat pen were some peacocks. One male had his feathers fully spread, displaying beautiful iridescent colors and patterns that spanned a large hemisphere of space. “If this peacock was really afraid,” Farmer Jerry said, “he’d make the feathers go back and forth and he’d be scary-sounding.”
Next we saw a turkey with a long, red flap hanging over his nose. “It’s called a snood,” Farmer Jerry told us. “Can you say ‘snood’?,” she asked the students. Everyone yelled, “Snood!” and the turkey gobbled loudly.
“Turkeys aren’t the smartest birds in Nature,” Farmer Jerry said. “If their eggs were oval, like a regular egg, they could roll under something and the turkeys would never find their babies. So, Nature has designed their eggs to pivot. There’s a point on the end of the egg. When the turkey moves it, it rolls on an axis and doesn’t go anywhere.”
Later, we visited baby Ameraucana chicks and farmer Jerry perched them on the students’ arms. She told us the various chicks would grow up and lay eggs that might be white, brown, or green in color. Teacher Dianne, who grew up around livestock, said, “Some people call those ‘Easter eggs.'”
Off to one side of the heating cage area for baby chicks is an incubator where newly and partially hatched chicks are kept. Newborn chicks emerge from their shells wet and exhausted. Some chicks were still in their shells, resting for minutes at a time when not working hard to peck their way out.
Farmer Jerry said most people who see chicks not yet out of the shell ask why they can’t be helped out. “But if you help the chick get out of the egg, it probably will die,” she explained, “because they get their strength from the hatching-out process of pecking. That gives them the strength to live.”
We moved on to a pen holding a sow and her 13 piglets. Farmer Jerry told us not to reach over the rail, because the mother pig is fiercely protective of her young. The piglets, when not nursing, stacked themselves atop of one another in a corner. “That’s why we have the term ‘pig pile,'” Farmer Jerry said.
She also said pigs curl their tails when they’re happy. “When a pig holds its tail between its legs, like a dog, it means the pig is in a bad mood or isn’t feeling good,” she added.
The students asked Farmer Jerry some good questions. One of them was, “Where do the animals sleep at night?”
She said the goats have shelters to go in at night and in bad weather. Other animals, such as cows, need shelter only when they’re young. Sheep stay outside at night, naturally kept dry by their lanolin.
“And the kitty cats go anywhere they want to go,” she added.
“You have cats?” the students asked.
“Whenever you have a farm where there’s a lot of feed around, you need to have cats, because there will be mice and rats here, too,” Farmer Jerry said. “Cats take care of the mice and rats. That’s part of having a farm.”
The tour ended with Farmer Dave telling us how felt is made from wool. It’s a long, tedious process, part of which requires wool layers to be compressed, rolled and roughly treated.
“You put it in boiling water, then cold water,” he said, “then you hit it against the fence post before putting it in the dryer.”
The children laughed when Farmer Dave talked about hitting the fence post with wool.
“That wool starts to shrink,” he continued. “It shrinks and shrinks and shrinks, until it becomes only about a half an inch thick.” He reached for the hat on his head and pulled it off. “That’s what this is. And it’s waterproof. That’s the nice thing about it. I never get wet. No water can get through. That’s called felting the wool.”
When it came time to leave, the students thanked Farmers Jerry, Dave and Janet for letting them feel the wool, pet the goats, feed the calf, and letting the baby chicks perch on their arms. And everyone said they liked hearing all the animal sounds!
“What did you learn that sheep have between their skin and wool to keep them dry?” Farmer Jerry asked the Louis Braille School students at the tour’s end. The children shouted, “Lanolin!”