Baby Animals on the Farm

Today was Kids Unplugged’s first day at Fishkill Farms for the new season and what a fantastic time we had. First off, it was just wonderful to be back up there as I haven’t been since late November. The farm is brimming with new life of all sorts–a fresh batch of chicks and several baby lambs, the birth of the farm’s exciting CSA programs, the promise of a huge new barn beginning to take shape, and buds and sprouts throughout the orchards and in one of the farm’s tropical greenhouses.

After a week of weather nearing the 70-degree mark, we woke this morning to a balmy 31F but with blessedly bright sunshine and no wind to mention. By the time everyone arrived, the sun was high in the sky and the hike down to the chicken coops warmed us up quite comfortably.

The chickens, in one of their winter locations in the orchard, were roaming happily when we arrived though the ones inside the coops, roosting snugly in their nesting boxes were less than thrilled to be disturbed. I had mentioned to the kids that the farmer had told me the laying hens had been behaving a bit strangely and that their eggs seemed a little odd as of late. Squeals of delight coming out of the hen houses told me that they’d discovered the mystery of this information. “I found a pink egg!” shouted one. “Look, here’s a green one,” exclaimed another. “I didn’t know chickens could lay bright blue eggs,” quipped yet another. The colorful eggs I’d stashed down there before everyone arrived were having exactly the effect I’d hoped they would.

Decorative eggs aside, the kids absolutely love gathering from the hen houses and they had dozens collected in the farm’s wire blue baskets when I announced that it was time to head back. I’ve mentioned before here that collecting eggs with kids is really a wonderful experience and I practically had to drag them out of the coops to hike back up for our next activity.
With hands freshly washed, the kids gathered around picnic tables nestled beside the peach trees while we introduced the day’s crafts. Julia, one of the farm’s organic vegetable growers who is also responsible for tending to the resident sheep, brought us a small box filled with wool from those sheep. We were going to be felting today, a traditional farm fiber craft, and looking at some raw wool was a great avenue into the activity. The farm’s sheep are “hair sheep” which means that they shed instead of needing shearing. Their fur is not like the thick, curly wool from a sheared sheep. Still, the kids passed the wool around the table enjoying the sensation of touching the natural fibers. Wet felting, the type of felting we were doing today, is a very soothing activity for children. Soft, naturally dyed wool is wrapped tightly around an object (today it was a wooden egg) and then immersed in warm, soapy water. With another little dollop of soap, the child can rub and squeeze their egg, bringing the fluffy fibers together until they mat and form a bit of felted “fabric.” The eggs are then rinsed and set in the sun to dry. At the same time, another group of children were coloring on eggs with beeswax crayons before dyeing them. As we had a mixed age group, the younger children began with the eggs before moving over to the felting table.

Just as we were finishing our crafting, Josh arrived with a crate full of what he called ‘adolescent chicks’ as they are now about 7-weeks old. This was their first foray out of their winter habitat and they cheeped nervously as Josh gently moved them around the circle of children to be petted gently. There were four different varieties of chicks, one of them the Rhode Island Red laying hen that makes up the farm’s flock of nearly 500.

After meeting the chicks we walked over to find Julia where she was busy seeding in the greenhouse and she treated us to a visit with the farm’s sheep and their new baby lambs. I think there were five of them with two ewes expecting to deliver within the next few weeks. The lambs were skittish as well, but the kids and parents alike were enthralled to watch Julia give them their bottles of milk which they sucked hungrily, polishing them off in seconds.

One of the things that makes Fishkill so special is that while Josh and Hannah, the farm’s proprietors, care deeply about utilizing the farm for educational opportunities, it is a working farm first and foremost. The sheep are livestock. They don’t respond to people like they might if they were at a petting zoo–or even at a farm geared primarily toward visits from the public. The gardens and orchards aren’t completely pristine spaces. The greenhouse is surrounded by farm tools. It’s a REAL farm. And Kids Unplugged is grateful for the opportunity to be there.

Our morning finished with cinnamon-sugar donuts and a story on the sunny hill above the orchards. After passing around the donuts I sat down and looked at the kids. “So, what was your favorite part about today.” The resounding response? Everything!

Many thanks to my dear friend Julia Reimer for her expertise and gentle guidance with our felting project today. I’ve never seen such a lovely bunch of felted eggs! And a second thank you to Haven Colgate, director of the Hillside Nature Guides Program in Hastings, for the fantastic photos!

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