Agri-tourism and Education meet at the Critter Barn

An important subset of the growing of crops like blueberries, tart cherries and soybeans, raising dairy cows and the other components of agri-business is a combination of agriculture and tourism called “agri-tourism.” In fact, if agri-business, Michigan’s second-largest industry, were listed in the Fortune 500 it would rank 62nd, according to Don Koivisto, head of the state’s department of agriculture, with tourism being the state’s third-largest industry.

Zeeland, Mich. resident Mary Rottschafer is trying to add another component -“ education -“ to the agri-tourism mix. Her Critter Barn, which started as a practical joke her church played on her 25 years ago, now introduces approximately 25,000 children and adults to the reality of agriculture each year.

Mary Rottschafer, founder of the Critter Barn, holds “before” and “after” examples of shorn angora bunnies while the Critter Barn visited the Holland, Mich. farmers’ market.

“Some 60 people from the church where I was the minister of music came and scraped and painted our barn,” Rottschafer relates. “Then the children’s choir did the best rendition of Old MacDonald Had A Farm -“ but with real animals. They did a chicken verse, a duck verse, a turkey verse and so on until they had a cage full of birds. They then had a mock contest where the prize was a dozen of Connie Dykstra’s famous pig-in-a-blankets -“ except that there were only 10 of those and someone said where are the other two pig-in-a-blankets? Next thing we saw were two squealing piglets -“ one in a pink blanket and one in a blue one.”

Rottschafer had wanted to be a veterinarian in college, but her “very lady-like mother” vetoed the idea. Rottschafer then attended Hope College in nearby Holland, Mich. as a music major. She got a degree in education and taught elementary school for several years. “I had an interest in children. I had an interest in ministry. I had an overall interest in animals and together they have resulted in this Critter Barn,” Rottschafer says.

Initially, the farm was the scene of picnics for friends and family who would come in the spring to see the newborn animals and in the fall to pick pumpkins. In 1990 a friend at an elementary school in Grandville, Mich. asked if they could have a couple of classes come to the farm for a field trip. “About an hour after the buses had left,” Rottschafer recalls, “I got a call from one of the principals who said that the kids had had such a wonderful time would we be willing to book all of the kindergarteners from the entire Grandville school system for field trips the following spring. We did that, and added Zeeland and Byron Center and Hudsonville schools and had almost 1,000 kids that first year. It has just grown from that.”

Rottschafer calls the farm “a canvas. The ‘painting’ that happens here -“ whether it’s about the animals, or the farming and food, the cycles of birth and life and death -“ it’s mostly about the relationship it has with the children. That applies to ‘rural’ children as well as city kids. They can be here for a day, or for a number of days in a class, or develop longer-term relationships through volunteering. That’s what happens here.”

A Critter Crew member shows off her sponsored t-shirt.

Volunteering plays an important role in the life of the Critter Barn. Youngsters from ages 8 through 16 in bright red or orange t-shirts perform a variety of chores both at the farm and when the farm itself goes on field trips, as it did recently to the Holland Farmers’ Market. “It stretches the kids socially, it helps them mature, it helps them build friendships with other kids who enjoy the same things,” Rottschafer says. “There are just a lot of good things that happen with the programs on this farm. Some of the kids come from an hour away to volunteer. Yes, we’re trying to teach about agriculture, but it’s even beyond that.”

Those t-shirts have the names of various sponsors printed on their backs. “My first t-shirt sponsor was the CEO of Zeeland Farm Services,” Rottschafer explains. That was a logical move for ZFS, one of the largest soybean processors in the country and proud of the fact that their new administration building is LEED-qualified, their large truck fleet runs on bio-diesel, and part of their energy supply comes from a local landfill. That source alone is currently equivalent to the company’s not consuming some quarter-million barrels of oil a year -“ a savings that will ramp up to nearly a million barrels in less than 20 years.

Rottschafer continues her story about her first sponsor, “I had also asked him to teach me about soybeans so that I could add them to the farm. He said it was way too complicated to teach kids about them. Well, we’ve figured that out, and it’s not too complicated and it’s wonderful. The kids who come here now plant soybean seeds that we grow in a patch in our garden.

“We have a non-working display refrigerator that’s stocked with groceries that have soybeans, or lecithin or soy oil or protein in them,” Rottschafer says. “It’s a very important crop and it’s a natural segue for me to go from the animals -“ who also eat soybean products in their feed -“ to the economics of a farm-¦ after all, it’s expensive to feed them -“ to the garden and what the kids eat and didn’t realize it before.” Other sponsors came on board including The Cooley Group, an investment firm, the Campbell Insurance Group, and others.

Rottschafer has not actively sought corporate sponsorship, it has all come about through networking. The Campbell Group, for instance, signed on because its president brought his young family to see a Critter Barn exhibit at a Zeeland city festival. He is now president of Rottschafer’s board of directors. Printing for the organization is done pro bono by a company headed by one of Rottschafer’s former fourth grade students. “Fortunately,” she reports, “I was his favorite teacher.” He came to a networking breakfast Rottschafer held recently and liked the experience. “When you are faithful to your cause, and you serve your kids well, the relationship with people like that grows over time. You take the extra step, you make the extra phone call, you take them personal hand-delivered invitations -“ and maybe wait in their office for 15 minutes to see them. We may live in a computer world, but that personal touch means so much to people.”

Mary Rottschafer (right) and some of her donors at the opening of the new Critter Barn henhouse.

In her basement home office Rottschafer has three poster-sized Post-It Notes covered “with a spiderweb of maps of all the networking we’ve done on behalf of the Critter Barn.” She has close to 300 names of “friends of the Critter Barn” stored in her phone. “It’s been like a joyride to meet all these people,” she says. “Now, after they’ve seen that we keep our promises, they’re starting to become sponsors and sustain us in what we do.”

While much of the $150,000 it costs to run the Critter Barn each year comes from the fees it charges, Rottschafer sees the need for additional funding, particularly as she seeks to find a farmstead larger than the slightly over three acres the farm occupies today.

One of the recent additions to the Critter Barn is a modern henhouse. It, too, is the result of networking and is an example of Rottschafer’s beginning to broaden the reach of her organization beyond the western Michigan area.

A strong proponent of modern agricultural methods, Rottschafer had visited local farms to research the latest animal husbandry methods. “I had gone to local pig farmers and dairy operators but when I approached the egg producers I was denied access,” she explains. One of the Critter Barn’s board members related a story to Corp! about seeing activists from an animal-rights organization “hiding in a ditch on the side of the road with huge telephoto lenses on their cameras, hoping to record something bad happening to the chickens.” As a result of that kind of pressure, the egg producers have come around. “The animal-rights people think it’s better to have the chickens out running around, but they don’t realize about the predators they face, about potential diseases, about their behavior when the weather changes,” Rottschafer says. “But there have been a number of improvements in the way hens are housed today than the way it is in my old henhouse.”

“One of the egg producers finally told me to talk to Big Dutchman, one of the largest producers of chicken management systems in the country, and another local company,” Rottschafer said. “By the time I talked to Big Dutchman, egg producer number one had talked to egg producer numbers two and three and they had all called ahead Big Dutchman of me because they all buy their cages from them.”

Some of the donors of the new modern henhouse at the Critter Barn inspect the results.

Rottschafer continues, “We had a meeting with Big Dutchman and from that meeting it took only eight weeks for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony on our new state-of-the-art henhouse. It allows us to showcase how happy the birds are, how modern methods work with the instincts and the natural behaviors God gave them. Think about it,” she says. “Birds live in cages all the time, from parakeets to cockatoos. Chickens will suffocate each other in the corner of a traditional henhouse when they’re spooked.”

Rottschafer explained that her point to Big Dutchman and the egg producers was, “My farm is all about animal welfare and I will teach people about the old-fashioned way where they’re running around, doing their thing and I’ll also teach about the cage system. People will see both and they’ll understand the reasons to have both.” Rottschafer explains, “There’s no way you’re going to be able to supply McDonald’s or Meijer’s if you don’t farm smart. These guys have totally funded the costs of the henhouse and I’ve got 10 great new friends.

“We’re all in this together to teach kids about food sources and the humane treatment of animals” Rottschafer says. “We’re just delighted to be the first educational farm to show what these guys have been doing for years to supply us with this really good source of protein.”

An economics lesson is never far from any Rottschafer conversation. “A good egg producer may gross $20 million a year, but that money doesn’t go in their pockets,” she explains. “It goes to fix building number 6 and put a new ventilation system in number 8 and buy a hundred tons of feed a day. It takes a lot to make an operation like that sustainable and we can help with telling that story as well.”

The Critter Barn (background), contented cows and equally contented visitors.

With thousands of kids and grownups attending Critter Barn ‘open barns’ and traveling events, Rottschafer knows there is a real need for agricultural education. “Because the Critter Barn is successful at what we do,” she says, “it’s becoming apparent that there’s a broader need for what we have -“ an educational farm -“ not only in our own state but in other parts of the country. We want to work with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and its agri-tourism program. We need to work with established organizations such as Farm Bureau, 4-H and Future Farmers of America to help people of all ages learn about agriculture and the sources of what they eat. It would use the Critter Barn as a prototype. We don’t want a petting zoo format. We want information to be shared and people learning. We want as much as possible for kids to participate in animal care and have educational opportunities that impact their lives.”

And that kind of education is needed. According to Rottschafer, “I’ll dig a potato out of the ground and people will scream! ‘I didn’t know potatoes grew in the ground.’ The same thing can happen with sheep and goats -“ they don’t know the difference between them. With baby ducks and chickens I have to tell the adults ‘look for the webbed feet. That’s a baby duck.'”

Rottschafer’s new friends the egg producers are now getting the word out to the hog producers and the turkey growers, so the opportunity for additional education is starting to take off.

Rottschafer is also doing some planning for the continuation of the Critter Barn. She knows that an all-volunteer operation is not sufficient and that additional funding will be needed to pay for an eventual director and teaching staff. “We just did a fundraising breakfast for the very first time and that will become an annual event,” she says. The Critter Barn has been a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization since 2003 and that is facilitating additional support. A mid-summer birthday bash for Mr. Chops, the pot-bellied pig, is a two-fold event. It raises additional funds for the farm while it showcases the differences between animals who are kept for pets and those who are bred for food. Mr. Chops, at 17, is one of the former. Other farm pigs have a much shorter time horizon.

Young visitors preparing to milk goats at the Critter Barn.

“At the end of the day,” Rottschafer says, “it’s all about increasing people’s knowledge base about agriculture in its broadest sense. It’s about exposure -“ for kids in kindergarten as well as for their moms and dads. America’s farmers are doing a darn good job to make sure that when we go to the grocery store we can get what we need. That’s the message we have to tell.”