Learn on a South Anchorage Farm
Deborah Baines shakes her head and gives a good-natured roll of her eyes when asked how many animals live on her South Anchorage farm.
“I don’t want to count,” she chuckles, before rattling off the animals that comprise the menagerie around her. There’s the farm’s permanent residents – four horses, a pony, three goats, sheep, a rabbit, and sled dogs, in addition to her two pet dogs. Then there’s the spring animals that will arrive in a few weeks – baby chicks, meat chickens (she usually gets 25), a calf from Havemeister Dairy in Palmer that she buys every other year, and baby goats she breeds herself. Baines lives on the property with them in a wooden house she designed and built herself.
Tucked away at the end of a residential street off Huffman Road, the 2.5-acre farm has grown from a single trailer perched on a hill at the back of the property to include the house, stables, a barn that doubles as a classroom, dog kennels and a small arena. After only a few minutes walking around the farm with Baines, her sheep Loki trotting alongside her, it becomes clear that she considers the animals, especially the permanent stable, more family than livestock.
Baines’ love of animals began in childhood. Born in Sitka, she became interested in horses while she and her family lived in Arizona. She purchased her first horse for $100 when she was 12, adding two more to her stable over the next few years. She raised rabbits and chickens as a member of 4-H, and cared for a constant stream of stray animals she’d bring home.
But it was the horses that led Baines to purchase the farm 40 years ago when she returned to Alaska. A single mother at the time, Baines and her oldest son lived in a trailer on the back of the property. Soon after, she built a stable and began boarding horses to supplement her income.
When Baines’ youngest son, now 25, was three, she began adding other animals. First came calves, followed by a lamb that they treated more like a dog than a sheep.
“She was housebroken. She rode in the truck with us everywhere,” Baines says. The following spring, she bred the lamb to give her a companion. “It kind of snowballed from there.”
Baines began bringing her animals into the schools when her son was in preschool. She says the experience opened her eyes to how little children knew about animals.
“I’ve had kids ask if they can hatch eggs in the microwave. I’ve had them ask if cows are hatched or born. That’s quite the visual,” she says with a laugh.
More surprising was how little adults knew about animals, she says. Adults would place eggs from her farm under lights at home, then call Baines, perplexed, when the eggs didn’t hatch. They didn’t understand when Baines explained they never would because she had no rooster. Others would look at the calves and wonder where the mother was.
“Making milk for you,’” she’d tell them. “Cows don’t have milk because they’re a cow. They have milk because they have a baby. They (the calves) are a byproduct of the dairy industry.”
It was this knowledge gap that prompted Baines to create The Learning Farm program six years ago. Her goal is to teach children respect for animals using a combination of outreach, educational programming and hands-on learning.
Baines teaches in a variety of ways. An annual Easter egg hunt and tours for school groups gives children a chance to pet and feed the animals while learning about the work that goes in to running the farm. During summer, winter and spring break, Baines offers half- and full-day camps to children ages 5-12. She limits each camp to 10 kids per session to make sure every one – humans and animals – have a quality experience.
“I didn’t want it to be a petting zoo,” she says. “I wanted kids to learn about the animals.”
Camps focus on a different animal each day, with activities centered around that animal, Baines says. On sheep day, children clean and card (a form of combing that helps the fibers run in the same direction) the wool before putting it on a drop spindle and using it to weave bracelets; later, they’ll use the lanolin from the wool and combine it with some beeswax, and essential oils to make a lanolin hand cream. Twice a week, they grind wheat and bake bread, topping it with homemade butter they churned by shaking milk and a bit of salt in a mason jar.
Children also help with the daily farm chores, something Baines says helped instill a strong work ethic in her as a child, and in her own children. Campers feed and water the animals – which includes bottle-feeding calves and baby goats – collecting eggs, cleaning the pens, and milking the goats. Each morning and afternoon, they exercise the horses, riding them in the small arena and leading them through obstacles, while learning basic horsemanship like proper seating and reining, she adds.
“I try to keep it simple,” Baines says. “When I first started I was trying to give (the kids) too much information.”
Baines turned 60 last year, and says it’s becoming harder to keep up with the daily physical demands of the farm. A kennel master lives on the property and cares for the sled dogs, which Baines has bred since her youngest son was a child, and she plans on hiring an intern to help with daily chores and allow her to take some breaks in the summer.
She’s finalizing paperwork to make the farm a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, which will allow her to apply for grant funding to not only help defray some of the farm’s operational costs, but award scholarships to children whose families may be unable to afford the cost of camp.
She also wants add a ministry outreach, separate from The Learning Farm program, focused on children with special needs and those who have experienced trauma. She has a background in special education, and works with Equine Assisted Therapy of Alaska, which uses horses as therapy for children and adults who experience physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities.
“I really want to have a more active outreach program than just the farm as it exists now,” she says. “I want The Learning Farm to be a positive part of the community.”
To learn more about The Learning Farm or register for camps, visit www.thelearningfarm.net.