We were greeted by chickens at Gale Woods Farm. A couple of dozen were milling about in large cages built against the wall of a barn. Suddenly, a bird with copper feathers and a floppy red comb tipped his head and let loose. "I saw the rooster crow!" exclaimed my 5-year-old daughter.
Gale Woods Farm is full of delightful surprises for urban kids whose experience with animals is limited to the two-dimensional kind in picture books. The 410-acre farm was in the family of Al and Leona Gale for three generations before they donated it in 2000 to the suburban Hennepin County park system, with the requirement it be run as an educational farm. The farm opened to the public in 2003 and is run by Three Rivers Park District, drawing some 25,000 visitors every year.
The farm teaches people about where their food comes from, said farm manager Tim Reese.
"In our generation, most of us had a grandparent's farm we could go to," said Reese. "For this generation, they're so far removed from the land, they just don't have the opportunity to experience it."
Kids and adults can dig potatoes, weed gardens, feed pigs, buy eggs and pet lambs. And for many kids, this is all new. Reese's favorite example of urban ignorance is a kid who milked the dairy cow.
"Then, he said, 'OK, where does the meat come from?' like the meat was going to come out of some other place that he squeezed," Reese said.
FIELD TO TABLE
My grandparents owned a farm, but my city-bred children think white chickens lay white eggs and brown chickens lay brown eggs.
First, we stopped in the brooder room, where 12-year-old Cara Hanson was overseeing several dozen peeping yellow chicks clustered in a box under a heat lamp. Hanson is a home-schooled student from Excelsior who is part of the farm's volunteer program.
"You can pet it, but you have to use one finger," she said, trapping a squirming ball of fluff between her hands and holding it toward us.
The flock of chicks had just arrived from a breeder in Pennsylvania. (Chicks just out of the egg can survive a few days without food or water, so they can be shipped by mail.) The farm raises Freedom Rangers, a slow-growing breed developed in France for its ability to thrive on pasture and for its good-tasting meat.
At 3 weeks old, the chicks are released to eat bugs and grasses in the farm's fields. At about 18 weeks old, the mature birds are slaughtered for meat. This year, the farm will raise about 500 chickens for meat and keep 150 chickens for laying eggs.
The farm doesn't hide the fact that animals are butchered. Posters in the barn show the cuts of beef. You can buy packages of lamb and bacon straight from a freezer next to the front counter.
"It's part of the education program," Reese said. "Not an in-your-face sort of way, but we prefer that you know where your meat comes from and know what that means. These are not zoo animals. These are animals that are producing food and fiber."
The farm is also showing people what small-scale, sustainable agriculture looks like. At a time when most farms are large businesses specializing in a single crop or animal, Gale Woods raises cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, hay and a variety of vegetables, which are sold to 70 families who pay for a season through a model called community-supported agriculture.
"We're far more diversified than most farms today," Reese said.
Instead of being fed grain in a feedlot, these farm animals forage. Chickens co-exist with cattle in the pasture and eat the grubs in the cow pies. Pigs root for vegetation in fallow garden plots, making the soil more fertile for the following season's vegetables.
While this background is interesting to grown-ups, my daughter only wanted to see baby animals, and what is cuter than a lamb? The farm breeds two dozen ewes, and at this time of year, there are about 60 lambs in the barnyard.
The ewes apparently are used to children because they continued to eat hay nonchalantly from a feeder while a dozen preschoolers from a Head Start program in South St. Paul wandered around and patted their babies.
The lambs' tightly curled fleece was warm from the sun. Several of the lambs were sleeping together in a tangle of chocolate brown, white and wooly black limbs. Others scampered around, and I understood why "two shakes of a lamb's tail" means to do something quickly. The lambs whip their skinny tails like happy puppies do.
Only once did a ewe seem concerned. She stuck out her neck and started bleating like a plaintive Chewbacca. A lamb on the other side of the yard perked up, trotted over and started to nurse. My daughter was impressed that the lamb knew its mother's call.
PIGS AND CHICKENS
Next up were piglets. "I see Wilbur!" squealed my daughter, who has been listening to us read "Charlotte's Web."
Farm educator Luke Frolek was at the pigpen to give us a lesson.
"Do you know what pigs give us?" asked Frolek, a friendly 20-something farm boy who left his job at a downtown Minneapolis law firm because he missed kids and working outside.
"Bacon!" said my daughter.
Frolek opened the gate and invited us to step inside.
"These pigs are really curious," he warned. "Curious George should have been a pig."
No kidding. They were cute with floppy pink ears and barely came up to my knees. But they charged my feet like a school of piranhas. I tried to look calm, so my daughter wouldn'tt freak out. I was alarmed at the piggies' aggressiveness. I shook my feet and kicked them off. They rushed back, as if convinced I had corn hidden in my sneakers.
I was busy wondering if pig teeth could puncture canvas sneakers, so I missed much of what Frolek told us, except that pig hair is so stiff it was once used to make toothbrushes.
Thankfully, the piglets ignored my daughter, but she still looked nervous.
"I want to go now," she said. "It stinks."
I looked down. The piglets had completely untied both of my shoelaces.
My daughter liked the chickens better. Frolek pulled a warm egg from a nest and let her hold it. We learned a chicken can lay an egg almost every day and eggs can be brownish, greenish or white. Color depends on the breed and genetics.
Frolek pointed to a cock with bizarre tufts of feathers coming out of his head and neck.
"We call him Elvis," he said.
When we finished with the animals, we walked to the education wing, which Gale Woods built several years ago. There a series of "folk school" classes - everything from beekeeping and apple storage to dyeing and spinning wool - is offered.
During family days, kids can try a couple of simple activities. We stopped by the fiber room, where an instructor showed us how to dip our hands into soapy water and "felt" a wool bracelet by rolling tufts of combed fleece between our palms. It's a soothing activity.
In an airy kitchen room, two staff members were flipping corn pancakes for the Head Start preschoolers. We joined them, and the kids took turns grinding dried kernels of field corn in a large hand grinder and mixing the corn meal into the batter.
When the staff broke for lunch, my daughter and I walked behind the farm buildings and down a dirt path to see the small herd of black cattle. We heard frogs and saw a bald eagle.
Next time, I will bring a bag lunch we can eat at one of the picnic tables. A trailhead leads down to Whaletail Lake, where canoes are rented out from Memorial Day through the summer.
My daughter won't be able to visit a grandparent's farm like I did, but I can bring her to Gale Woods for the day. I'm sure she'll start asking to raise chickens pretty soon.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Gale Woods Farm
Where: 7210 County Road 110 W., Minnetrista
Information: 763-694-2001 or threeriversparks.org
Hours: The farm store and visitors center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The barns are staffed and programs are offered for "Saturday Mornings on the Farm" from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday from May through October.
Cost: Free to wander the grounds; $4 for Saturday mornings
Target audience: Anyone who eats and wants to know what makes it possible.
Crowd pleaser: Petting lambs
Avoid: Getting manure in the car. Use those boot scrapers.
Tip: Pack a picnic. And after hanging out at the farm, explore the park trails.
Special events: Check Gale Woods website for additional classes, summer camps, preschool programs.