By NANCY VORIS
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It’s nothing this time of year for farmers to get rained out of the field. But at the Joe Peden farm recently, a rainout meant losing nearly 2,000 special visitors to the farm. Pint-size visitors, that is, who were looking forward to talking with the animals, seeing the big farm equipment and learning about life on the farm.This farm news was published in the May 21, 2008 issue of the Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.
The first day of the annual Children’s Farm Festival was cloudy but still drew 800 school children, parents, grandparents and siblings.
“It’s one of the very few, if not the only opportunities for youth and their families to find out about farm life (in this area),” said Jeff Holland, Monroe County extension educator. “The Peden family has opened up their farm for over 50 years and we’re now seeing third generations coming back and experiencing this wonderful experience.”
The children spend an entire day on the farm and encounter the full array of farm animals, either residents of the Peden farm or brought in for the day by friends and neighbors. Chickens and peacocks and ducks, oh my, along with geese, sheep, rabbits, cows, pigs, horses and, of course, the traditional farm dogs and cats.
“They love touching and feeling the animals, the soft rabbit fur, learning how a horse’s mane feels, touching a baby calf,” said Peden.
Holland said one reason for the event’s success is the fact that it is held on a farm, where “one can’t duplicate the smell, the feel or the atmosphere that a farm provides.”
But touching the animals is just the beginning as visitors see, smell, hear and taste life on the farm at 30 tour stations.
Children watched and experienced activities such as sheep shearing and wool spinning, a blacksmith making horseshoes, corn and soybean displays, a display of eggs from bantam chickens to ostriches, gourd painting and “Life at the Pond.”
They tried their hand at shelling corn and compared their eating habits to those of pioneers as volunteers brewed sassafras tea, ground cornmeal and churned butter for the children to see and taste.
Twelve tractors and wagons were in motion to give hayrides around the farm and out to the picnic area where students ate their sack lunches.
In addition to the farming experience, children learned not to touch fallen wires from the local REMC and how to escape a burning building from the local fire department’s “save-a-life” trailer. State police visited on motorcycles and in troopers’ cars to acquaint students with their work in a non-stressful environment.
Unlike many similar Ag Day celebrations held in March, the Children’s Farm Festival is held the Tuesday and Wednesday closest to May 10, when more baby animals are on the farm and temperatures are warmer for the young visitors. Farmers have had a little time to get their crops out so they can bring tractors and wagons, Peden said.
It may also sound like other agritourism ventures that expose the outside world to life on the farm, often to add income to the farm enterprise. But what sets this event apart is the personal and emotional involvement of the Peden family, community organizations and the 280 volunteers who return year after year to see the delight on children’s faces as they experience farm life.
Twelve local and state organizations are involved, including the Monroe County Farm Bureau Inc. which pops 200 lbs. of popcorn and supplies tractor drivers and other volunteers, 4-H Jr. Leaders, commodity associations, and the Monroe County SWCD and park and recreation department.
“It touches your heart to see people come out and volunteer,” Peden said. “We’ve been doing this 20 years and some of those folks may not be able to work but they still love to come out and be here. That’s the blessing: To see people do things for others.”
Another 150 volunteers return the day after the festival for clean up.
He is especially proud of the 60 to 80 Jr. Leaders who are involved driving tractors, helping at the stations and telling the farm story.
“The 4-H’ers learn how to be of service to the community. They’re learning to talk to the public in mass numbers,” he said. “It makes you know that they’ll be of service as they grow up.”
As a school project, the field trip generates excitement in the weeks leading up to the farm visit, Peden said. The extension office sends information on the farm to schools and teachers can plan lessons around the educational stations at the farm. After the visit, many teachers have students write letters to thank the Pedens for the visit and tell about what they learned on the farm.
Local veterinarian Dr. Ken Miller and Monroe Bank provided meals for the volunteers, who feasted on fried chicken and pulled pork during the day. “We start at daylight, and about 14 dozen doughnuts were gone in about 30 minutes,” Peden said.
His father Richard Peden and his mother Rachel Peden (who was author of the column “Hoosier Farm Wife Says” in the Indianapolis Star), started the Children’s Farm Festival way back in 1952 with only 80 volunteers and a few hundred visitors. They continued until 1986 when Joe and his wife Joyce, a former Purdue extension educator, took over most of the duties.
After Richard’s death in 1994, the Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service, Farm Bureau and SWCD became involved and helped build the event to what it is today, drawing not only students and their families but also state dignitaries like Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman and Rep. Peggy Wells.
The third generation of Pedens is also involved. Rachel (Peden) McCarty and her husband Cullen and Philip Peden and his wife Sarah help out any way they can.
Volunteers, some in their eighties, also span three generations. Many schedule vacation time to come and help.
“Some of the teachers and bus drivers came as children so it’s like old week,” Peden said.
His only compensation for the massive explosion of activity on his quiet homestead is the joy he receives watching the children’s faces and reading their letters. He also knows he couldn’t do it alone.
“We are blessed to have all the workers,” he said. “Without the volunteers, we couldn’t do it.”