At Kinkoona Farm, barn doors are painted with sunflowers. A pig lives in the house. Children ride ponies and care for sheep instead of riding a school bus and sitting in class. The farmer talks with a broad Australian accent and is all of 5'2' tall.
Not your typical Wisconsin farm, mate.
But there is nothing typical about Suellen Thomson-Link. In the five years since the Australia native bought her 35-acre farm near Brodhead, Thomson-Link has transformed a long, low chicken coop into a cozy home-schooling environment for her three kids, fixed up the crumbling, 120-year-old farmhouse, raised a flock of Icelandic sheep (plus other breeds), launched a chemical-free wool business, and started a spring/summer day camp program for elementary-school children. She and her kids are as happy in this new life as they've ever been.
'I have a wonderful place here,' she says. 'This farm, our neighbors and the Amish community have given us so much. We want to give back.'
Kinkoona Day Camp, the program she started in 2006, is her way of sharing the fun ' and some of the work. Run by Thomson-Link (who is a licensed occupational therapist and a former dance therapist, as well as a full-time sheep farmer), the three-day camps are held every month from April to August (excluding May).
The setting, about a 35-minute drive from Madison, couldn't be prettier. Over the driveway, an enormous bur oak spreads welcoming arms. Hand-painted murals brighten the cluster of well-kept outbuildings. Visitors are greeted by Harry, a polite Nigerian pygmy goat whose single, airy sniff of your hand puts to shame the greedy jostling of other farm goats you've met. And then there are Thomson-Link's three golden-haired kids, with their big smiles and can-do attitudes.
'I couldn't do this without them,' says Thomson-Link. 'They are great role models.'
Each of the day camps has a theme ' 'The Fun of Wool,' for example, or 'Water: What a Joy!' ' but all introduce kids to the many aspects of farm life, including chores. Thomson-Link's 7-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 10 and 13, walk campers through some of their own daily routines, including feeding their miniature Sicilian donkey, Zorro, and gathering eggs.
'Most of the programming ideas come from the friends and family who visit us,' says Thomson-Link. 'I watch what the kids enjoy, and incorporate those activities into the day camps.'
Campers might walk down to the creek to catch minnows for a minnow race, or spend an afternoon building their own waterfall out of limestone blocks. Kids also get to handle fleeces, till the soil and make birdhouses from farm-grown gourds. I wonder: Do city kids complain about the work or the long day? Camps last from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.
'Naahh. Everybody gets into it. I'm very attuned to the flow of energy. If I sense them flagging, then we stop to refresh.'
Kinkoona means 'laughing' in Australian Aboriginal. Despite being a serious sheep operation, the habitual expression here is a wide grin. The menagerie of pets adds to the fun.
'Each has its own personality, that's for sure,' says Thomson-Link, scooping up soft-nosed Harry and giggling as her 10-year-old, Acaya, kisses him.
Thomson-Link is multifaceted: Different sides of her personality wink and flash like a prism in the sun. One minute she's a tough-as-nails farmer, describing her all-night vigil over a ewe that birthed early triplets. The next, she's sticking her hand into a wombat puppet and waggling it engagingly. She's a nurturing mom who indulges her kids with pets, yet expects them to rise early and share the work. She's a dreamy visionary who knows how to get things done.
If you want your city kid to get a taste of old-fashioned farm values, this is the place. On a snow-blown weekday morning in February, 13-year-old Syon was saddling up his pony to go feed the sheep.
'He'll drag a sled behind him filled with hay, and scatter it so the sheep have to walk a bit,' Thomson-Link explained. 'They're pregnant, so they need the exercise.'
Inside the old farmhouse, where Thomson-Link has made many pleasant changes and additions, there is a crackling wood stove and a low shelf cluttered with fossils and birds' nests. Cats purr on quilts thrown over chairs. With walls painted in sunset hues ('the colors of the Australian desert') and large windows, the house feels both airy and cozy. And tidy: Despite the animals, there isn't a speck of the usual attendant mess. Same goes for the barns: stalls mucked and spread with fresh straw, floors swept, equipment neatly stored.
'I don't understand why any farm should be dirty and unkempt,' Thomson-Link says.
In the kitchen, she feeds the family turtle, Mr. Giggles, while brewing up some strong tea. A discreet snuffling noise is heard from the next room. 'Here comes Daisy Mae,' she says. A small, black pig peeks shyly around the corner. I'd always thought pot-bellied pigs were fat and obnoxious, but this one has the same gentle nature as all the creatures on the place.
'Everybody cross-relates here,' says Thomson-Link. 'Dogs don't chase cats. Boys and girls get along. At the camps, it's the same way. I focus on skills and abilities, not differences. I expect a positive perspective. Regardless of age or sex, the kids end up relating to each other on a different level.'
Kinkoona also offers several Family Farm Weekends. Families pitch tents in the fields, join in a campfire and farm breakfast, help out with chores, and enjoy some time to relax. For those unsure how their kids would do in the day-camp setting, the family camp offers a way to safely test their mettle.
Cost is $150 for the three-day camp, per child. A $75 deposit is required. Family Farm weekend is also $150. For descriptions of sessions, see baabaashop.com. To register, e-mail Suellen Thomson-Link at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-897-3983.
Kamp Kenwood Overnight Camp
19161 79th Ave., Chippewa Falls, WI 54729
Sponsored by the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Kamp Kenwood has been teaching kids to appreciate the cooperative farm spirit since 1951. Situated on a wooded lake outside Chippewa Falls, the camp focuses on projects like starting a co-op store, engaging in free-trade simulations, and mapping out a hypothetical community that's completely sustainable. 'The kids learn to come together to make a difference,' says WFU education director Cathy Statz. 'They get pretty fired up about it.' Overnight camp sessions are a mix of farm and city kids.
Old World Wisconsin 2007 Day Camp
W37890 Hwy 6, Eagle, WI 53119
Life was no picnic for the pioneers, but at least your kids will have fun pretending they live in the 1800s at Old World Wisconsin's educational summer day camp. The Wisconsin Historical Society program lets kids work up close with farm animals, try simple chores like doing laundry by hand, and play old-fashioned games 'their grandparents enjoyed.' They'll also hike through woodlands and prairies in the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
Aldo Leopold Nature Center 2007 Day Camp
300 Femrite Dr., Monona, WI 53516
ALNC offers a variety of day camp themes, but for more pioneer fun, check out 'Little Shack in the Little Woods' and 'Living Like Laura Ingalls,' for ages 6-7. Embroidery, gardening, making dairy goods, cooking with honey and other chores Laura liked (or hated) make the hours fly. Older kids (8-10) might enjoy 'Pioneers on the Prairie': They'll learn how to make old-fashioned crafts and carry water in two buckets yoked together.