It's September, and the handoff of the kids to school has probably taken place. (Unless you're home schooling, in which case you too should read on.)
These days, with budgets tight, school-sponsored field trips are few. Enrichment activities are more and more in the parents' court. Preschoolers, the Girl or Boy Scout troop, or even a birthday party can benefit from these opportunities to mix fun and hands-on learning. You might even learn something yourself.
Hinchley's Dairy Farm Tours
April 1-Oct. 31
Just off 12/18 on Hwy. 73 South, between Deerfield and Cambridge
The farm is quiet at 10 a.m. on a sunny day in late August, save for the crowing of a rooster. Then a handful of cars and mini-vans drive up. Out tumble moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, preteens, toddlers, even an infant in a Baby Bjorn. It's time to tour the farm.
The Hinchley farmstead is everything that a location scout for a Hollywood movie could ask for - red barn, white house, vintage tractors, cows, cats, chickens, goats and more. Tina Hinchley is enthusiastic and casual, deftly introducing baby chicks to tots while at the same time talking to their parents about the economic realities of running a farm these days.
"Chicks like to snuggle," she says, picking several from a heated pen and setting them on a table. "You can make a little nest with your hands and they'll stay right by you." Three shy little girls cup the chicks loosely; one starts in surprise when the chick hops out of her grasp.
Hinchley, who's been giving tours of the family farm for 12 years now, doesn't overcoach the kids and more or less allows their interests to dictate the length of time spent on any activity. (That's one reason the length of the tour is described as "1-3 hours.") On this beautiful day, our progression through the areas of the farm is unhurried and nearing two hours even before the hayride - pulled by one of those vintage tractors - out to see the fields where food and bedding for the cows is grown.
We go into the shed where the modern big rigs that accomplish the plowing and harvesting are kept (this is more interesting to the adult men on tour than the kids) before moving to the barn where the cows are milked. It takes three to five minutes to milk a cow; milking the whole barn takes one and a half to two hours twice a day. Hinchley describes various procedures the family follows to keep the barn clean, and it is very tidy, not smelly, and largely free of flies. The tour heads over to a cow that the kids can try milking.
This proves to be a lot more intimidating prospect than holding a chick. "Do you want to come and pet the cow? She's really soft and warm," Hinchley prompts.
Milking is a learning opportunity even for the adults, none of whom has ever milked a cow. "Don't be afraid of holding it too tight," says Hinchley. "Give it a good tug."
The most important benefit of the farm tour is letting both kids and adults see where their food comes from. "The best way to help children understand the farm-to-food process is to bring them to a farm early," Hinchley explains, adding "an honest approach will always be the best." While even small children "understand that cows = milk," kids don't always make the connection to where the beef and chicken they may eat come from. Some parents prep their kids beforehand. Hinchley tries to explain that it is a farmer's job to make sure their animals live good and healthy lives "in the best possible environments that we can provide." But she's also honest about the products that farm animals become - from food to leather.
We check out the milk house, where the milk is held before the milk truck picks it up, then go out to feed the chickens. We learn what it means for a chicken to be "broody" (to stop laying eggs and want to incubate them) and that predators - foxes, coyotes and even owls - are a big problem. Hinchley retrieves two newly laid eggs from the nests. Some are various shades of brown; some are pale blue.
The kids are more concerned with tossing the feed across the grass to the chickens than they are matching egg color to heritage breed. The goats, nearby behind a fence, are very interested in the proximity of the feed.
"We love farming," Hinchley says. "I hope that comes through. That's what I want the tour to be."
Weekend farm tours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; weekdays with reservations. Cost is $8 per child, $10 per adult; under 2, free. Special fall events include hayrides, a pumpkin patch, a haunted house and a corn maze. Call 608-764-5090 or see dairyfarmtours.com.
Beasts in the Conservatory
Sept. 8-Jan. 3
Olbrich Gardens Bolz Conservatory Carnivorous Plants Exhibit
"The most common misperception the kids have is that carnivorous plants will eat people," says Cindy Cary, tropical plant and wildlife assistant at Olbrich Gardens. "The other one is that they eat hamburger."
Not true. Reassure the kids that carnivorous plants actually prefer eating insects. Kids and parents will discover a lot more at Olbrich's special carnivorous plants exhibit this fall.
The Venus flytrap is probably the carnivorous plant that most people, kids included, are familiar with and may even have tried growing at home. Others are sundews, pitcher plants and bladderworts. Some, like the pitcher plant, are even native to Wisconsin, most often found in sphagnum bogs in the north.
Jane Nicholson, director of education at Olbrich, has developed a number of "springboards" using everyday household objects for docents to use to teach kids about how carnivorous plants work. Hair clips, mousetraps, ordinary fly paper, plain kitchenware and lint brushes all demonstrate the principles that different carnivorous plants use to trap their prey.
Docents will be available for guided tours for school groups or any group that requests one; for self-guided tours of the conservatory, parents should look for panels explaining how the plants lure insects, various trap strategies, typical habitats, nutrition needs and conservation efforts. The hands-on explanation station area will be devoted to the exhibit.
Olbrich has an outdoor bog that features carnivorous Wisconsin natives (through the end of September); more, including rare tropical varieties, will be on display in the Bolz Conservatory.
The carnivorous plants that Olbrich normally has on display are "one of our most popular exhibits," says Cary. "They're neat for a parent and child to look at together."
Two sessions of the children's class "Nighttime in the Jungle" will be held Oct. 29 and Nov. 12, focusing on the carnivorous plants. Two adult classes include an introduction to carnivorous plants on Nov. 8 and a lecture by UW-Madison professor Ken Cameron, "How Has DNA Changed Our View of Carnivorous Plant Evolution?," on Oct. 28. For more info, call 608-246-4550 or see olbrich.org.