Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Did the little piggy really cry wee wee wee all the way home?

Three years ago, the Educational Farm at Joppa Hill thrived. It reported $105,000 in revenue in 2007, and executive director Lin L’Heureux said she even received donation checks by mail.

But since the recession hit, the farm has fallen. No sign was more depressing than the most recent anonymous donation: a bag of old hamburger buns left on L’Heureux’s doorstep last week.

“Things are worse than they’ve ever been since I’ve been here,” L’Heureux said, who started working at the Educational Farm when Bedford bought the land about five years ago. The farm is a nonprofit organization and has been a huge part of the community since it started providing summer farm camps for kids.

Mark Hayner, treasurer for the farm, said the organization has only $2,300 available in the bank, and it takes at least $4,000 to cover a single month of the 35-acre farm’s operating costs.

All current bills have been paid, he said Monday, but the farm could end the year with a $12,000 deficit and only $60,000 in total revenue – a 43 percent drop since 2007.

“We can’t spend more money than we bring in,” Hayner said, “but we still have costs that we can’t eliminate.”

The farm’s expenses include heat for the animals, electricity to run the milking equipment, insurance for the animals, buildings and payroll for the farm’s only employee, L’Heureux, who gets paid for 28 hours each week but says she logs nearly 60.

L’Heureux said it would be a “tragedy” if the farm were forced to close. Hayner said the possibility is real.

“We have a lot of dedicated people who love the farm, but we’re all in a little bit of denial,” Hayner said. “As the person responsible for the finances, I have to let them know the situation is dire.”

L’Heureux hopes one of the farm’s big fundraisers, the Fall Fair, on Sept. 26, will delay the farm’s concerns for a few weeks, but the reality of the problem is harsh: There’s just not enough income coming in or enough money in the bank to keep the farm going as it stands now.

“The things that we would need to make a financial plan come to life require capital investments that we don’t currently have,” Hayner said.

He said the majority of the farm’s revenue comes from its summer camp, where kids ages 4-11 come for a week and get hands-on experiences while learning about farming, ecology, conservation and veterinary care.

But as enrollment numbers, grants and donations all continue to dwindle in the tough economic conditions, Hayner and L’Heureux aren’t sure where to turn for help.

Hayner said in the past, the Educational Farm has used their good relationship with their creditors as an advantage.

“They’ve allowed us to float in the winter the past couple of years when we don’t have any income,” he said. “We tell them we’ll repay our debt in the springtime, and they’ve allowed us to do that.

“But we can’t keep living on the good graces of our creditors. We need to find places for the animals. We need to have an exit plan.”

The farm’s board of directors met Sept. 2 with members of the community to develop ideas on how the farm could be saved, but Hayner said even the best ideas won’t create quick cash flow. He said the group of Bedford High School students who volunteered to start a club connected to the farm could help bring in more money through fundraisers or public exposure.

“People start to recognize the value of things when it’s the young people who start bringing it to light,” he said.

Hayner mentioned that there are other ideas to generate additional income, including selling ice cream at the farm, but he said the farm doesn’t have the money to buy new equipment or services to make those ideas tangible.

Right now, the farm’s only source of income in the winter is its raw milk program, which L’Heureux said offers some relief. The farm sells about 35 gallons a week to local customers, but sometimes those numbers can drop even further if the cows don’t produce enough milk or if the loyal customers don’t return every week. Horseback riding lessons also run throughout the fall until the ground freezes for winter.

“It’s a treasure,” said Pelham volunteer Jessica Edwards. “Kids don’t see cows, sheep and horses on a regular basis. It’s educational to see conservation in action.”

L’Heureux said the farm still needs help every day and budgets 14 volunteer shifts per week for people who come before or after work to feed the animals or milk the cows.

At the farm, there are horses, goats, sheep, cows, chickens and a 1,000-pound pig named China that was adopted after spending much of his young life trapped in a closet at a Boston-area Chinese restaurant.

She said a handful of the dedicated volunteers are developmentally disabled adults, including a man named Ray who visits regularly to clean out the chicken coops. She said working on the farm can be a huge help for adults who can’t hold a regular job due to their disability.

“It gives them an opportunity to get good exercise while working outside in the fresh air and immediate gratification because when you leave, you can see what you’ve done to help these animals,” L’Heureux said.

She said the Educational Farm at Joppa Hill offers something that locals can’t find in any of the surrounding towns.

“There are all sorts of camps,” L’Heureux said, “but not a lot of farm camps. The whole idea of playing outside is gone.”

Last Thursday, Sarah Ray, 4, and her sister Ana, 2, visited the farm with their nanny and happily fed the goats and cows. Victoria Plumpton, 26, of Manchester, watches over the two sisters and often brings them to the farm on Thursdays because the young girls always ask to go.

“The girls love to come here,” Plumpton said. “I think it would be a big loss if Joppa Hill was gone.”

L’Heureux said she really has no idea how to save the farm. She said it comes down to help from the community and the economy. If it turns around, she could see that moldy bag of hamburger buns transform back into donation checks. If not, the outlook remains bleak.

“If we don’t get any help, the farm will continue to deteriorate,” L’Heureux said. “The animals would all have to be placed in other farms. It would be really sad."

Story can also be found on the Telegraph website, here.

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