As far back as she can remember, 14-year old Alexis Haynes has worked on her mother’s farm – no matter that she lives in a big city, where school, shopping malls, the Internet and dozens of other activities could easily occupy her time.
“The farm’s almost like a person to me. I can’t imagine life without it,” Haynes said.
For Alexis, the 23-acre farmland habitat called The Urban Farm (TUF), adjacent to Sand Creek in Denver, has provided an opportunity to connect with nature in a way unavailable to most children living in the city.
But Alexis isn’t the only one enjoying this big city farm. TUF has also been a place of respite for thousands of Denver metro youths who, through the dream of two friends with a love of horses and children, have been given the unique opportunity to work with cows, pigs, goats, chickens, llamas and just about every other animal found on a farm.
Started by Donna Fowler and Khadija Haynes as a horsemanship educational program in 1993, TUF offers city children and teens the chance to experience farm life, including the life and death dramas that inevitably unfold.
“The purpose of our farm is to help improve the lives of children living in high-risk, urbanized neighborhoods,” said Fowler, who explained their nonprofit farm is a place where children from all walks of life and financial status are welcome. “We try to help kids create a positive self-regard and self-reliance, a strong work ethic and hope.”
For Fowler and Haynes, starting the program seemed the natural thing to do considering their own backgrounds.
“Donna spent a lot of her growing up years on her grandmother’s farm in Alabama, and I’m from a family of horse lovers,” said Haynes, adding that her own grandmother’s stories of riding horses in Colorado as a young girl helped instill in her a deep-rooted love of horses.
“It was actually my mother who introduced me to Donna, because I had foolishly purchased a horse for myself,” she explained. “My mother was afraid I was going to kill myself. She knew Donna was an expert horsewoman, and thought she’d help me become a better rider. I guess it was pretty smart, because after all these years I’m not dead of a horse accident.”
After one summer of taking several kids horseback riding, Haynes and Fowler started thinking about a way to connect larger numbers of inner-city youths with horses.
“I remember a young man I was mentoring, who got a scholarship to Lamar College in the horse management program,” Haynes said. “When he came back to visit in January on break, he told me how sad he was that during one semester at college a lot of his friends were gone – either occupied in a facility or no longer with us. I asked him what had made a difference in his life, and he said that he didn’t have time to get into trouble because he was always riding horses.”
For Haynes, it was this young man’s positive experience that helped spawn the idea of a program connecting city children with farm life.
“I thought if it was that easy for one, well why not two, why not 10,” she said. “So Donna and I started the program during our vacation in the summer of 1993, with about 12 kids from the Glenarm Recreation Center.”
Haynes explained that The Urban Farm, originally known as Embracing Horses, was founded during Denver’s “summer of violence.”
“We wanted to get into a community that was being hard hit, and to begin taking kids and exposing them to different things,” she said. “We hand selected each community with which we worked for the first couple of years – recreation centers such as St. Charles, Martin Luther King, Montbello – and expanded from there.”
In 1998, Fowler and Haynes learned about the development project at Stapleton, and decided to procure 23 acres east of Smith Road and Havana Street.
“We knew we needed to be in the urban corridor to reach more kids, and the place we had before could only be reached by driving,” Fowler said. “Stapleton Development Corporation leased us the property for 25 years, and they’ve been very supportive of the farm and what we’re trying to do with urban kids.”
Although their first summer at the new site was a challenge because the property had no roads, electricity, running water or buildings, TUF participants can now reach the farmland habitat by bus, bicycle or even on foot.
“We’ve got lots of kids whose parents carpool to get them here,” Fowler said, explaining that the farm’s central location has allowed the involvement of more than 3,000 children a year.
The move also enabled Fowler and Haynes to expand the program to include a broader scope of farm animals. In a series of community projects, volunteers and TUF kids together built most of the buildings on the property, including a 20,000-square-foot indoor teaching barn, a 20,000-square-foot children’s garden with a greenhouse, 24 horse paddocks, numerous small livestock enclosures, and a 5,000-square-foot education and office building. More than 250 animals now make their home at TUF.
“We teach the kids how to care for chickens, pigs, goats, horses, and cows, among others,” Fowler said. “They’re taught to feed, clean and train the animals for showmanship in shows, and just like all the other farmers, we belong to a coop.”
In a special farm school partnership with Escuela Tlateloco, children were even taught firsthand about the slaughtering process.
“Students come from the school every Thursday and Friday of the entire school year,” Fowler said, explaining that the visits are part of the school’s 7th and 8th grade science curriculum. “Although not all the kids participated in the harvesting process, everyone helped raise, clean and nurture the chickens.”
The students also studied the role of animals in mythology and religion.
“There have been some interesting outgrowths from the project,” she said. “For example, the kids began bringing newspaper clippings with stories about the E. coli scares and Japan’s butter shortage. We also noticed almost 100 percent attendance on the days they came out to the farm, as compared to a 75 percent attendance the rest of the week.”
After harvesting, Fowler said the chickens were cooked for a big community meal. Before the community meal, a prayer and song were performed as part of the social studies project.
“It’s important for children to see the cycle of life,” she said.
Haynes added, “The children are taught to make the animals comfortable, to take pride in how they care for them and to better understand animals as part of the food chain,”
“Their experience here gives them a different sense of how to respond and how to be responsible for animals. They spend hours with the animals and keep science notebooks and records on them,” she said.
Haynes explained that TUF programs are geared toward broadening the narrow lens through which most children in an urban environment view life.
“Some of the work we do here helps these kids understand how animals should and should not be harvested. If you’re in concert with the natural world, the harvesting process is not upsetting at all. In fact, we’re teaching them to become better environmental stewards and to advocate acceptable treatment in the slaughterhouses,” she said.
“A strong point of the farm is that life and death occur naturally,” Fowler elaborated. “Some kids have never seen birth, and some adults have never seen death. When an animal is born here, we all participate and watch the birth. It teaches us to pull together. It’s the way of life.”
Haynes’ daughter Alexis pointed to a tree at the top of a small rise by the creek as she remembered the death of her horse Apache from colic, a year and a half ago.
“After he died, this was a great place for me to think,” she said. “I went up by that tree because it’s a place where I have a spiritual connection.”
Besides the intrinsic value that TUF provides its participants, the scholastic benefits are strong.
“We teach skills that help the participants work as professionals in the industry, as veterinarians and in other careers,” Fowler said. “The students learn detailed animal anatomy, physiology and kinetics. They learn about the market – selling milk and eggs and how much product each animal can produce – and about recycling and sustainability. We also teach them how to make products on the farm: cheese, strawberry jelly, pickles, and freeze-drying things.”
A student at Denver School of Science and Technology trained a halter-trained riding horse to become a trail rider for her senior project.
“She researched theories of horse training, shot a video tracking the progress and presented it to the class,” said Fowler, who recently attended the young girl’s graduation.
Boasting one of the largest 4-H clubs in the state, TUF has become a national model for urban 4-H. The farm also hosts a program called Storybook Farm, an emerging literacy program in which preschoolers visit TUF each month to hear a farm story and then participate in a real-life experience with the farm animals and in the garden.
"I remember years ago the story about a kid who killed his little brother because he had pooped on him,” Haynes said. “Now if that kid had of been involved in nature, like our kids who are in manure all the time, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”
“Sure the kids might fall down on the dirt and get their hands dirty, but out here there’s a real sense of freedom and community, something lacking sometimes in the city,” Fowler said. “This place reminds me of the time when I grew up, when the days were long and filled with the richness of the outdoors.”
TUF operates year-round. Classes, workshops and field trips are held Monday through Saturday. The farm is open to the public Saturday from 10:00 a.m. till 1:00 p.m. Special community and fundraising events, clinics, horse shows, dog shows and trials, and other activities such as birthdays are held throughout the year. For more information, call 303-307-9332 or visit email@example.com.