We've seen some beautiful things here,” said Mary Vander Hooning '74 Rottschafer of the Critter Barn, the not-for-profit farm she runs in Zeeland, Mich. “Kids learn how God’s creation provides food for us and see how the cycle of seasons shows so many of God’s miracles. What they learn here inspires them for the rest of their lives,” she said.
What began as a hobby farm nearly thirty years ago has evolved into a learning center that offers hands-on education and volunteer opportunities for children as well as adults. And although it’s been a winding and sometimes stressful journey, Rottschafer sees the hand of God in every turn.
Long before she attended Hope College, Rottschafer dreamed of a career in veterinary medicine. Her mother, however, encouraged her to go in a different direction, so Rottschafer pursued a degree in music performance at Hope. Although she enjoyed music, a conversation with her organ teacher, Dr. Roger Davis, led her to discover that what she loved most about music was the time she spent working with children.
Following that meeting, Rottschafer went directly to the education building, and by the time she graduated from Hope she had a degree in elementary education, which led to several happy years teaching third and fourth grade for Holland Christian Schools.
Rottschafer stepped away from teaching with the arrival of her three children in rapid succession, but she maintained a career as music director at First Reformed Church in Zeeland. She and her young family also developed an interest in gardening, and in 1984 they purchased a small family farm in order to have adequate space for their new hobby.
Members of the First Reformed choir thought the farm would be the perfect spot for their end-of-the-year picnic, but they had a bigger celebration in mind than Rottschafer imagined. Before the scheduled pig roast, the choir surprised her by scraping and painting the enormous 100-year-old barn in just three short hours. Also unknown to Rottschafer, they had fitted the inside of the barn with a stage for the after-dinner entertainment, an auction/talent show during which they presented Rottschafer with an assortment of live animals—including pigs, a goat, a lamb, and chickens—to get her farm started.
“The animals had to stay in the garage for a few days, because there were no fences or anything to keep them in the barn,” Rottschafer said. “I remember calling a vet quite late that night, because I didn’t know what to feed them, and he said, ‘Well, do you have any oats, any corn meal...?””
The choir’s prank evolved into a hobby farm, allowing Rottschafer to pursue her dream of working with animals. For several years family and friends managed the work load as the animal population grew. Things began to shift in 1990 when, within the span of a few days, a half-dozen friends, acquaintances, and educators independently contacted Rottschafer and asked if she would consider hosting field trips on the farm. She said yes.
In 1991, 957 kindergarteners visited the farm through organized field trips; by 1992, the number more than tripled to 3,100. The Critter Barn now hosts hundreds of groups each year who come to meet the potbelly pigs and cuddle the bunnies while learning “how God’s creation provides food for us,” Rottschafer said. Cats, donkeys, sheep and even a couple of peacocks live there, happy for the company of the many children who visit. If a group can’t make it to the farm, the Critter Barn is even willing to bring the animals offsite with traveling farm presentations.
Individuals are also welcome to visit the farm during public hours; in a “leap of faith,” the Critter Barn went to a donations-only admission for individuals in 2011. “I love that we’re just opening the doors and allowing people to come,” Rottschafer said. “We have great stories of people who provide a donation for their own visit and then add to it, saying they want to pay for those who don’t have the means.”
Besides the revenue from the education programs, the farm sells fresh eggs and roasting chickens, as well as wool socks, yarn, and tee shirts. And there are corporate sponsors as well, many of them agricultural in nature.
Although paid staff was added a few years ago, much of the work is still done by volunteers, including students from Hope, who participate in organized service projects during orientation, as well as Rottschafer's husband, Wally, a podiatrist (and a Calvin grad) who puts in about20 hours a week tending the animals who live in his backyard. (We have been growing staff to reduce his hours actually)
In the summer, kids ages 8 to 16 are trained at Critter Camp and then invited to work as volunteers at the farm.Over the course of a year approximately 350 kids will volunteer, and the majority of those hired on as paid staff are Critter Camp grads. “We train our volunteers and work with them so the learning continues,” Rottschafer said.I think that's the best product that comes from here, we grow kids."
Back in the day, the farm was considered to be out in the country, but now the Critter Barn shares its back property line with suburban houses. For the farm to continue to grow and evolve, a new location seems a necessity. “God has put a lot of people in our path who have challenged us to move to a different location,” Rottschafer said. “Looking to the future, we have a vision and a plan for the farm for the next 25 years. We hope to impact agricultural education for grades k-12, and we’d like to have an associate’s degree obtainable on our facility.”
Looking back, Rottschafer sees even the difficult times as preparation for the future she now inhabits. Raising a child with special needs prepared Rottschafer to work with special needs children on the farm as students, and as volunteers. In 1998 an outbreak of salmonella, originally attributed to the farm but eventually traced to other sources, led to stricter protocols, which led to the ability to do more in conjunction with agricultural institutions. “It probably put us ahead of where we would have been,” she said. “What was a crisis became an opportunity to learn.”
Rottschafer is excited about the farm’s potential on a new property. “When I look over my shoulder and see the doors that have been opened to me, it is so obvious that God is directing it,” she said.