On a hillside at Fruitlands, young 4-H club members from Harvard and nearby towns prepared for a laid-back day of sharing their knowledge of goats with the public. They were there for Fruitlands’ annual Harvest Fest, which was held on the picturesque grounds last Sunday. The goat pens stood amongst the backdrop of trees, quilts lay spread on the grass, and a spinning wheel and carding tools sat poised for demonstrations. Little kids and grandparents began to trickle down to the goat pen, admiring the cuteness and appetites of these creatures happily chomping away on the grass. Then out of nowhere came a shout, a scramble, and an escape.
Shehla Rahman keeps track of an alpine goat. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)
“He’s out!” yelled a kid wearing a 4-H shirt. “Get him!” screamed another. A cluster of 4-H kids started running after a young Nigerian Dwarf goat named Keeley, who had managed to find a tiny opening between her pen and the trailer and was gleefully sprinting toward freedom.
“Don’t chase her,” cautioned their 4-H leader, Erin DeCoste. “Stay calm,” she said.
One of the children managed to scoop up the goat and bring her back to safety, where she remained on a leash—and on laps—for the rest of the day.
“Goats are cute, but they’re trouble,” said Akiko Kunst, mother of a Wekepeke club member, the only 4-H club represented at Harvest Fest. Wekepeke is based in Lancaster and is one of many 4-H clubs in Worcester County.
Goats are well-known escape artists, and they need strong fencing to keep them from getting out of their enclosure, like the pen Kunst built in her West Boylston backyard. Her family owns goats, sheep, ducks, and chickens, and it’s her 11-year-old daughter Miru’s job to take care of them. Miru is home-schooled and cares for the animals several times during the day, be it feeding them or cleaning their shelter.
One chore the family doesn’t have to do anymore is mowing, according to Kunst. “The goats take care of that,” she said. Kunst said her husband is relieved he doesn’t have to mow the lawn or deal with unpleasant poison ivy anymore. “He’d put chemicals on the poison ivy, but it kept coming back. We put the goats and the sheep out there and it’s gone,” she said.
Miru prefers to show her goats rather than her sheep at county fairs because, according to her, the sheep are “too skittish.” She enjoys working with sheep wool, however, and uses it for felting projects. At Fruitlands she demonstrated carding to the children and parents who stopped by her station. They watched intently as she first plucked the wool to loosen it, then used a pair of wool carders to straighten out the fibers and take out any debris. “When you card, you go in the same direction,” she told a small audience of children eager to give it a try themselves.
Wekepeke (named after a local stream) co-founder and leader Erin DeCoste looked on proudly as her club members shared their seemingly limitless knowledge with the public. “Doing community outreach is just as important as going to fairs,” she said. DeCoste, who lives in Lancaster and is a special education teacher at the Bromfield School, has been a 4-H leader for 15 years. She believes in a “Montessori model” club where the kids learn from one another and work together. There are currently 38 children ages 8 to 18 in her Wekepeke club, which meets twice a month at her farm in addition to meet-and-greet events like the one at Fruitlands. Wekepeke is mainly a goat club, and many of its members opt to work with goats during the year. Some children own their own goats and others lease DeCoste’s goats, which they show at county fairs.
Caroline Justicz cards wool at a 4-H exhibit at Fruitlands, Oct. 7. (Courtesy photo)
DeCoste herself was a 4-H kid growing up, her father being a 4-H leader and fair director. “Basically I ate, lived, and breathed animals,” she said. DeCoste also had a few “war stories” that came from living on a farm. She recounted a painful run-in with one of her cows that resulted in a leg injury. She also tore her meniscus after slipping on a muddy divot, an injury that required surgery this past summer and still gives her pain.
Injuries aside, it is clear DeCoste is an animal lover, and this love has been passed down to her 11-year-old daughter Ayla, who is a sixth-grade student at Bromfield. Each morning Ayla wakes up at 5 o’clock to do her farm chores before heading to school. Ayla has even managed to turn her love of goats into a business. She uses the goat milk that her dairy goats produce to make soap that she sells out of the family farm. This year she hopes to sell her soap at local businesses like the General Store.
Mary Arata, a Harvard resident and first-year co-leader of Wekepeke, has also passed her love of 4-H to her children. As a child, Arata belonged to the same 4-H club as DeCoste. “It was awesome to meet up as moms, and I wanted my kids to join her club,” Arata said. Both of Arata’s children are in Wekepeke, and she doesn’t mind when they come home with muck on their boots or dirt on their knees; in fact, she likes to see it. “It’s important for kids to work with animals, to get dirty,” she said.
Harvard kids will now have a chance to get dirty a bit closer to home, because a Harvard 4-H club was recently formed. The club will cover a wide range of interests, including gardening, public speaking, and hiking. Children do not have to live in Harvard to join; kids living in neighboring towns are also welcome. For more information contact Jennifer or Nate Finch at email@example.com or visit www.harvard4h.org