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Little Farmer’s Playschool gives kids real life experiences

Leo Reitzel, of Southold, grabs an armful of

Leo Reitzel, of Southold, grabs an armful of hay to feed to the alpacas at Little Farmer's Playschool and summer camp in Southold. (Aug. 9, 2012) Credit: Erin Geismar

After spreading feed for the chickens, bringing hay to the alpacas and offering food pellets to the goats, the kids at Little Farmer’s Playschool took a well-deserved break around mid-morning.

In a shady spot, they performed a dramatic reading of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” but as it came to an end, the chickens could be heard clucking anxiously from their coop.

“The chickens!” shouted 6-year-old Kaitlyn Heath. “We have to get the eggs. They need us!”

Kaitlyn, of Southold, was eager to get the important job done, and she is an example of the kind of socially and environmentally conscious student Little Farmer’s hopes to turn out.

Jennifer Gibbs, owner of the 8 ½-acre farm in Southold, and her sister, Kate Liddle, opened the preschool and summer camp program this summer with a vision of instilling a sense of awareness, responsibility and respect in the children who participate.

During school or camp, students ages 3 to 12 complete tasks that keep the farm working. They feed and help care for the animals with breaks for foot races that take place in the grassy aisle between the horse and alpaca pens, dashes through the sprinkler and craft time.

In the preschool program, which runs during the school year, there is also a traditional educational component designed by Gibbs, a history teacher at Greenport Middle School with a certification in elementary education.

“When you’re at the farm, you’re a farmer,” Gibbs said, laughing at the idea of school uniforms. “You’re going home with dirt, paint, whatever else we happened to get into that day.”

Gibbs, 42, reached a lifelong goal when she bought the farm eight years ago, and she and her sister saw an opportunity to share it with others. They ran the school and camp together for two years, before taking a hiatus and reopening this year with a renewed zeal and an added element.

Now, they also run a farmers market Thursday through Monday, where kids can learn the basics of a market economy and see the real benefits of the work they do at the farm.

Liddle, 46, of Riverhead, said the market project helps children understand that the animals are more than just cute, friendly creatures; they serve a purpose.

“We had a great opportunity to teach kids about the fact that farming and family farming is important,” she said. “In many places in this world, the farm is the difference between being able to take care of your family and starvation.”

Inspired by the mission of Heifer International, a global organization that gifts livestock to families in developing countries and trains them to use the animals to their maximum potential, Gibbs and Liddle chose for their farm only animals that would give back.

Their seven alpacas offer fleece, 43 hens and seven ducks (the latter of which they hatched themselves) lay eggs, three baby dairy goats will eventually produce milk, and one horse provides labor. All of the animals produce manure, and of course, the ducks and hens could also provide meat, though the sisters don’t plan to utilize them in that way, Liddle said.

Gibbs said the venture has been an exhilarating experience with as much room to grow as the farm will allow. Next year, she hopes to breed the alpacas and have the children milking goats.

“The kids come and they’re just so eager to help in any way,” she said. “It energizes you. It’s exhausting but it’s worth it every minute.”

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