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Fun on the Farm

At this Lafayette camp, kids dump their game boys to play with goats, cows, and chickens �¡ By Andrea Lampros


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Adrien surveys the animal pen at Lafayette’s Deer Hill Ranch like a career farmhand. "It smells like poop today," he says matter-of-factly to his fellow five-year-old day campers as he picks up a shovel. "Well, let’s get cleaning."

That’s Deer Hill Ranch: In just five days, it can transform a five-year-old suburban kid into a bona fide manure scooper. The unlikely brainchild of a couple of urbanites, Deer Hill is a working cattle ranch, team-building workshop, birthday party hot spot, and place for schoolkids from the city to relish rural life, at least for a few hours.

Adrien is one of 250 kids ages five to 12 who come to Lafayette for week-long summer camps. The young cowpokes spin and dye wool, groom goats, examine native plants, and get nudged and nuzzled by ponies Quigley and Willie. And rain or shine, these kids scoop the poop.

"This place is real," says Deer Hill co-founder Hunter Holding Jr. "If someone doesn’t treat an animal right, it will run away. Animals are great teachers."

Holding—a city slicker investment banker who wanted to get back to the land—and his wife, Anne—a woman who was allergic to most flora and fauna—own and manage the farm and experiential learning center off Highway 24 in a bucolic pocket of Lafayette.

Unlike the neatly coiffed Anne, who grew up in New York City, Hunter has farming in his blood. He grew up on a dairy farm in the Hudson River Valley, studied agriculture at Cornell University, and earned his master’s degree from Columbia University’s business school.

Hunter had traded commodities for the likes of Chemical Bank and J.P. Morgan in New York City by the time he met Anne, who was working with troubled teens and homeless families. Although Hunter was applying his knowledge of agricultural production, he was yearning for the farm life.

The Holdings moved to the Bay Area in 1986 to escape the social stratification of New York and find a less rigidly organized community. In 1994, when Hunter turned 40, Anne declared that she was ready to make a leap of faith into farm life. "We don’t live very long," she remembers saying. "Let’s go for it."

So they bought some Angus cows. But they still lived in a house in Lafayette, so they kept the cows in Maxwell, a town north of the Bay Area far off of I-5.

They bought the Lafayette ranch (with several existing structures) in 1995, and made a home for themselves and their children, Amanda and Kate. They bought more cows, as well as pigs, donkeys, ponies, sheep, goats, and chickens. To live on the ranch, Anne had to battle her allergies with medicine and what she calls "massive exposure." It worked.

Although the Holdings still breed cows (the original purpose of the farm) and sell eggs, their ranch has become a more public than private endeavor. They realized the rural experience that has transformed their lives could do the same for kids and adults throughout the Bay Area—even if their exposure came in smaller doses.

Deer Hill is now a regular stop on the field-trip circuit for schoolkids from San Francisco to Concord. For some city kids, it’s a first and only chance to see country life up close—to sit quietly holding a chicken or to stroke a donkey’s head.

The ranch is also the site of the Holdings’ "Ropes Course Adventure Camp," an outdoor activity program run by trained instructors and intended for kids and adults to build trust and group communication. Participants on the high ropes wear belay harnesses to climb up poles and perform various tasks, sometimes 35 feet above the ground, with their peers helping them from below.

The counselors have as much fun as the kids. Fourteen-year-old Amelia Brazil, who attends College Prep in Oakland, volunteers in the summer camps. "You learn a lot by being here and by being exposed to the animals," says Brazil as she grinds seeds into chicken feed. "It’s so cool to see the kids learn so much."

The Holdings get that satisfaction daily. "It’s exactly why I wanted to live on a farm," says Hunter. "It’s the antidote to the hectic, overstimulated, materialistic world."

But are they making any money on the venture? Heck, no.

"We don’t have a dime anymore, and that’s OK," says Anne with a laugh. "To see kids changed here is a greater gift than anything monetary." n

During the summer, Deer Hill Ranch is open to "Little Explorers" ages five to six. Seven- to nine-year-olds attend "Junior Explorers Camp." The "Ropes Course Adventure Camp," which includes some animal care, is for children 10–12.

For information about Deer Hill Ranch and its programs—or to order organic eggs and grass-fed beef—call (925) 283-1197, or visit www.deerhillranch.org.

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