Each year, Crystal Flash supports over 140 different organizations and causes across the communities we serve — where our employee-owners live and work. Being a Michigan-based company, getting involved in our local communities is personal.
One of Crystal Flash’s main areas of philanthropic/community support is Agriculture & Rural Life Development, so, when our employee-owners heard about what was happening at this very special farm, needless to say we felt inspired to get involved. We’d like to introduce you to one of CF’s newest community partners, Critter Barn.
As you are reading this, quite literally, a unique farm is rising in Ottawa County thanks to the dedicated efforts of a community of volunteers, helpers, donors/partners, agricultural organizations, staff — and a one very determined teacher.
But the real story of Critter Barn dates back almost 30 years, prior.
Critter Barn began in 1984 as a small, 3-acre hobby farm in Zeeland. In 1990, when Founder (and teacher) Mary Rottschafer began getting requests to host school field trips, the operation soon blossomed into what eventually became a full-blown “teaching farm”.
“Right away, we saw a reaction from the children — it was an instant connection with the animals. They need that so much; it just opens up their world. I think it’s the unconditional love that an animal returns to a child. It makes them feel valued, it makes them feel self-worth. It was so obvious… we had to keep going,” said Rottschafer.
As the organization’s mission evolved, its purpose became more clear — to teach about farming and agriculture while inspiring people of all ages, and all abilities, through the miracles in nature found at the farm.
As Critter Barn’s original location began growing in popularity with the public, and as more animals and class options were added, the property became more and more crowded. In 2007, as Mary realized that the current incarnation of the organization was outgrowing its home, she set out on a path to relocate and construct, both literally and figuratively, a new vision for what Critter Barn could be. Ten years later, in 2017, the land for the new location was secured by donation and planning commenced.
A new beginning
Currently under construction across 36 acres of land not far from the original Zeeland location, in some ways, the “new” Critter Barn could be considered a series of indoor/outdoor classrooms, but its curriculum features a variety of real-world lessons not easily taught within the confines and budgets of today’s school systems. The educational experiences offered span a wide variety of topics such as food science, logistics, veterinary science, food safety, animal care, environmental science, animal therapy, nutrition and sustainability, with more lessons added all the time. The organization also hopes that experiences at Critter Barn will foster future volunteerism in student attendees.
The new farm will have two major wood barns and eight smaller barns to house animals in a nostalgic setting. This part of the site will resemble a traditional farm of the 20th century with main barns and outbuildings. The Critter Barn’s future Country Farmhouse and Event Center will offer a venue for catering, receptions, conferences, or any size meeting from 10 to 250 people. The Preschool building will be a hub of activity for over 3,000 preschool children annually, through a rotational program for local schools.
Critter Barn will build smaller production model buildings showcasing today’s management systems for hogs, dairy cows, layer hens, broiler chickens, and turkeys. Working with equipment from Big Dutchman, Hogslat, HiTech Dairy, Seneca and more, modern barns will be a learning ground for visitors and students alike.
The Critter Barn aims to combine the needs of younger children for hands-on experiences and activities while educating older students and adults about modern agriculture methods. The property is currently home to cows, donkeys, ducks, geese, goats, hogs, sheep, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and more.
The original 3-acre Critten Barn location was able to serve about 60,000 visitors annually, whereas the new location, when completed, will easily host over 200,000 guests. Other enhancements include expanded parking and restrooms. Of note, plans also include the construction of several bunkhouses for overnight accommodations, perfect not only for summer farm camps but also FFA students, allowing them to stay on the premises for extended periods of time.
Creating a place for everyone
Anchoring all of the new development taking place at the new location is inclusivity. Critter Barn is pursuing Global Universal Design. And while it could be said that the facility is being envisioned as a place where everyone is welcome, it’s really more accurate to say that it is designed to make everyone feel that they belong.
When Crystal Flash toured the construction site in late November 2022 in preparation for this story, what was immediately evident was the intentional thought that went into centering every aspect of the new location around accessibility. “Inclusive design” efforts include accommodative equipment for restrooms, activity chairs with trays, adaptive trikes for getting around more easily, quiet spaces in the new Welcome Center for anyone who needs a break or special care, and much more.
Indeed, Mary’s vision is not just having Critter Barn be completely ADA-compliant, but going far beyond those standards to provide a fully-accessible experience like no other teaching farm in the country.
Community support and involvement
Area educators are already excited about the possibilities and opportunities that the new facilities will offer students. Katie Flynn, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Services with Ottawa Area Intermediate School District shared, “For students with special needs, we are always looking for opportunities to identify areas of interest and engagement. Interacting with animals is therapeutic for these students, specifically, because a lot of barriers are removed.” Flynn elaborated, “We have a lot of kids who have difficulty communicating, or they might communicate in different ways. It’s pretty magical when you watch these students interact with animals, there’s an acceptance there. There are not a lot of opportunities like this.”
Greg Herbruck, CEO of Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch added, “This is kind of a shining star, what goes on here. I’ve been able to use what goes on here at the Critter Barn in our national trade association meetings as a model for “what could be” across the country. (From an ag perspective) it’s showing where we came from, where we are today, and showing the future of how food is going to be produced.”
Crystal Flash is proud to be a supporter of the Critter Barn’s work and its mission. For volunteer opportunities, sponsorship/donation opportunities, special events or to schedule a trip to the Critter Barn, please visit critterbarn.org. We promise that it’s an experience that you will never forget.