How a tiny, once-weary farm has grown to produce a bountiful harvest of community, connection and understanding.
ALL SHE WANTED WAS ROOM FOR A HORSE. Nearly 20 years ago, Rosemary Jedel Graff stood gazing out over the worn-out eight-acre farm and counted the negatives: Weed-covered fields. Downed fences. Plumbing problems. The list went on. But the eight-plus-acre spread in North Fort Collins had something else: there was a hay barn. “When I walked into that hay barn, the smell of that hay…it was my childhood,” says Graff. “And despite nearly everyone telling us that we should walk away, I couldn’t.”
Graff convinced her husband, Greg, who teaches in the agricultural department at CSU, that what they were buying wasn’t just a house or a barn. They were buying a certain kind of life for their children (then just 2 and 4), one rich in animals and in connection to the natural world. Greg acquiesced, and over the years Laughing Buck Farm has become a haven for all of those things and more. The overgrown fields and decrepit structures are long gone, replaced by a garden bursting with squash and pumpkins and large pastures with grazing horses. In the background, giggling kids lead a bleating goat out of a nearby barn and an instructor teaches someone how to tack up a horse. These days the hustle and bustle of the place signifies a vibrant community.
Graff might not have realized back then just what she was creating. But life seems to have been preparing her for this endeavor all along. While growing up in rural Ohio, she worked at a local dairy farm, baled hay, cared for a horse in her backyard and was a 4-H kid. In college, she studied English and received a master’s degree in English as a Second Language (ESL), and over the years she taught those subjects here and abroad. “I love teaching,” Graff says. “And I really love teaching beyond English.”
For Graff “teaching beyond English” means education outside of the classroom on subjects you can’t necessarily learn from books, and it’s something she got to experiment with after she and Greg settled into Colorado farm life.
In the beginning, when her kids were so young, Graff was desperate to meet people and connect with others, both for her own and her children’s sake. So she partnered with a friend to start a small preschool cooperative.
“That was my first experience with having kids other than my own on the farm. You could tell right away how much they loved it,” she says.
In response, Graff and her friend developed a farm-school class. Graff’s friend, a horticultural enthusiast, created garden experiences for the kids while Graff focused on livestock and animal interactions. Even after her own children moved on to elementary school, the two women continued the preschool program, offering one farm class a week for several years. Eventually they added a class specific to home schoolers and then an all-ages group, rounding out their offerings to three classes per week, a basic schedule that still exists today.
ON ONE CHILLY OCTOBER MORNING, seven kids under the age of 10 gather around a picnic table. After an overview of the day’s tasks from Graff, the children don gloves and get to work. They scoop meal into five-gallon buckets and gather kitchen scraps, then haul it all into the pen where they march through the mud to feed two eager pigs. Next they move on to the chicken coop, scattering feed and collecting pastel-colored eggs.
“It’s not a petting zoo. Rosemary really lets the kids work the farm,” says Heather Fontenot, whose four children, ranging in age from ages 5 to 14, have all spent time on the farm over the years. “I think it gives them more respect for and a connection to the land and the people who work it for a living. Plus, knowing how to milk a goat, catch a chicken and clean up after a pig aren’t bad skills to have,” says Fontenot.
Farm-school classes run from fall through spring and go on no matter the weather. “I love that, even when it’s snowing, I can bundle my kids up, pack thermoses of hot chocolate and soup and send them out the door,” adds Leah Jones, a mother who has sent her two children to farm-school classes for the past four years. “That’s real life.” Plus, Graff says, the year-round schedule lets kids experience a slew of nature’s relationships. “It’s a great feeling to be connected. When the leaves fall, for example, we collect them and feed them to the goats or put them in the garden. When the apples fall, we collect those and press them and make apple cider. The left-over apple mash will then go to the pigs. Eventually, the pigs will go to market. It’s a beautiful system.”
Nature’s perfectly synchronized system seems to be reflected in the daily flurry of activity at the farm. While Graff leads kids to the orchard to gather apples, two women pull into the gravel driveway and head straight for the garden to begin harvesting. Meanwhile a neighbor stops by to purchase eggs and an instructor prepares for riding lessons. Everyone seems to know exactly what their role is and how to go about it. In essence, they have to. In addition to farm-school classes, Laughing Buck also hosts a 4-H club, offers riding lessons, horse boarding and a variety of summer camps. To manage the load Graff, a.k.a “FarmHer Rosemary,” relies on a garden manager, a barn manager and a group of teachers and assistants to ensure everything runs smoothly. She wants, in fact, needs, her staff to feel empowered, and quite often hands over the reins to let them design and oversee offerings they’re personally passionate about.
Take Alex Whittey, who currently teaches therapeutic and adaptive riding lessons at Laughing Buck, and is leading the charge to help the farm become an accredited adaptive center. “Alex is an advanced certified adaptive instructor, so she knows the equipment we need, the safety standards we have to follow,” says Graff. “I love seeing people take on leadership roles and bloom doing things that inspire them.”
Blooming might be an understatement when it comes to Allison Poff’s experience at Laughing Buck. A recent high school graduate, Poff has been coming to the farm for more than a decade. She started with farm-school classes and later moved on to riding lessons, where she fell absolutely in love with horses. Along with Graff, she helped design a farm internship program for herself last year. Poff acted as an assistant during classes and focused on helping newer children build their horse experience. “Sometimes it was introducing kids to a horse for the first time, other times it was leading them in the round pen,” says Poff. Working side by side with more experienced instructors, Poff also learned vet techniques like wrapping a horse’s legs and deworming. “I feel like I’ve leveled up a lot because of the farm,” she says. “I’ve been coming here for so long, I feel connected to it. They’re practically family to me.”
Graff agrees. “My farm feels like a small town,” she says. “The way we’ve shared it over the years and allowed people to feel like this is their farm, too… that’s really important to me. Really important.”
That feeling, which almost everyone who has spent time at the farm or in its programs is eager to talk about, is ever extending into new places and programming. This past summer Graff offered a girls-only summer camp option as well as family farm encounters. An occupational therapist recently contacted Graff to brainstorm program ideas. And integrated camps like “How Does Your Tractor Run,” which explores how animals self-regulate and in turn helps kids understand their own social-emotional behavior, are always in demand. “There are so many natural synergies between nature and animals and people with special needs,” says Graff. “I’m excited to see the farm used for those types of experiences and healing.”
What started out as wanting to have a horse nearby has grown into a true small community over the years. “I didn’t really know what we were building when we started. But now I do,” says Graff. “There’s the farm, yes. But connection and community are just as important. That’s what we lead and model. And we want everyone who comes to the farm to experience that.”