ZEELAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Nestled near the front of a Zeeland-area subdivision, across the street from a few manufacturing and logistics plants and less than a mile east of the Ford Freeway sits an unconventional classroom.
“We moved here in 1984 and planned to have a bigger garden. We were out in the country. There was no subdivision. There was no Ford Expressway,” Mary Rottschaffer said. “We were out in the boonies.”
Like the area around her, Rottschaffer’s plans for the property quickly changed. At a church choir party in 1984, members came ready to paint the family’s barn. After scraping and finishing a new coat in three hours, they put on a comedy show for the Rottschaffer family and gifted them some four-legged farm friends.
“We started hauling out fencing the next day in the afternoon, Sunday afternoon. And we put up one fence that contained the sheep, the two pigs and a goat,” Rottschaffer said. “It was just a fun event that I don’t think anybody had a view of what was on the horizon. How can you anticipate that?”
Now, 38 years later, that small hobby farm has grown into the Critter Barn. Rottschaffer is the unsuspecting founder who has fallen passionately in love with what she does.
The Critter Barn uses farming to connect kids and adults to the natural world by immersing them with animals and nature in an informative setting.
“How many times are we told, don’t try to be everything to everybody,” Rottschaffer asked. “But food sustainability, the world of nature, that’s a lot. And it impacts everybody because we all need to eat. And we all live in this world and we need to be good stewards of this world.”
Rottschaffer is a former teacher in the classroom, and teaching has never left her blood. In 1990, four educators from four different systems approached her about bringing their classrooms to her farm on a field trip. By the end of that year, nearly 1,000 kids came through and the Grandville school system booked its entire kindergarten system for the following school year.
“When something that major happens in your life, you better have your eyes open. If that’s what you pray for, then you better pay attention,” Rottschaffer said. “I think that was a pivotal point.”
Rottschaffer is quick to remind that the Critter Barn is a real barn, not a petting zoo. It is an operating, agricultural farm where livestock comes and goes, live births happen and meat, eggs and veggies are harvested and sold.
“We understand that as people go through life, they have to understand where their food comes from,” Rottschaffer explained. “So we specifically focus on the work that farmers do to provide our food, which is basically a management of nature for our benefit and our sustainability.”
Rottschaffer blends the knowledge she has gained through the farming community she has leaned on with a personal touch of humor and matter-of-factness to reach young and old minds visiting the farm. Over the nearly four decades, the barn has grown to offer a variety of classes, become the home to number of different animals, and outgrown its original space.
“In 2017, we were gifted 27 acres of land and there’s a swath from Consumers Energy next to it,” Rottschaffer said about the barn’s new property. “So we say 36 acres just to set that right. And it’s a beautiful.”
The rolling fields are just east of Zeeland. Surrounded by farmland, much like the early days of the Critter Barn. It is building a $7 million project to make a fully accessible, fully educational and fully operational farm.
“We’re imitating traditional styles of barns. It’s being built with rough-sawn wood,” Rottschaffer said about the main barn on the farm. “Maybe it won’t look like an old barn but it’s as close as we can get. And that’s going to be the nostalgic farm that represents a place where you can have a lot of hands-on fun and interaction. Then there is a set of buildings that are going to be miniature models for agriculture, a layer hen, broiler, turkey building; a hog building; and a dairy barn. Also facilities for sheep that are going to depict exactly how farmers raise their livestock for production. And I can’t wait because the systems are amazing and people will be able to appreciate for themselves how agriculture handles animals today.”
It’s Rottschaffer’s way to brag about the farming community, which she says doesn’t show itself off enough. The plan is to have the new farm campus open and operating this fall. The farm has already raised $4 million of the total estimated cost. The new barn will help Rottschaffer teach the future and the history of agriculture by living proof that a little love and nurturing can grow things beyond expectations.
“It’s been an exciting learning curve. And when you talk about the magic sauce, I think for adults, we are created with that desire to learn inside of us, everybody wants to learn. Gaining knowledge is always interesting or fascinating,” Rottschaffer said. “As I was on a trail to learn, ’cause I had to, and as I met all these wonderful people who are farmers or folks in commodities, it’s been a real blessing to get to know them. They’re good people and they work hard and they have shared so much with me, I feel compelled to share with others.”
Learn more about the Critter Barn here.