The flood of 2011 could have been the death of Gifford Farm and a blow to outdoor education for schoolchildren across the city. From June to September that year, rooftops were all you could see of the farm, visited yearly by thousands of students for agriculture curriculum and other programs, said director Nancy Williams. And when the water finally receded, what remained was a ruin.
“The whole farm was complete devastation,” Williams said. Now, however, the farm is back in business, with several activities planned for the coming months.
Gifford Farm, in Bellevue, is a 400-acre farm owned and operated by Educational Service Unit No. 3.
It has been a working farm since the mid-1800s. The Gifford family purchased it in the 1920s, and in 1973, Dr. Hal Gifford donated the land to the State of Nebraska to be used for educational purposes. It became an educational service unit. ESUs were created by the Nebraska Legislature in 1965 to help school districts with costs while improving teaching. For example, every school can't have its own farm to study but many school districts can use an ESU farm.
Field trips to the farm offer ag study and outdoor education to students in kindergarten through high school. Scouts, 4-H, youth groups, community groups and senior citizen groups also use the farm. It isn't open to the public except on special occasions.
The farm averages 30,000 and 35,000 visitations each season, which is September through August. Visitations include people who come to the farm as well as the Farm to Go program, where staff take animals to schools. Visitors were down drastically after the flood, as the farm was closed from May 2011 to May 2012, though Farm to Go still operated.
Officials never considered not rebuilding, Williams said.
The mild winter of 2011-12 made construction and cleanup go faster than anticipated, so most of the farm was up and running by last May, though some of the programs were not. There was no day camp last year, for instance.
Now the farm is back in full, though some construction and cleanup remains. Day camps will resume this summer, and several public events are planned.
Visitors will find four new barns to replace those that had to be razed. The Outdoor Nature Classroom and the Teen Challenge course also are new. Two farmhouses on the property were condemned and torn down. The only building that survived was a horse barn (a water line on its outside walls is 8 feet high), which temporarily is housing the office.
Also lost were all the fences, parts of the road and access to Fontenelle Forest, Williams said.
A new office building that will contain classrooms and an apartment is going up now. A tornado shelter is under construction as well, Williams said.
The bulk of the $900,000 it has taken to rebuild so far came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the ESU board, although the farm also received many donations, she said.
Luckily, there was enough warning before the flood that staff were able to foster out or find homes for all the animals, Williams said. All but one animal — a pony that has become an integral part of its foster family — have returned to the farm.
The farm owns most of the animals. It also has partnerships with farms and ranches that loan calves to the farm for the season. Kids who visit this year will see horses, llamas, milk and beef calves, a donkey, piglets, sheep, goats, ducks and a variety of chickens.
The 240 leased acres of crops, mostly corn, that are part of the working farm have been replanted, so visitors also will see big tractors and other farm equipment being used.
On a recent morning, children from Holling Heights Elementary in the Millard district and the Life Changers Academy, a Christian school for early education, were touring the farm.
Students visiting in the horse barn were learning about saddles and other riding equipment, checking out brushes for grooming and gasping at the size of a horse's “toenail.” Kids getting to ride a big wooden rocker horse, made by woodworker Bill Watson, were full of laughs and giggles.
“It really felt like riding a horse,” said 5-year-old Tyler Heisler.
In the barn housing the calves, the kids were learning about products that come from cattle and pigs. Williams recalled that one student, when asked what he had learned about pigs, answered: “That they're made out of bacon.”
Students from about every school district in the area visit regularly, Williams said.
“All our field trips relate to curriculum,” said Rebecca Kleeman of the Millard Public Schools, adding that the Gifford Farm trips are tied to science and social studies. “They bring the curriculum alive for our students.”
The farm program is important because it exposes mostly city-raised kids to Nebraska agriculture, Williams said.
“It's something they don't see unless they happen to have a grandparent who lives on a farm.”
But this area is more than just a farm.
It also has the Outdoor Nature Classroom, a fenced area holding an acre of stations where kids connect with nature through art, music, acting, digging, climbing and a multitude of other activities.
“It lets the kids use their imaginations,” Williams said.
The Teen Challenge is a course of games and puzzles — such as climbing walls, ropes and a swinging tire challenge — that test physical skills and promote leadership development, team-building and self-esteem, Williams said. It also can be adapted for use by adult groups.
Friends of Discovery, a history program, is based on the journey of Lewis and Clark. Kids used to be able to take a one-hour hike into Fontenelle Forest, followed by an hour of encampment storytelling about what it was like to travel through this area in the early 19th century. Then they could participate in an optional classroom session or a visit to the Starlab Planetarium.
Since the forest around the farm is so damaged and unsafe for hiking, the program has been changed to just the encampment and classroom sections.
The inflatable planetarium isn't being used since the flood, Williams said, because a location for it hasn't been found.
Even though the farm is back in business, driving to it along Camp Gifford Road shows the flood devastation to hundreds of trees. Many have fallen already, and the trees that still stand also could die, Williams said.
“We may not know for five more years how many will be lost.”
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