Sharing the Joy
Roni Widmer of Jelly Hill Farm
With the exception of a small wooden sign reading “Jelly Hill Farm,” there is little to indicate that behind an otherwise nondescript suburban home on Brookside Drive in Fairfield there’s a compact backyard farm, complete with chickens, three sheep, three dogs, a beehive, and a cat named Goose. Roni Widmer and her husband, Mike, initially built their farm as an escape. They bought the property in 2001 and Roni immediately befriended local sheep farmers, learned how to care for the animals, and eventually adopted the couple’s eight sheep. Jelly, the sheep the farm is named after, was their first lamb. Though she didn’t grow up in a farming family, Roni says, “I loved the idea of it. It was so peaceful to me. It’s really a spiritual thing.”
Now, she’s a natural—collecting eggs from her chickens each day, feeding newborn lambs and baby bunnies in the spring and organizing an annual sheep-shearing celebration, which involves up to 200 neighbors and old-timey band the Jackson Pike Skifflers.
The joy she takes from the simple act of farming was too great not to share. Now, Roni runs a weekly Jelly Hill Farm camp for elementary aged kids, providing weekly lessons in growing vegetables, caring for animals, and engaging in small acts with environmental purpose. Students learn about honeybees and colony collapse disorder (the Widmers lost their own colony to the disorder, which has been linked in part to industrial pesticide use); about organic gardening and the seed distribution. The couple has constructed a walkway on a small wooded trail that crosses over a stream where Roni and the students look for insects and other signs of life and talk about environmental stewardship. Meanwhile, a sturdy treehouse provides a terrific bird’s eye view. On the last session, they read from Dr. Seuss’ environmental tale “The Lorax, ”and talk about the difference small acts can make, from hanging laundry on a line to using a rain barrel for water collection. She’s hoping to expand her camp into a summer program this year.
“The kids are amazingly attuned to what goes on,” Roni says. “They get it. And those that come in the spring want to come back in the fall; all they want to do is be outside and dig in the dirt.” She likes to encourage the kids to draw their own connections, to begin to see how all the parts—the woods, the stream, the animals and the air—are interconnected, and how the health of one depends on the health of another. And if things aren’t healthy and thriving, she asks, “How can we help?”