When Gregory and Rosemary Graff bought their little farm, they noticed an interesting skull mounted on the tack room. Not an unusual Colorado wall bauble except for the fact that the bony face looked as if it was laughing. Granting that skeletal overseer naming rights, Laughing Buck Farm was born.
That was six years ago. And the grinning mascot still smiles down on its kingdom — seven and a half acres in north Fort Collins that serve not only as a lovely rural residence for the Graffs and sons Larin, 10, and Tevis, 8, but also as a big, open-air classroom.
Rosemary Graff grew up in Paris, Ohio where she had the opportunity to interact with horses. She also worked throughout middle and high school on a local dairy farm. College took her to Ohio State University in Columbus, and marriage led to a California dreamin’ experience.
Her address changed several times but her love for animals and the land remained constant. So obviously, the move to Colorado could only be to an acreage, she said, so her then-pre-schoolers could absorb the same farm values she learned in childhood. The Graffs searched for, and found, the perfect place.
Perfect? What captured their hearts and inspired their vision for the future was a neglected weed patch of a property in foreclosure, Rosemary Graff recalled. But their beholder eyes saw its potential beauty.
“I love sharing that we were lucky to get it,” she said.
The family made repairs and improvements. But, like a city, it can never be really completed. In fact, that comparison is very appropriate about Laughing Buck Farm.
“It’s like a small town,” Graff said.
It became this way because she wanted more than a typical barnyard full of critters. She desired a true community to which her boys could become a part.
In 2008, Graff set up cooperatives that drew eager members to that innovative community of her creation. These co-ops include Pre-School, Chicken and Family Garden.
Her goats, pigs and chickens all seemed content to just do what comes naturally, but Graff’s six equines needed jobs. Easy enough.
What little girl — or occasional boy — doesn’t desperately want their own horse? Few ever realize that dream. Laughing Buck Farm’s Pony co-op allows equestrian wannabes to ‘try-out’ the entire activity. Although similar to a lease, it also includes one free lesson per month for one affordable fee. Unlike hourly rentals, there’s more supervision. Too, the child doesn’t merely climb onto an already tacked-up animal and then hand the reins over when time’s up. Grooming, stall maintenance and feeding give an accurate view of day-to-day horse ownership.
All age groups are represented in the various Laughing Buck co-ops. On Fridays, parents are welcome to stay to observe. Tuesdays are drop-off only days for ages four and older. Two Tuesdays per month offer home school enrichment classes. After-school Farm School on Monday and Wednesday evenings proves learning never ends.
Whereas regular schools encourage use of inside voices and employ “Sit down, please” discipline, Farm School is active and happily boisterous. Added to the program in 2011, the initially small group quickly grew. All age sessions fill up fast.
Participants enjoy hands-on experience with chickens by feeding, watering and egg gathering. Kids make and feed pig slops. They fill goats’ hay bags, learn how to trim hooves, help break winter ice in troughs and even milk the nannies.
Graff is adamant that children learn responsibility proactively.
“I like to develop in them an eye for what needs to be done,” she said. “Trough low? Fill it.”
Other tasks include replacing fence panels, cleaning chicken coops, hauling aged manure to the garden and raking it in. Some children helped build a plastic-covered hoop house that warms soil for early crop starts. In springtime, there are bees to feed and water.
Graff admits to little initial knowledge of the busy pollinators other than the problem of colony collapse, but she needed bees around her garden and orchard. Plus, she loves honey.
Graff brought in hives and learned as she went. Now, she teaches kids bee psychology. Younger children discover how a hive operates — and learn to steer clear. Older students don bee suits to approach hives and study the activity. Children learn that queens lay eggs that hatch into workers. Most of these are females that die in winter. The queen and a select few workers survive in a ball with the well-protected monarch in the center. Bees perform spring cleaning by pushing dead companions out of the hive. Guards at its entrance defend against wasps and determine by scent if approaching bees belong.
The hives occupy the middle of the apple orchard where their residents’ pollen cravings are satisfied by abundant blossoms of Golden Delicious and other varieties.
Summer brings camps: Farm, Horse, Primitive Skills, Pony Makeover and themed horse camps run throughout summer.
Primitive Skills classes for ages seven and up teach primitive fire starting, knife skills, cordage, edible wild plant identification and other survival techniques.
And, on the first Thursday each month, for just $1 per child, casual Family Farm Day offers a themed lesson, like goat or chicken, and opportunity to just hang out, play and enjoy a bring-your-own bag lunch in the orchard.
The Graffs cherish their home-grown community. Everyone shares work, fun, information and nature’s bounty. And, not exempted from the camaraderie and sheer delight, the buck on the tack room wall continues to laugh along with everybody else at Laughing Buck Farm. ❖