For 30 years, the Keyes family has run farms that yield quite an unusual crop -- city kids.
Ken Keyes and his wife, Debbie, have toiled non-stop for months preparing for their October harvest -- 22,000 children, parents, teachers, Scout leaders and day-care leaders who will tour the new Green Meadows Farm in Glen Burnie.
Keyes, his parents and his 12 siblings, originally Wisconsin farmers, bring "farms" to cities all over the country. In county parks, they build pens and tents, ship in hundreds of farm animals, then openthe gates to thousands of children who otherwise might never milk a cow, cradle a baby pig or pet a 2-day-old chick.
"You can't affordto buy a farm this close to the city and do this," says Keyes.
"We offer a chance to bring every kind of farm animal to the city, so school kids can learn what goes on on the farm. The amount of exposurechildren have to farm animals is so limited."
The newest in a chain of Green Meadows Farms will open at Friendship Park in October, then again for another month this spring.
The couple and their two elementary school-age sons moved to Anne Arundel County permanently inSeptember to manage the new children's farm. They expect to open fortwo months each year.
They'll spend months prior to opening building equipment and booking tours. Then they'll spend more months tearing down temporary pens and returning animals to their owners -- farmers in Wisconsin, Florida or in the area.
Green Meadows farms in nine other cities, including the original family farm 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee, Wis., all operate similarly. Each is managed by a member of the large family.
When children and their chaperons visit the farm, at a rate of $7 per person, the group is assigned one of about 30 tour guides. Guides lead the children on two-hour tours, tailoring their talks to the children's levels.
The children stop to eatbag lunches at picnic tables before picking out their own pumpkins. Children also can take pony rides or hayrides on a tractor-pulled wagon. During the visit, each child learns to milk a cow.
Keyes' parents began running a similar operation in 1964 on their own beef and dairy farm as Keyes was growing up. In 1982, Keyes' brother, an accountant for a Houston oil company, decided to carry on the family tradition and open a seasonal "farm" for children in Houston.
Since then, other siblings have left non-farm-related jobs to open Green Meadows farms in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Florida and in San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange, Calif.
Keyes, a former air traffic controller, and his wife tried running a farm near Detroit last spring but found the area economy too depressed to support the business. They chose Glen Burnie because of its easy access to both Washington and Baltimore.
"This is a great opportunity to live in a few different places, work for ourselves and be in a business to make people happy," Debbie Keyes says. "It's a fun thing to do."
But coming to an area where no one knows their business presented a challenge for the couple.
They searched among area parks for the best location and workedout the terms with the county. They spent the summer building equipment in Wisconsin and finding farmers who would rent out pigs, cows, calves, chicks, ducks, geese, turkeys, mules, ponies and draft horses.For the past several weeks, they've beenhiring tour guides and booking tours.
"It's a sales job, boy," says Keyes, who's spent months on the phone with farmers, arranging deliveries of animals, timing them so animals gave birth a couple days before they arrive.
Becauseof the high overhead, the Keyes can't afford to run Green Meadows longer than a month at a time. But as attendance grows, the couple hopes to expand the number of weeks the farm stays open.
"This offers an economical way to bring agriculture or farm animals to the city," Keyes says.
Adults benefit as well as kids, he adds. "You'd be surprised how many 40-year-olds or 50-year-olds have never seen a cow upclose."