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Down on the farm

Heifer Ranch offers educational experience

By Tammy Keith

This article was originally published August 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. Updated July 31, 2013 at 10:25 a.m.


Valerie Lloyd, 14, left, and Grace Vollmers, 14, both from Houston, Texas, pick cherry tomatoes from the organic gardens at Heifer Ranch in Perryville.

It’s all about education at Heifer Ranch.

“Our goal is to educate people about hunger and poverty by focusing on the principles practiced by Heifer International,” said Nate Williams, global education manager at the ranch.

According to its website, Heifer International, with its world headquarters in Little Rock, provides livestock, trees, seeds and training in environmentally sound agriculture to families in more than 50 countries, including the United States. Recipients agree to share one or more of their animals’ offspring and the training they receive with others in need in what Heifer calls “Passing on the Gift.” This practice multiplies the benefit of the original gift and allows recipients to become donors.

“We have approximately 17,000 visitors a year at the ranch, which is a working ranch,” Williams said. “During the school year, most of those visitors are schoolchildren. During the summer, we see mainly members of church groups and other similar groups, Heifer supporters who have never been to the ranch, and conference and other groups that need meeting space. Plus, we have between 2,000 and 3,000 ‘drop-ins’ annually.”

Upon arrival, visitors are given a tour of the ranch. A variety of animals can be found, including some typical barnyard specimens such as chickens, pigs, goats and cows, but also some that are not often seen in Arkansas — water buffaloes, camels and llamas.

“Some of the more exotic animals we have, such as the water buffalo, are vital in some of our worldwide projects and give a good example of what we teach,” Williams said.

“If you ask a kid what animals are good for, most will say ‘meat’ and ‘milk.’ But anybody who works with livestock will tell you they are worth a lot more than that.”

At this point, the kids, and others, learn about the Seven M’s of Livestock: meat; milk; manure, which can be used for fertilizer or dried and burned as fuel; muscle, or draft power, used for hauling; materials, such as feathers used in bedding or wool used in clothing; money; and motivation.

“If you live hand to mouth and you suddenly have a resource [animal], you have a source of hope,” Williams said. “It brings you a smile in the morning. It gets you up and going; it’s motivation.

“A water buffalo is a Seven-M animal,” he said, commenting on some of the M’s.

The females provide milk — it’s used to make Buffalo mozzarella.

Weighing in at about 2,500 pounds, a water buffalo is a “lot of animal that can provide a lot of power,” Williams said. “And it has a long life, typically about 25 years. So, you get a lot of benefits from one animal.”

Williams said the water buffalo is found in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, where Heifer International operates projects.

Thailand is also one of the focus countries in a global village maintained on the ranch. Here, participants (this is a fee-based program) come together as a family for 24 hours to experience the world of poverty, living without everyday conveniences such as electricity. They spend the night in a typical Thai dwelling.

“They are given a basket with some food and cookware, but no family will have everything it needs,” Williams said. “They will have to learn to work together to survive, or not. They will decide whether to trade, steal or borrow from other families, or how to work together, as we hope, as a global community to make it work.

“We tell the facilitators there are no bad decisions. When the night is over, we do a debriefing and talk about what has happened. We talk about the implications of their decisions locally and on a global scale. Our goal is to show them that every single individual, whether it’s a first-grader or an 80-year-old retiree, has an obligation to do something about poverty and hunger, whether it’s volunteering in a soup kitchen or starting their own global movement.”

In addition to livestock and the global village, Heifer Ranch hosts a Community Supported Agriculture program. Seasonal produce is grown as “USDA certified organic” and pre-sold to shareholders, who pick up the produce at Heifer headquarters in Little Rock.

According to the website, CSA is a “sustainable food production system that aims to re-establish the competitiveness of small farms, strengthen the community by reconnecting people to the land and protect the environment.”

Williams said this “enables the farmer to sell his produce from the garden in advance, getting cash up front.

“This allows for some mitigating risks if the crop is not good, but conversely, if it is a bumper year, the farmer will have excess to sell.”

Visitors to the ranch on a recent Monday included members of two church groups from Texas: Christ the King Lutheran Church of Houston and University Park United Methodist Church of Dallas. They were visiting as part of the ranch’s “alternative break” program.

Irmi Willcockson of Houston said this is the fourth year for Christ the King Lutheran Church to bring a small group of middle-school students to the ranch for a week, where lodging and meals are provided. The group included nine young people and two adults, who were found picking tomatoes from the organic garden.

“Our church has supported Heifer for a long time,” Willcockson said. “Coming here is one way we can learn about what our gifts are doing and get hands-on experience. Plus, it’s a service project for our youth.

“We are looking forward to our night in the global village. There is always a lot of discussion after experiencing it.”

Other visitors on Monday included Nancy Armstrong of Bloomington, Ind., and her two children, Andreina Soto, 3, and Mateo Soto, 6. They were especially excited about seeing the camels.

“We are on vacation,” Armstrong said. “We are here to meet my aunt and uncle, Bette and Merrill Clark of Hot Springs Village. They are longtime supporters of Heifer. And I worked here during one summer and one spring break.”

To schedule a tour of Heifer Ranch, call (501) 889-5124. There is no charge for “drop-in” tours, which can accommodate up to seven people at a time. All other programs are fee-based.

More information is also available at


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