Low milk prices drive dairy farmers to open petting zoo

ORWELL — The look on Alysa Farley’s face was one of serene happiness as she carried a three-week-old lamb named Ernie around the barn at Independence Petting Farm last week.
And Ernie, for his part, was perfectly content.
Farley was one of about 12 second-graders from Shoreham Elementary School visiting the farm run by Crystal and Corey D’Avignon. Now in its fourth year, the petting farm is drawing folks from all over. Located on 227 acres on Old Stage Road in Orwell, the place offers visitors the quintessential Vermont farm experience. The D’Avignons have leased the property from owners Ron and Maryann Mullins for the last 14 years. Before the petting farm, they milked a herd of cows, but low milk prices led them to sell the herd.
“We figured if we started a petting farm, it would help make ends meet,” Crystal D’Avignon said. “Everyone laughed at us. It didn’t save the cows, but it’s the best move we made.”
The couple’s main business is hay, and they produce roughly 22,000 square bales a year. They also do maple sugaring and caretaking of other people’s farm animals.
“So other farm folks can take a vacation once in a while,” D’Avignon explained.
She added that she enjoys life more now without the stress of worrying about milk prices. And what’s not to enjoy when you’ve got baby pigs, baby ducks, baby rabbits, kittens, piglets and seven pygmy goats called “The Seven Dwarfs”?
The old barn is clean with plenty of room for children to wander from pen to pen, holding baby animals and cooing over their overwhelming cuteness. Sal, a large, 10-year-old Rottweiler/German shepherd mix, strolls around the barn and leans on anyone willing to pet him. Ernie the lamb follows D’Avignon wherever she goes.
“We got him when he was three days old, so he got pretty attached,” she explains.
The baby rabbits are a big hit, and Paige Hescock, 6, cuddles a black-and-white-spotted bunny as she chats with her friends.
A walk down the barn aisle brings us to Mohawk the goat, who is up on his hind legs begging for attention over the stall door. He playfully tries to nibble the shirts and coats of those standing close enough.
Across the way are the seven pygmy goats, donated by a Canadian woman who was diagnosed with cancer and had to simplify her life. At least two of the goats are pregnant and will give birth any day.
Next door is Miss Piggy, a 500-pound sow taking a rest in the pen as her brood of nine hyper piglets run circles around her.
Despite the more exotic fauna, D’Avignon said the kittens are the most popular animals at the petting farm. She currently has a half dozen seven-week-old kittens in the barn, and the population rotates constantly as they are routinely adopted.
“I’ve moved 18 kittens so far this year,” she said.
Admission to the petting farm — turn west off Route 22A onto Cook Road south of the village and follow the signs — is $5 per person and children ages two and younger are free.
Outside the main barn, D’Avignon is followed closely by Ernie as she shows off the old hay barn and its post-and-beam construction. Independence Farm dates back to 1786 and has changed little in that time, save for the fact that the main barn burned down in the 1920s.
“They rebuilt that barn in five days,” D’Avignon said.
As she makes her way back toward the barn, a squat, black potbelly pig appears from around the corner and slowly ambles past, snorting a greeting from a face only a mother could love. Her jowls and brow hang over her features, making her eyes almost indecipherable as her belly hangs an inch or two above the ground.
“That’s ‘P.C.’” D’Avignon said. “She was donated, as well. P.C. stands for Pork Chop.”
P.C. continues on around the barn, past a rabbit in the driveway. The coonhounds are sleeping in the sun with a chicken, a rooster and two ducks. Life is good at Independence Farm.

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