OLD TOWN, Maine — Many mornings last winter, Sonja Williams climbed out of her warm bed at 3 a.m., got on her bicycle and pedaled in the cold weather and darkness from her apartment to the Witter Farm, which is adjacent to the University of Maine campus, to help milk the school’s herd of registered Holsteins.

It wasn’t a class requirement for the 22-year-old animal science major from Patten. She didn’t have to bike through the cold for credit or for a job. Instead, she helped with the 4 a.m. milking just because she wanted to.

“People would ask why,” Williams said, adding that the answer was obvious, at least to her. “Because I liked it. I love the animals.”

That kind of dedication is not unusual at the farm, officially called the J.F. Witter Teaching & Research Center, the home for the college’s teaching and research programs in animal sciences. It’s where students such as Williams help produce award-winning milk that the university sells to the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, and where they learn about breeding Holsteins and keeping the small herd healthy. The farm also has horses and sheep, but it’s the dairy cows that Williams loves best.

“I love the farm,” she said. “I like the hands-on experiences it provides, and the management practices. It’s a very positive learning experience.”

But all is not perfect at the Witter Farm. Although the flagship campus was established in 1865 as Maine’s land grant institution, complete with federal mandates to provide instruction in agriculture and conduct agricultural research, these days, some aspects of the Witter Farm are looking a bit down-at-the-heels.

Williams pointed out the dairy’s leaking roof, the old and broken cow beds and the rotted-out boards in the cow stalls as obvious problems that need to be fixed.

“Nothing is new here,” she said while walking through the dairy. “Everything is old. It needs to work. It needs to be comfortable. I know there are barns that are much worse than this. There are also barns that are better.”

Lack of funds means need for creativity

The Witter Farm has not been immune from the financial troubles of the UMaine System, where officials last March identified a $20 million budget gap across its seven campuses. Years of flat-funding at the farm have meant that the money just hasn’t been there to make necessary modernizations and improvements, according to farm officials. It costs the university about $500,000 every year to run the J.F. Witter Teaching & Research Center, which offsets that cost with milk sales of about $180,000 annually. The center also includes Rogers Farm in Stillwater, which focuses on sustainable agriculture research and education.

“Anything you do is expensive, when you’re at the level we’re at,” Josh Hatley, the superintendent of the J.F. Witter Teaching & Research Center, said this week. “I see the need for modernization, to become the leaders in research and education for the Maine agricultural community. And we have plans for that.”

Hatley, who was hired in March, already has brought energy and ideas to help solve some of the infrastructure problems at the farm, according to Jessica Leahy, the associate director of the Maine Agriculture and Forest Experiment Station and the interim associate dean for research at the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture.

“He’s made incredible improvements in efficiencies,” she said. “He’s got a lot of skills, and he brings fresh ideas on how we can approach things.”

Among other changes, Hatley recently obtained funding to renovate the dairy, a project that includes buying brand-new beds for the cows, new dividers for their stalls and a new watering system. He also found funding to replace a rotted wooden horse arena with a new metal arena, and he has increased the paddock sizes for the horses, most of which are retired from careers in harness racing.

Also, the university has shown its commitment to the farm with the recent hires of two faculty members who are interested in cutting-edge research. One has a speciality in animal diseases and the other studies gut microorganisms. He hopes to put a fistula, or porthole, into the side of one of the cows at the farm, to aid his research, according to staff members.

Lizz McLaughlin, the dairy herdsperson at the Witter Farm, said that the recent support from the UMaine administration makes her hopeful.

“I’m happy they’re supporting us now,” she said. “I think it makes a big difference when they see how much time and effort the students put in.”

Still, there are costs that can’t be covered in the baseline budget — and that is where Witter Farm faculty, staff and alumni say that they need to get creative.

“The constant challenge is always funds,” Robert Causey, an associate professor of veterinary science, said. “The budgets have certainly gotten smaller since I’ve been here. We’ve gotten money from some private donors. … It helps float the boat.”

Private donors have helped replace a broken fence, build an isolation barn for sick animals and done other crucial renovations and upgrades, he said, adding that the support is critical to the continued success of the farm.

“I think the university is doing everything it can. We’re certainly all on the same team,” Causey said. “The real problem that underscores this is that the federal government keeps shrinking [funding for higher education]. Everybody’s doing the best they can with limited resources. We have to start thinking about the University of Maine as a privately funded university, unfortunately.”

Leahy said she didn’t see it quite that way.

“We are a small land grant, and we’ve always been entrepreneurial,” she said. “I don’t see it as privatization by any means. I see it as being creative, and having Yankee ingenuity.”

Students and alumni make a difference

This isn’t the first time that the Witter Farm has had financial challenges to overcome. In the late 1990s, there was a suggestion to sell the farmland to raise funds. Twenty years ago, the farm sold most of its cows — more than 100 back then — to pay for repairs to the dairy barns. And five years before that, in 1992, the university sold its entire herd in a cost-cutting measure. Still, despite these fiscal hardships, the farm remains a vital part of the university — and that is really thanks to the students, according to Causey.

“We owe a huge debt to the students,” he said. “Whenever somebody suggests a nightmare scenario of making cuts at the farm, what keeps the farm here is student interest and student enrollment.”

The farm means the world to students such as Williams and former students such as Kiera Finucane of Topsham. She studied animal science at UMaine from 1999 to 2004 and spent a lot of time at the farm, which is why she wants to help it now. Finucane is spearheading a “Friends of Witter Farm” alumni group to help support the farm both with dollars and volunteer hours, partially because of a fear among some that the university has let the farm slip into disrepair.

The group’s first meeting will be held at the beginning of November.

“I floated the idea, asking who wants to help,” Finucane said. “The response has been just overwhelming. I think so many people have had amazing experiences on the farm that the will to support it is there. We spent so many nights and weekends at that facility. I think the chance to give back is just amazing.”

The farm also has been important to community members, who have long enjoyed visiting the cows and horses. But that aspect of the farm is changing a little, too, these days, a change that people involved with the farm say is long overdue. This summer, Hatley decided that having the farm essentially be open to visitors all the time was not good for the animals.

“We’re not staffed 24/7,” he said. “But the public was coming 24/7.”

Sometimes, overly enthusiastic visitors would even get right in the pens with animals that were giving birth, and humans wandering freely was a safety issue for both the people and the animals. That’s different now, as the farm has new, clearly-marked areas to show where visitors are allowed, a change from the more freewheeling days of the past.

It also is open only from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Monday to Friday, a change that has taken some getting used to from the public. Some parents who brought their children to Witter Farm on a weekend only to be turned away have been disappointed.

Hatley said he understands that the new hours may pose difficulties for some, but that the community has largely understood why curtailing hours was necessary as soon as the reasons have been made clear.

“It has been kind of a growing pain,” he said. “We want the community to come and enjoy the farm — but we had to put down some ground rules.”

All in all, the future of the Witter Farm is full of both change and possibility, according to those who love it.

“It’s different now than it was,” dairy herdsperson McLaughlin said. “We’re all very motivated to make this place work.”

Donations to the Witter Farm can be made by sending a check to the University of Maine Foundation, 2 Alumni Place, Orono, ME 04469 (please note Witter Farm on the check), online at www.umainefoundation.org or by calling Liz Erickson at 581-1145.