OLD TOWN, Maine — People go to the J. Franklin Witter Teaching & Research Center at the University of Maine to see the animals. But behind the scenes, the students who work there are the ones who make the whole visit worth it.
The public had a special chance to watch the students in action on Sunday afternoon for the Witter Wonderland event, a four-hour Christmas festival in which students dressed up the farm animals up in holiday outfits and decorated the barn in the spirit of Christmas.
The 50 or so students who make up the Maine Animal Club, Drill Team and the Icelandic Sheep Club, all of which are associated with UMaine, tend to the farm, care for its nearly 120 animals and even pick out their nicknames — and they do it almost entirely on their own, year-round.
With lots of in-class training but minimal supervision, the students who run Witter Farm have a unique experience of working in person with the animals. It’s rewarding for them, many students emphasized, but it’s by no means easy work.
It’s these students who rise at 3 a.m. and make their way to Witter to milk the cows and monitor their assigned animals around the clock when they are in labor.
Sometimes this means positioning a phone next to a notebook during class to watch how the animal is doing. On some occasions, it means running out of class early to be at the farm.
Last semester, students showed up at Witter every four hours — although some even stayed through the night — to bottle feed the six new piglets whose mother couldn’t feed them. From sunrise to sunset, they put in the long hours it takes to ensure the animals have everything they need.
“We’re pretty independent here,” said third-year animal science major Hannah Dill.
They’re also the first ones to respond when something goes wrong with their animals. When a beloved animal dies, it can be difficult to cope with, students Hadley Moore and Lilla Tilton-Flood said.
This year was the first one in which the Maine Animal Club got to raise its own piglets from birth. Students cared for the two sows throughout both pregnancies and helped birth the babies. They were the ones who also had to deal with the aftermath of losing 13 of the 19 piglets born to the two mothers.
Throughout the loss of the piglets, the students said it still was a rewarding opportunity to be a part of something so special. “It sucked a lot but it was a really great experience,” said Tilton-Flood.
UMaine has a long history of raising farm animals at its Orono campus — since 1947 to be exact — when both chickens and cows occupied the land along with students. The farm, which has been relocated to Old Town, allows students to test out the skills learned in their classes.
Witter is also the place where some students realize they don’t actually have what it takes to be a farmhand, Moore said. They see most people drop out of the animal and veterinary science program after trying to milk a cow for the first time when they find out it’s not what they thought it would be.
Moore is a fourth-year animal and veterinary science student who has presided over the Maine Animal Club for the last three years.
She said that a lot of first-year students join the program thinking it’s what they want to do but eventually drop out when they realize the level of commitment it requires. “It takes up a lot of time … it’s hard work,” another student said.
While UMaine students have been tending to animals for generations at Witter Farm, only recently have the clubs started to promote events to get the public involved with their work.
One of their goals is to get people from the school community to visit the farm more often. But that has proved to be difficult, especially as it seems that many students on campus don’t know it exists.
“Not a lot of people know we have a farm on campus,” said Makayla Krebs, president of the Drill Team. In recent years, the groups have started hosting new events such as the Witter Wonderland around Christmastime and Trick or Trot, a Halloween-themed event, and a spring showcase to bring in more people.
But as community support has increased, the students have had to start charging admission into these programs.
This fall when they held Trick or Trot, the clubs purchased $400 worth of candy, all of which they had given away within the first 30 minutes of the event, Krebs said.
Still, it seems the students prefer it this way. They want people to come and see how they care for the animals at Witter Farm and the special bond they create with them. For these students, the long days, early morning feedings, even shoveling the manure, is all worth it.