- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - They aren’t the typical sources of honking in Worcester; but the permanent protection of the city’s last working farm ensures that the geese, sheep, and humans enjoying Donker Farm have a safe future.

“Who’da thunk it in little old Worcester, you know?” said Colin Novick, executive director of the Greater Worcester Land Trust, which is preserving the farm.

Donker Farm currently houses three sheep, five geese, a flock of about 30 chickens and two standard poodles named Billy and Bobby, the latter of whom alternately protects the animals from being eaten or harassed by coyotes and playfully harasses the geese himself.

Overseeing it all is Elisabeth Donker, 73.

In many ways, Ms. Donker and the farm could be described as that very familiar of American archetypes: the immigrant settler who through resourcefulness, hardwork and creativity coaxed a life and a homestead out of the fertile soil of a new land.



But this is 2015. And Ms. Donker is anything but a prototype from a dusty history book.

So while a historical relic of Worcester’s agricultural past, Donker Farm is also a contemporary experiment on how to accommodate land preservation, agriculture, affordable and yet healthy and local food and products, and promote environmental and economic sustainability.

All of which can be neatly encapsulated in a new (and very narrow) stile, or gate that allows humans, but prevents livestock, to pass through a fence.

“Here’s the thing, you need to be able to accommodate how you’re going to make sure the animals stay put even though a trail hiker comes in,” explained Mr. Novick. “So we’re actually doing English trail stiles on the meadow because, well, the sheep need to graze, and again, the City of Worcester with trail stiles so you can cross the grazing meadow is just plain magical. It’s pretty darn cool.”

Donker Farm is a roughly 23-acre mix of woodland, field, and pasture at the end of Tory Fort Lane near Tatnuck Square. It was officially established as North Bend Farm in 1888, and Ms. Donker traced the property back through three prior families since the land was first settled.

Animals have been raised at the farm continuously since before local zoning prohibited livestock and commercial farming within city limits.

Ms. Donker also has raised animals since as long as she can remember.

“My parents had animals, and they ate them; we had rabbits and I said ‘oh my God, my rabbits are gone, oh they must have run away!,’ ” said Ms. Donker, mimicking her voice as a young girl … then abruptly making her voice more gruff and deep to imitate her father. “Well, we have them tonight for supper, yup.’ “

Ms. Donker immigrated to the United States in 1963 and met her husband, the late Peter Donker, a former reporter at the Telegram & Gazette, in February 1964 - introduced because they both had the same Dutch accent. They were married that May. The couple was friendly with the Sayre family who lived on the farm until selling the farmhouse in 1968. Ten years later, the farmhouse was again for sale. Remembering Ms. Donker had once mentioned wanting to own the property, the new owners contacted the Donkers and sold them the house that Valentine’s Day. Learning that the Donkers had bought the home, the Sayres family sold them the adjacent 20-acre lot.

That’s when the farming began, borne of necessity.

“Coming to America, the eggs here tasted like fish,” Ms. Donker said. “I couldn’t eat the eggs and I said the first thing we do here is get a couple of chickens and have eggs. So from there I got two sheep - they happened to be pregnant . having it and doing it yourself, that’s how it started.”

Ms. Donker added that she was also “an unemployable person,” and the couple had barely scraped together enough money for the additional land. So she decided to contribute to the household finances by becoming as self-sufficient as possible - raising sheep for their wool and hand knitting sweaters for her children, raising goats for milk and hair (fiber), and rabbits for angora. Meanwhile she is also an artist. Ms. Donker painted, wove textiles, knitted, and started her own line of handmade and handpainted pottery showcasing Worcester scenes and called Worcesterware.

“I say that’s how I became rich and famous, but I really didn’t,” Ms. Donker said.

Meanwhile, Worcester was changing. Suburban sprawl was encroaching on the rural landscape, changing the flow of water running through the Donker’s property and bringing in neighbors with different ideas of rural living.

“People buy houses, they say we’re living in nature,” Ms. Donker said, recounting the houses that have been built along the road since she and her husband bought their home and that a builder had once proposed 80 homes for their property. “They put in a two-car garage, they put in a swimming pool, and they get a dog and then they’re not in nature anymore.”

The inhabitants of the farm also changed; the Donkers’ two children grew up and moved out, and the goat herd was sold. Peter Donker died in 2013, and the family needed to decide the future of the farm.

The Greater Worcester Land Trust was there to assist.

Mr. Novick said that he and the Donker family had been informally discussing the possibility of having the land trust buy the farm for many years. The property is adjacent to conservation land at Cook’s Pond in the city, as well as protected open space in Leicester, Holden and Paxton, part of what Mr. Novick called the Four Town Greenbelt.

“Not only is the opportunity to retain the last farm in city of Worcester a big thing, not only because it is a working landscape, a farm landscape, not only because it’s beautiful, it’s also a greenbelt,” Mr. Novick said.

The land trust bought the farm from the Donker family this spring for $628,000, and signed a conservation restriction that ensures the working aspects of the farm remain in operation and the undeveloped land remains as open space. The property was appraised at $995,000 but was sold at a lesser price to ensure the farm’s preservation.

Mr. Novick said the land trust will develop a land management plan for the property that includes allowing activities such as hiking, camping, sustainable forestry and, of course, continuing to raise animals. He envisioned the farm as a space for educational programs, cooperative farming for those who want to learn about raising domestic animals (perhaps even a way to resolve the urban chicken demands), a home for a goat herd that could be used to eat invasive species throughout the city, and also a spot for outdoor recreation.

“There have been a lot of people who have been very excited about farming and having an opportunity to farm in Worcester, to raise chickens, etc.” Mr. Novick said. “Now we have a spot in the city which is exempt from the laws that hold people back, and if we can work with folks, we can make a place where that is available.”

It’s an effort that has the support of several groups involved with farming in Worcester, including the mayor’s office and the Planning Department, which is working on a project to amend the zoning code to allow for commercial agriculture in the city.

Current zoning allows people to have gardens and grow food for personal use. But zoning prohibits commercial agriculture on any properties smaller than 5 acres and raising livestock within city limits. But urban farming advocates cited several factors - including greater emphasis on preventative health care, the local food movement, anti-obesity programs promoting fresh food, and greater environmental awareness - as making policymakers reconsider such zoning.

“It’s really clear that there’s a cultural moment right now where many, many people are focused on the question of food and where does our food come from, how is it produced, and how can we get involved in producing it ourselves,” said Steve Fischer, executive director of the Regional Environmental Council, which coordinates a network of 64 school and community gardens (six of which are urban farms that sell their produce) throughout the city.

While Donker Farm would be considered “peri-urban” or “suburban farming” compared with having a farm in a vacant lot surrounded by downtown row houses or among former industrial sites, many of the urban farming programs in Worcester today share some elements of the Donker Farm’s history and future.

In order to operate as farms and conform with zoning codes, urban farms are affiliated with local nonprofits. Just like Ms. Donker wanted fresh eggs, many of the urban farms grew out of a desire to provide fresh, local produce that was unavailable in the current neighborhood. REC also collaborates with the Ascentria Care Alliance and several other organizations to provide low-income teens and recent international refugees with an opportunity to supplement their incomes by learning new farming skills and selling produce. The organizations have also learned that the farming and community gardens promote neighborhood connections and local investment, provide valuable life skills and instill community pride.

Meanwhile, in response to greater demands to institute urban farms, Mayor Joseph M. Petty filed an order with the city council in January 2014 to investigate amending the zoning code to allow for urban agriculture.

“Locally grown produce is in greater and greater demand in our supermarkets and on our dinner plates,” Mr. Petty said in an email. “I see urban agriculture as a growing part of our economic and food landscape. I don’t know that it will ever be the silver bullet for food production or for economic development but it’s another tool in the toolbox. People in our urban cores require healthy options for food, and urban farms and farmers markets are one way to address these inequalities.”

Ms. Donker said she sees these all as positive developments that will better connect people and help them cultivate a connection with land and understand her connection with her “paradise” of Donker Farm.

“I tried to do it as natural as possible, that’s my way; I’m not the queen know-it-all, I just do it the way I feel honorable about, not take advantage of animals. Not to take advantage of nature, just try to keep it preserved for other people to enjoy,” said Ms. Donker. “Our thing, coming from Holland where they don’t have much land, either, is try to get as much land as you can and keep it green forever and forever; which has now happened, and I’m very happy about that.”

___

Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), https://www.telegram.com

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