Annie has a new barn-mate.
Last month, Hard Bargain Farm’s beloved dairy cow, who is visited by an estimated 2,000 elementary and middle school students every year, was joined by Opal, a former 4-H Jersey cow who arrived at the farm from Hawksfield Farms in Michigan. It has taken her a little while to settle in, but now Opal feels right at home in her new surroundings.
Assistant farm manager Eileen Watts said that one of the reasons Opal was a good fit for Hard Bargain Farm’s agricultural education and stewardship programs is that she has been milked by hand, which is something of a rarity these days. Cows that are used to being milked by machine, she said, often take a while to become comfortable with hand milking.
Charles County residents who remember milking Annie on a school trip to the Accokeek farm would find that Opal requires a slightly different technique, which Watts demonstrated — beginning with a gentle pinch with thumb and forefinger at the base of the udder. It’s a technique that’s quickly learned, however.
“All the Jerseys we’ve had have had an excellent temperament,” said Watts, who has been at the farm since the late 1970s. “And we don’t need that much milk. We just need enough milk for the kids to see.”
Opal and Annie are milked twice a day, at around 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., often by students visiting the farm for day-long or overnight programs.
The farm is a showpiece of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which was established in 1954 by Alice’s husband, Henry, to preserve the farm and surrounding property, which includes the Fergusons’ home atop a hill with a stunning view of the Potomac, and a log cabin that remains a popular tourist attraction.
The Fergusons’ property originally extended to the Potomac River, but in 1968 the foundation donated the riverfront land to the National Park Service for the establishment of Piscataway Park. Today, the foundation oversees 330 acres of farmland and forested trails.
Opal and Annie share the farm with two Boer goats named Dot and Dash, several sheep, a donkey and a pig, several chickens, and two cats named Alice and Fergie that, not surprisingly, love to hang around the dairy barn during the milking.
“Mrs. Ferguson, when she bought this place in 1922 or so, she tackled the agriculture,” Watts said. “She wanted to do everything state-of-the-art, and just dabbled in all kinds of things. Besides crops of various kinds, she had dairy cows and horses — she loved riding.”
Ferguson, a painter who trained at the Corcoran School of Art, designed and built the dairy barn herself, installing hot-water sinks and stanchions for six cows, although it is not known whether the farm ever had that many cows at once.
Many Charles County adults remember with fondness their school trips to the farm — at one time, all fifth graders in the Charles County public school system visited the farm as part of their environmental education. Since the opening of the school system’s Nanjemoy Creek Environmental Education Center, however, trips to Hard Bargain Farm have become an optional activity.
Even so, an average of 10,000 students a year participate in the foundation’s agricultural, environmental and arts programs that include nature hikes and trash cleanup activities along the Potomac waterfront.
Many classes are held in the foundation’s new Living Building Education Center, the only structure of its kind in Maryland. The solar-powered wooden building was constructed primarily from non-toxic materials sourced as close to the farm as possible, and has the ability to produce as much fresh water as it consumes.
During the summer months, its solar panels produce more electricity than the building requires and the foundation is able to sell the excess electricity.
“This building is a built solution to an environmental challenge,” said Suzanne Hogan, the foundation’s director of institutional development. “The idea is that it isn’t just what comes out of the tailpipe, that there are solutions to our environmental challenges in basically every facet of our lives, including the buildings we live in and the ways we live in them.”
Hogan said that in addition to renovating the farm’s signature barn — now painted blue to more closely resemble its appearance in Alice Ferguson’s time — and a new lodge, the foundation is also in the process of changing its membership model and scheduling new community engagement activities such as star-gazing parties on the lawn.
Hogan said that the public response to new programs has been overwhelmingly positive, with registrations filling up fast after spreading by word of mouth.
“Seeing how people are responding to some of the opportunities, we’re going to continue to tweak [our programs] because we really want people to be able to come back to Hard Bargain Farm,” Hogan said. “We know people want to.”
That’s good news for Opal and Annie, who can look forward to many more years of excited young Charles County students who are eager to meet them.