Transforming agricultural education with former Erica Fearn
Learning about agriculture, science and the natural environment is a life transforming experience. Just ask Erica Fearn ’86 (CAHNR). Her early years in the UConn 4-H program shaped her career, which led to her being the Executive Director of Auerfarm’s 4-H Education Center in Bloomfield.
Beatrice Fox Auerbach’s grandchildren donated the 120-acre farm to the Connecticut 4-H Development Fund in 1976. They wanted Auerfarm to be a place people could experience as a living, farm-in-class classroom. outdoor activity and leisure destination.
UConn Extension educators founded the Connecticut 4-H Development Fund and received the 120-acre donation from the Auerbach family. Extension managed Auerfarm’s 4-H training center in its early days, before moving on to the board of directors and nonprofit staff in place today. Fearn is Executive Director, a role she assumed in July 2019. Jennifer Cushman, Hartford County 4-H Extension Educator, and Bonnie Burr, Department Head and Deputy Director of UConn Extension, both serve ex officio on the board of directors of the Auerfarm 4-H training center.
âAs the CEO, I’m responsible for just about everything for the nonprofit,â says Fearn. âI develop a strategy with the board, manage grants and fundraising, make sure that we achieve our mission and that we can also prosper in the future. We want the farm to always be around and engage people of all ages in agriculture and natural resources.
Auerfarm’s 4-H education center inspires young people and adults to engage in agriculture, science and the natural environment while learning and having fun. Fearn has developed these same qualities as a member of the UConn 4-H program and shares them with visitors to Auerfarm.
How to train leaders
Fearn’s early experiences with UConn 4-H, then as an undergraduate student at UConn, helped her develop her leadership skills and prepare her for a career in agriculture and farming. non-profit management.
âMy time in 4-H and at UConn has been enormous,â she says. âI got a horse and joined the local 4-H club. We lived in a small community, but 4-H was a safe space, my friends would meet there and we would hang out together. All this peer pressure that exists for young people was not in the stable. I developed leadership skills and developed my self-confidence. 4-H teaches kids that you and yourself can take an animal and be successful somewhere – for example, a horse running to the middle of the ring during a saddle lesson can excel in performing instead.
Fearn earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources after high school. Fearn and his peers had the opportunity to travel, participate in dairy judging competitions, and engage with others in agriculture while studying at UConn.
UConn also led Fearn to his first nonprofit job, working for a professor at the University of Helsinki, Institute of Meat Science and Technology. She traveled to Finland while she held this position, and it laid the foundation for her career, while remaining active with 4-H.
She has volunteered with the UConn 4-H program for 29 years and has worked as a staff member and equestrian program manager at Hartford County 4-H Camp. âFinally, UConn brought me here to Auerfarm. It’s a place where I can use all my skills and passions in one place – farming, 4-H youth development, and nonprofit management.
A community resource
Educational programs are a key part of the work at Auerfarm, and they welcome more than 15,000 visitors each year. The farm serves as a resource for residents of Bloomfield and surrounding communities, as well as for partner organizations.
âWe want our local Bloomfield community to be engaged and we want to be a meaningful partner for them,â said Fearn. “For example, we work with the pre-K program in Wintonbury, they host their school program here, and we work with the AgriScience Harris High School program.”
Other community impacts include Auerfarm’s relationship with Bloomfield Public Schools and fourth grade classes in Bloomfield, Granby and Hartford who visit through an interdistrict grant for programs throughout the year. Auerfarm also works with the Farmington Valley Transition Academy and the West Hartford Transition Program.
Educational programming is continually improving and expanding to meet the needs of the community. A new program, Auerfarm Growing Opportunities (GO), offers career development in four areas, agriculture, catering, hospitality and facilities management. The GO program expands existing relationships with transitioning students in the district, providing professional skills.
Serving future generations
âWe have great support from UConn Extension,â says Fearn. âJen Cushman, our county extension educator, watches over us and gives great suggestions, provides research and fills in the gaps. Having 4-H in our name and all that that encompasses means a lot to me too personally, it’s our job to involve people in UConn 4-H and all that it provides.
Auerfarm’s vision is to continue to educate while ensuring that funds are available to support the farm. Agricultural production methods are different at Auerfarm, since everything is adapted to work from an educational perspective. âWe cultivate so that we can educate, that’s the priority,â says Fearn.
Auerfarm has alpacas, dairy products, beef, sheep, dairy goats, chickens and rabbits, in addition to honey bees, fruit trees and hay fields. The farm also has classroom spaces, event facilities, gardens (the UConn Extension Master Gardener program runs the FoodShare garden there) and walking trails through fields and woods.
âThe best part of my role at Auerfarm is that there are so many rewards,â Fearn says. âEvery day is different. We sold eggs to a Polish client and I made a personal connection with her. Watch the youngsters flourish and grow while working with their rabbits or watch a child develop their confidence in themselves. working with his steer Angus I saw a donkey turn into a beautiful animal because a child loved it.
Early introductions to agriculture, science, and the natural environment can shape a young person’s life trajectory, as Fearn did. Now she is making sure that young people have the same opportunities with the UConn 4-H program and the Auerfarm 4-H education center.