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BRATTLEBORO — Watching baby goats cavorting on a screen is surely not as much fun as watching them right there in the barn.

But when you're holed up at home, waiting out a pandemic, it's the next best thing.

"We've been thinking about virtual visits and how to bring the farm to people," said Ashley Davenport, associate program director at the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro.

Davenport said since the pandemic lockdown, the Retreat Farm has been live streaming virtual field trips to local classrooms.

"It's a fun, low-stress experience, a joyful half hour that is chaotic in a good way," she said.

Before COVID-19, Davenport said she hardly gave a thought to virtual education.

"We are so land based," she said. "We want to foster our connection to the land, and you do that by being on the land. So, how do you do that with who people can't be on the physical land?"

Recently, Davenport got what she called a "serendipitous" call from Frances Wilson, who was living with her fiance in her grandmother's house, also in Brattleboro.

"We were looking for ways to make some of our

department meetings more fun, a way to change things up a bit," said Wilson, who works for Hearst Newspapers building online platforms for its local newspapers. Wilson and her fiance, James McSweeney, who manages a business development team for Google, left New York City on

March 13 and went into quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Brattleboro. Since their arrival, they'd been engaging in team meetings, like so many people right now, via online teleconferencing platforms.

"A colleague of mine had mentioned someone giving a virtual farm tour and I thought it was a great idea," said Wilson.

So she got in contact with the folks at the Retreat Farm and the next thing you know, she's watching a farm tour with more than 70 co-workers, many with their children.

"It's been quite a challenge for those who have kids to be working from home," said Wilson. "This was an opportunity for us to bring the kids in and have something like a team outing with them."

Davenport said she was excited to offer a virtual tour of the farm. With the help of Chavah Billin, barn manager, Davenport grabbed her phone and began streaming.

"It was really great to share what we are doing and share the joy that the animals bring to us every day," she said. "It was wonderful bringing that to people who can't leave their houses or apartments."

"When Chavah took us into the barn, there were little baby goats jumping around," said Wilson. "It was adorable."

Davenport also showed off the Retreat Farm's pigs and shared with the viewers the mission of the Retreat and they learned about the Farm's latest venture — growing food to donate to local food shelves.

The video tour was such a success that Davenport conducted another for McSweeney and his team.

Davenport said she hopes the Retreat Farm can host more virtual tours, which can produce revenue to help pay for its programs.

"We don't charge for school group visits," she said.

The Farm is also offering personalized video messages featuring a farm animal. A visit to the Retreat Farm's Facebook page is also a good place to watch a video to catch up on what's going on in the barn and in the fields.

Wilson grew up in Dummerston and graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 2008. She went to college in Florida and has been living in New York City for almost seven years, this past year with Hearst.

Since returning to town, she's enjoying time as an aunt to her nephew, but not a wife, as was planned before the coronavirus.

"We were supposed to get married on Friday, May 29, but have rescheduled our wedding to next year now," said Wilson.

McSweeney is from Ireland, she said, and convincing him to wait out the pandemic in Brattleboro wasn't a hard sell.

"He's originally from Ireland, and both of us have an affinity for the countryside," she said.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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