Learning about agriculture, science, and the natural environment is a life-transformative experience. Just ask Erica Fearn ’86 (CAHNR). Her early years in the UConn 4-H program shaped her career, leading to her role as executive director at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in Bloomfield.
The grandchildren of Beatrice Fox Auerbach donated the 120-acre farm to the Connecticut 4-H Development Fund in 1976. They wanted Auerfarm to be a place that people could experience as a living classroom, working farm, and outdoor recreation destination.
UConn Extension educators founded the Connecticut 4-H Development Fund and received the gift of the 120 acres from the Auerbach family. Extension managed the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in its early days, before transitioning to the non-profit board of directors and staff in place today. Fearn serves as executive director, a role she assumed in July 2019. Jennifer Cushman, the Hartford County 4-H Extension educator, and Bonnie Burr, department head and assistant director for UConn Extension, both serve in ex-officio roles on the board of directors for the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm.
“As executive director I’m responsible for just about everything for the non-profit,” Fearn says. “I develop strategy with the board, manage grants and fundraising, assure we are achieving our mission, and that we can thrive in the future, too. We want the farm to always be here and engaging people of all ages in agriculture and natural resources.”
The 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm inspires young people and adults to engage with agriculture, science, and the natural environment while learning and having fun. Fearn developed those same qualities while a member of the UConn 4-H program, and shares that with visitors to Auerfarm.
How to Grow Leaders
Fearn’s early experiences with UConn 4-H and then as an undergraduate student at UConn helped develop her leadership skills and prepare her for a career in agriculture and non-profit management.
“My time in 4-H and at UConn was huge,” she says. “I 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 gathered there and we hung out. All that peer pressure that exists for youth was not at the barn. I developed leadership skills and built confidence. 4-H teaches youth that you can take an animal and yourself and succeed somewhere – for example, a horse that runs to the middle of the ring during a saddle class may excel in showmanship instead.”
Fearn pursued a bachelor’s degree in animal science at UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources after high school. Fearn and her peers had the opportunity to travel, compete in dairy judging, and engage with other people in agriculture while studying at UConn.
UConn also led Fearn to her first nonprofit job, working for a professor at the University of Helsinki, Institute of Meat Science and Technology. She traveled to Finland while in this role, and it built the foundation for her career, all the while remaining active with 4-H.
She has volunteered with the UConn 4-H program for 29 years, and worked as a staff person and manager of the horse program at the Hartford County 4-H Camp. “Finally, UConn led me here to Auerfarm. This is a place where I can use all my skills and passions in one place – agriculture, 4-H youth development, and non-profit management.”
A Community Resource
Educational programs are a key component of the work at Auerfarm, and they annually welcome over 15,000 visitors. The farm serves as a resource for residents of Bloomfield and surrounding communities, as well as partner organizations.
“We want our local Bloomfield community engaged and we want to be an important partner for them,” Fearn says. “For example, we work with the Wintonbury pre-K program, they host their school program here, and we are working with the Harris High School AgriScience program.”
Other impacts on the community include Auerfarm’s relationship with Bloomfield Public Schools, and the fourth-grade classes from Bloomfield, Granby, and Hartford that visit through an inter-district grant for programs throughout the year. Auerfarm also works with the Farmington Valley Transition Academy and West Hartford Transition Program.
Educational programming continuously improves and expands to meet community needs. A new program, Auerfarm Growing Opportunities (GO), offers career development in four areas, agriculture, food service, hospitality, and facility management. The GO program expands existing relationships with district transition students, providing career skills.
Serving for Generations to Come
“We have great support from UConn Extension,” Fearn says. “Jen Cushman, our county Extension educator, watches out for us and gives great suggestions, provides research, and closes the gaps. Having 4-H in our name and all that encompasses means so much to me personally too, it’s our job to get people involved in UConn 4-H and all it provides.”
Auerfarm’s vision is to continue educating while ensuring that funds are available to sustain the farm. Agricultural production methods are different at Auerfarm, since everything is adapted to work with an educational lens. “We farm so that we can educate, that comes first,” Fearn says.
Auerfarm has alpacas, dairy, beef, sheep, dairy goats, chickens and rabbits, in addition to honey bees, fruit trees, and hayfields. The farm also boasts classroom space, event facilities, gardens (the UConn Extension Master Gardener Program manages the FoodShare garden there), and walking trails through the fields and woods.
“The best part of my role at Auerfarm is there are so many rewards,” Fearn says. “Every day is different. We sold eggs to a customer from Poland and I made a personal connection with her. Watching the youth thrive and grow while working with their rabbits or seeing a child develop confidence working with their Angus steer. I’ve watched a donkey transform into a beautiful animal because a kid loved it.”
Early introductions to agriculture, science, and the natural environment can shape the life trajectory of a young person, as it did for Fearn. Now, she is ensuring youth have the same opportunities with the UConn 4-H program and the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm.