In Carol Bishop’s eight years working at the Smiling Hill Farm Dairy Store, she’s fielded a lot of questions about the farm’s once-popular petting zoo. Now, she can finally tell people it’s coming back.

After a nearly decade-long hiatus, The Barnyard will reopen Wednesday.

Though Bishop never visited the petting zoo herself, customers frequently tell her that “it was absolutely awesome,” she said.

Despite its popularity, the five-acre exhibit of some 200 animal species had to close in 2001, following an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in Britain. According to Warren Knight, Smiling Hill Farm president, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised the farm to restrict the public’s access to its livestock, and so, The Barnyard was shut down.

After that, Knight said, “we got out of the habit of it.”

But recently, there have been a lot of changes happening at Smiling Hill, which is among the dwindling number of dairy farms in the state.

Straddling the border of Westbrook and Scarborough on County Road, Smiling Hill bottles its milk on site, as well that of Harris Farm in Dayton and Sherman Farm in East Conway, N.H. In the past couple months, it also started processing and packaging Maine’s Own Organic Milk, or MOOMilk, a company recently formed by 10 organic dairy farms in the state.

The expanded milk-processing operations called for more space, so the farm decided to move the dairy store, which was adjacent to those operations at the bottom of the hill, up to the top.

Last week, all the coolers, ice cream, milk and cheese were moved into the larger space. Not long ago, the dairy store started serving lunch, and now, there’s a place for customers to sit inside and enjoy their sandwiches, along with a view of the grazing cows.

Rich Page, the farm’s general manager, said, from a safety standpoint, the move also made sense, considering there are about 50 trucks a day that drive into the parking lot at the bottom of the hill. Children and their parents would eat their ice cream cones on picnic benches by the parking lot, which he said wasn’t an ideal situation.

“It really wasn’t a good place for the kids to play,” said Page.

But soon, for just a couple bucks, they’ll have access to a whole lot more. At first, Page said, The Barnyard won’t be as expansive as it was. The farm has cleared the vegetation that’s cropped up over the past 10 years from about half of the old site, making way for a pig pen, a bunny barn and coops for chicks and pigeons. Page said there will be calves, goats and sheep, as well.

A grain dispenser will allow children to feed the animals. There’s also a wooden train, a fire truck and a steam shovel to climb on and play. Perhaps Page’s favorite giant toy is the John Deere-osaurus, a tractor-turned-dinosaur with a jaw made out of oil pans that the kids can operate with a lever and “chomp to their hearts’ content,” he said.

Gabby Powell, 19, who started working at the dairy store this spring, said she remembers visiting the petting zoo as a kid, “running around on your sugar high, petting animals.”

Knight said he expects a lot of The Barnyard’s old regulars to return, even though they’re grown.

“A lot of the kids who visited it in the ’90s and the ’80s have children of their own now,” he said.

According to Page, through The Barnyard, Smiling Hill wants to be able to demonstrate to kids and parents alike what happens on a working farm, like how a sheep is sheared and how a cow is milked.

“What we like to show people is the best farm experience they can see,” Page said.

But, there’s something in it for Smiling Hill, too. With huge nearby competitors like Hood and Oakhurst, Page said, Smiling Hill has had to be creative in finding ways to remain a profitable business.

“This is another tool for us to generate revenue, so we can be a farm that’s going to survive in a very difficult economy,” he said.

The expanded dairy-processing operations, the new lunch menu and seating area and the reopening of The Barnyard will all play a part in keeping Smiling Hill Farm a destination in greater Portland.

“We thought it could attract people back to the farm,” Knight said. “That’s what we’re hoping for.”

Rich Page, general manager at Smiling Hill Farm on County Road, says the farm’s barnyard petting zoo, with a variety of animals and birds, will reopen on Wednesday, May 26, for the first time in nearly a decade. Staff photo by Robert Lowell


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