A Most Unusual Kind of Farming

6/5/2013

"Most people would not consider that owning and operating a zoo is much like owning and operating a farm," says Len Cross. Along with his wife Roberta, Cross has owned the Fort Rickey Discovery Zoo in Rome, N.Y., for 34 years.

Fort Rickey (formerly the Fort Rickey Game Farm) is a seasonal zoo that is open to the public from late May through October. Although dealing directly with the public is not typical on most farms, it is a big part of the operation at Fort Rickey during the summer and fall. However, once the season ends, the daily responsibilities at this popular local attraction are much like those on most farms.

From fall to spring, Cross gets up each day, has a quick breakfast, slips on his muck boots and heads out to take care of his stock. According to Cross, chores generally take three hours (actually two and a half, but he visits the corner store for a coffee break). Although his "stock" includes exotic animals such as ring-tailed lemurs, wolves, wallabies and reptiles, he says his responsibilities are basically the same: prepare diets, feed, water, clean and do a quick health check. Currently, Cross is handling chores during the week and brings in a hired hand to help on weekends. Afternoons are spent on maintenance or in the office.

Most people would guess that caring for a wide range of nondomestic animals would be radically different than caring for farm animals, but according to Cross, the differences are small. "Preparing the diets is simple. Ground beef for the carnivores is available locally from pet food suppliers. We receive hundreds of pounds a week of fresh produce free from a local grocery store. Local feed suppliers sell diets for wallabies, emus, waterfowl, primates and many other exotic species. The hoofed stock, including buffalo, deer, goats, llama, alpaca, sheep and ponies, thrive on beautiful second-cutting grass hay."

Even dealing with manure is straightforward and certainly much easier than on most farms. According to Cross, the waste is composted and spread on-site with his Massey Ferguson 135 and 50-bushel manure spreader.

Obviously, the summer and fall seasons are not typical of most farms. At Fort Rickey they continue to have the daily feeding and cleaning responsibilities as well as dealing with 200 to 300 visitors a day. The Crosses employ 8 to 10 young high school and college students for the summer and fall. "These young employees become our ambassadors," says Cross. "They do the daily chores before opening. Then they assist the public throughout the rest of the day in the petting areas, doing animal shows, running the concession stand, gift shop and taking admissions." Cross continues, "These young employees are a tremendous asset to the operation. Working with them and mentoring them has become one of the most positive aspects of this business."

Also, like most farms, the cash flow is entirely seasonal. "We make money for 150 days and spend it for 365," says Cross with a smile. "It sure teaches you how to budget your finances." And like all farmers, the Crosses have had good years and not-so-good years. "Over the years, we have had to learn to adapt, to change and restructure our business model," Cross says. "At this point, we have worked out all of the kinks and are enjoying steady, profitable operations."

The Crosses have raised three sons on their zoo/farm. "I always stressed that this zoo was my dream and encouraged the boys to follow their own," says Cross. Then he laughs and adds, "It is the only time all three of my sons took my advice." The boys have grown and are following their dreams in Boston, Brooklyn and Boulder.

Thirty-four years have come and gone, and now the Crosses have begun the search for "just the right family" to move the operation forward for the next 34 years. "As we begin the search," says Cross, "it occurs to us that one good possibility is to find a young farm family that loves the country/farming lifestyle and is familiar with hard work. Perhaps it will be a farming couple that already has an operation but is ready to try something new."

Cross continues, "Not all people are cut out for dealing with the public. On the other hand, the real joy of this business is the feedback we get from our visitors. We are very fortunate to be in the unique business of building relationships between children and animals. Many of our guests will have had little or no opportunity to connect with animals. So when they visit Fort Rickey and we see their faces light up and hear their giggles, we cannot help but smile. Some days my face just hurts from smiling so much."

"We love being around our animals, but it is the pleasure we get from sharing this love with our visitors that really gives meaning to our efforts," says Cross.

He adds, "In the end, we are mostly farmers. But rather than producing crops or milk or meat, we are marketing healthy family fun and important lifelong connections between children and animals." And, he says with a laugh, "The public pays us to feed our animals!"

More information is available on the website at www.fortrickey.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/fortrickey.