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Building community awareness at Fairbanks' Turning Light Farm

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Posted: Sunday, December 5, 2010 1:20 pm | Updated: 1:40 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - All the while Cat Whitney worked as a veterinary technician she became more and more aware of the bond between humans and animals.

Now she is demonstrating that bond herself at Turning Light Farm, a nonprofit learning facility off Chena Hot Springs Road. The 40 acre farm is home to Icelandic sheep, yaks and poultry.

“It was founded to model human-animal interdependence,” Whitney said.

The inspiration to start this type of farm struck in 2007 when Whitney worked as the interim livestock manager for Heifer International’s learning center in Massachusetts. Two years later she started Turning Light and dreams of it eventually becoming an official Heifer facility.

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, with Martha Stewart (yes, that Martha Stewart) living up the street, Whitney considered herself the “black sheep” of the family. Feeling that she didn’t fit in led her to flee the East Coast for Alaska at the age of 18. She earned degrees in English and biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then studied to become a veterinary technician in Denver.

For 12 years, Whitney moved to various towns, using her vet tech skills, but in 2005 a longtime goal came true when she went to Uganda as a volunteer with a non-governmental agency.

Helping widows of the AIDS crisis raise cattle, Whitney began to see how animals are not only a protein source, but provide material wealth and dairy products.

Whitney has found the job as Turning Light’s steward challenging.

“Farming is not a task to be done by a 100-pound woman,” she said. “We do the best we can.”

Another obstacle to overcome is building community awareness, which Whitney believes is crucial to the farm’s success.

The upside is an office that encompasses the great outdoors. “I’m outside every day and I can see the subtle changes of the season,” Whitney said. “It’s amazing how your sense of time changes. The direct connection with the land is the best part.” Connecting people to the land is another bonus.

“When you pick up an egg that is still warm from the hen and put it in a child’s hand they connect,” Whitney said.

She is working with Ameri-Corps VISTA to start a youth incentive program where high-risk students could do farm work to fulfill requirements and learn literacy skills for high school graduation.

Another plan is to invite young people sentenced in youth court to perform service hours at the farm.

Meanwhile Whitney, 36, is charged with caring for the critters, from milking the sheep to butchering lambs to spinning the yak hair into fiber. The yak help out as draft animals and have learned to pull carts.

At this time her two yaks are both castrated males but she eventually hopes to raise yak for meat.

Turning Light has a 300-square-foot garden and apple trees. Whitney is open to a community supported agriculture venture but needs someone to run it.

When not working the farm she teaches a distance course in veterinary medical terminology for UAF. For fun she does spinning and knitting and writes novels, short stories and poetry.

In January, Whitney will give a public presentation about the farm at the Noel Wien Library and will begin selling animal shares. Whitney said each animal will have its own Facebook page. An open house for the public to visit the farm is also under consideration.

“It’s exciting. There are so many opportunities on this piece of land,” she said. “People love the idea.”

Whitney’s philosophy is to simply keep moving forward. She is confident the farm will be successful and become a valuable community educational site. “It will work,” she said. “And it will work in its own timeframe. People want to be involved with the land.”

Back East, her family is still concerned for her sanity, but Whitney just laughs it off.

“This is the place for me. People here are nice and quirky. You can just be yourself.”

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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