“Come say hello to Gordon Ramsay,” said Farmer Stanley, walking through oak-dappled shade to the edge of a sunny, fenced-in pasture. Like naming a mostly docile sheep after a mean-tempered celebrity chef, a lot of what takes place at Tilden’s Little Farm is done with a wink and a smile, reflecting the wry sensibility of the farm’s longtime steward. 

Farmer Stanley went on to describe the sunbathing ram as “mostly wool.” Ramsay won’t be sheared for at least another month. “I wouldn’t say he is gentle. He is a ram,” the farmer said. “But he is mellow. All the animals here have to be mellow and well behaved.”

Stanley Ward, 66, the caretaker of one of the East Bay’s most popular family attractions, was giving a tour of those mellow and well-behaved animals at the two-acre farm where he has been the official farmer for the past 23 years, responsible for the “routine care and maintenance of the place.” 

The Little Farm takes up two acres within the Tilden Nature Area. Credit: Joanne Furio

Little Farm is part of the Tilden Nature Area, a 740-acre preserve within the sprawling East Bay Regional Park District, which pays Ward’s salary. In this bucolic, picturesque setting, Ward is responsible for the lives of 30 chicks, 29 adult hens, 22 pullets (young chickens), 12 ewes, 10 ducks, four goats, two geese, two cows and one Ramsay.

Visiting Little Farm

Little Farm, 600 Canon Dr., Berkeley, is part of Tilden Park’s Nature Area, a 740-acre preserve containing 10 miles of hiking trails, a small lake, several ponds and the Little Farm. Phone: 510-544-2233. Hours: Dawn to Dusk. Dogs are not allowed. 

Upcoming events:

  • The Rabbit Lady takes rabbits out of their hutch for petting every Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. (weather permitting)
  • Sheep shearing at the end of June or early July

For a full schedule visit the park’s calendar of events.

Ward must negotiate a safe middle ground between the needs of the domesticated animals under his care and the desires of an enthusiastic public who want to pet and feed them. During the busiest time of year, usually the first dry weekend following the winter rains, the farm can draw some 2,000 visitors in a single day. Some visitors are so loyal, they visit on a weekly basis. 

“It’s a constant juggling act,” Ward said. “People tend to be in such good humor when they visit. The vast majority behave — so much so that it actually restores your faith in your humanity. It takes a few to spoil it for everyone.” 

Just celery and lettuce to prevent overfeeding

Visitors admiring resident pigs, Pinky and Perky, sisters who were born on the farm. Credit: Joanne Furio

Today the farm’s biggest problem, according to Ward, is overfeeding the animals. 

While Ward is responsible for doling out the animal’s feed each day, he must balance that with what visitors bring from their homes. Several signs tell visitors that they can only feed the animals celery and lettuce, low-calorie, water-heavy foods that can be consumed with no side effects. But sometimes even those with good intentions can make a mistake. 

“Miss, no carrots,” Ward told a woman preparing to give one to a cow. 

Ward explained later that the sugar in carrots can cause laminitis, an inflammation of the hoof, in cows and goats. He said that even a few carrots on top of a full stomach can bloat an already bloated animal. 

“People are giving them food all day long, and I’m not standing on guard 24 hours a day,” he said. “So we have to have one simple universal rule that applies to everyone all the time.”

Farm animals are a hungry breed. Roughly $12,000 per year is spent on hay, which the animals eat. (Straw, for bedding, costs about $4,000 annually.) 

On Monday, May 8, the afternoon of Berkeleyside’s visit, Ward had received a delivery of 30 chicks, which he’d penned in the red barn, which also includes the hen house. Chicks typically arrive a month earlier in the season, but due to the bird flu, high grain prices and supply chain issues left over from the pandemic, everything had been “thrown out of whack,” Ward said. 

Some of the 30 new chicks that arrived at Tilden’s Little Farm on May 8. Credit: Joanne Furio

Chickens and geese were outside in the barnyard, but Ward wanted to put them away and give the month-old ducklings some time in the sun and the pond. To clear the yard, Ward clapped and waved his arms. The pair of geese provided resistance, flapping and clucking, yet ultimately obeyed.

When Ward opened the door for the ducks, they came running out and immediately jumped in the small pond, playing, diving and quacking for a gathering crowd. 

“I want all of them for my birthday,” said Isaiah Schultz Bastian, 3, of El Cerrito, “and the pond.”

Frequent visitors Isaiah Schultz Bastian of El Cerrito and his grandfather, Steven Schultz, admire the ducks. Credit: Joanne Furio

Animals as ‘agricultural heirlooms’

In his role as the farm’s public interpreter, Ward is responsible for selecting the farm’s livestock, which he chooses for their size and affability. All of the animals are heritage breeds, many of which date to the 18th and 19th centuries. Ward called them “agricultural heirlooms.”  

“They’re really an antidote to modern industrial farming,” he said. “They have great potential for future generations in maintaining genetic diversity in agriculture. They’re all small, old-fashioned farmyard breeds.” 

The Alpine goats are known for milk production and make good pack animals. The sheep are made up of the Black Welsh Mountain breed, known for hard-wearing wool, and the Jacob breed, known for its soft wool. The Buff Orpington ducks lay lots of eggs, which are distributed to staff and volunteers. 

A young visitor interacts with one of the farm’s Alpine goats. Credit: Joanne Furio
Black Welsh Mountain and Jacob sheep, one of the many pre-industrial heritage breeds at the farm. Credit: Joanne Furio

There are also Buff Orpington chickens, along with New Hampshire Red, Americana and Copper Marans breeds. The farm had Milking Shorthorn cows for 20 years, but now has smaller Galloways. The Dutch rabbits are also a more petite breed and easy to handle. 

“As rabbits go they are quite tame,” Ward said. “But rabbits can be vicious animals. They have sharp claws and teeth.”

Resident pigs Pinky and Perky trace their lineage to four different heritage breeds. Each weighs about 500 pounds. They move at a glacial pace and sleep away much of the day.

“You see how tame and quiet they are,” he said. “They have been here since they were babies. They’ve never known anything else. They’re very sweet pigs.” 

From the June 11, 1976, Berkeley Gazette.

The pigs, in fact, are so gentle, sometimes Sunday youth volunteers go in and brush them. 

Even when breeds are chosen for their affability, there is sometimes one who breaks the mold. Take, for example, Jack Rabbit, who cannot be petted by visitors when volunteers take the rabbits out. “He just bites people.”

Unlike most animals in the wild, many farm animals approach visitors, looking for food, a response visitors find endearing. Even when given the opportunity to be free, most farm animals choose to stay put. 

“They know where their food and shelter is,” he said. “If they do get out, they don’t go far.”

A cow barn, a windmill, a goat barn next?

A hen house makes up a portion of the red barn, constructed by Berkeley High School students in 1955. Credit: Joanne Furio

Little Farm was created in 1955 to show urban children where their food came from. The farm’s first building, the red barn that now houses the birds and goats overnight, was funded by members of Berkeley’s Kiwanis club and constructed by students in the vocational carpentry classes at Berkeley High School. 

From the June 8, 1976, Berkeley Gazette.

Ward ended up at the farm in 2000 after living in such far-flung locales as India and Sri Lanka and receiving a bachelor’s degree in geography (cartography minor) from San Francisco State. As a child growing up in the Brixton section of London, “a tough place,” Ward was drawn to the countryside. When he was 15 he began working at a farm in Northwest Wales. 

“I just love being outdoors,” he said, “the fresh air, the sunshine and, in Wales, the rain.” 

During his tenure, Ward has seen lots of changes. Originally, the farm bred its animals, a practice that has been phased out over the years for myriad reasons. Pinky and Perky were part of the last litter of pigs four years ago. Before that there were two to three pig litters per year. 

“The added problem is that there are no male pigs within a three-hour drive,” Ward said. 

The farm’s two cows are 10 and 14 months old. Credit: Joanne Furio

Cow milking also used to take place, but since the cows are no longer bred, there’s no milk. Sheep shearing is one tradition that still takes place every late June or early July. Ward, who once worked as a contract sheep shearer who could shear 20 sheep in an hour, now hires someone else to do the job.

“It’s just me here,” Ward said, “so it is limited what I can do in a 40-hour week.” 

When Ward was hired, the farm contained little more than the red barn. Since then, a former water tower has been converted into the farm’s “nerve center,” where tools hang in neat rows and sacks of feed are piled. 

Ward designed the concrete pads that were first added in 2003. A cow barn was built in 2007. The farm’s 100-year-old windmill was renovated by former park ranger Mark Hertz in 2018. A sheep barn followed in 2019. A goat barn is on the drawing board, but Ward has no idea when it will come to fruition. In the meantime, the goats are put away each night in the red barn. 

Ward’s workday begins at 7 a.m., but he rises at 4:30 to take his English Shepherd collie on a big hike before driving to work. Though Ward is the farm’s sole paid employee, he does get help from volunteers. Shortly after he was hired, he created a youth volunteer program for a dozen children ages 9 through 15 (now filled for the foreseeable future, Ward noted). On Sundays, the children do chores like feeding, brushing and washing the cows and taking the goats to Jewel Lake for a stroll. 

“After two hours of hard work, they are then allowed to fiddle about for an hour,” Ward said. 

On Sundays, a docent who dubs herself “The Rabbit Lady,” shows up between 2 and 4 p.m. to handle the rabbits, which visitors can pet. Jack, however, does not participate. 

Training tomorrow’s farmers

Little Farm is not far from Tilden Nature Area’s Environmental Education Center, which also does programming at the farm. Credit: Joanne Furio

The farm’s nerve center displays photos of Ward’s many dogs over the years, the horse he used to own and ride, and the many youth volunteers who have passed through the farm. Sophie Worthington of Albany, who volunteered at the farm for eight years, now runs a goat dairy near San Simeon. 

“I am quite proud of that,” Ward said. 

Naturalists at the preserve’s nearby Environmental Education Center also do programming at the farm, offering classes such as felting wool and spinning yarn, and conduct tours for students from regional schools. The week of Berkeleyside’s tour, four school groups visited.  

It was close to closing time. Ward had to clear visitors out of the red barn and wrangle the goats into it. 

“OK everybody, we are closing the barn now,” Ward told an extended family. “I have a home to go to.”

“You mean, you don’t live in the barn?” quipped one of the family members.

“I used to, but the rats drove me out,” Ward said. Interacting with the public is one reason, but not the main reason, he loves his job.

“How lucky I have been to spend my working life at a place where I meet so many nice people and bring joy and pleasure to so many lives,” he said. “It’s been a very uplifting experience.” 

Joanne Furio

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...