Check Out the Tollgate Camp Video!

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Wild Winter Camp Day #3

For the third day of wild winter camp, we began by merging our three pepper groups together into one group – the rainbow peppers! We started the day by reciting the 4-H pledge and then traveled to the Activity Center to get settled in for the day.

We then went to the Animal Barn to visit our farm friends and feed the chickens. Our animal caretakers are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new baby goats (kids) and lambs any day now. After giving the farm animals some attention, we headed back to the activity center for our morning garden kitchen.   

We had a hearty breakfast of multigrain pancakes with chocolate chips and Tollgate Maple Syrup. Pancakes are a favorite treat for the campers so it was fun to revisit this as a snack. After garden kitchen, off to the forest we went to check out different animal nests in the forest and look for animal tracks.

There were a lot of campers interested in building a shelter with the sticks they found in the sugar bush forest. We incorporated this as our STEM shelter building project which will be carried out through the rest of the week. The theme for today’s was debris shelters, using natural materials to build shelters resembling nests and dens. During this time, campers also enjoyed exploring the forest area and discovering new places.

Following lunchtime up in the barn, the busy afternoon was kicked off with garden kitchen where the campers put their culinary skills to work making Sweet Potato Hash. After some time warming up and enjoying the delicious snack, it was time to go out and get some fresh air so we went to visit the animal barn again. The goats, ewes and chickens welcomed our company. Many of the campers took turns catching the chickens. We also took this opportunity to talk about interesting winter adaptations of chickens and other birds that don’t migrate. 

We had an afternoon craft activity of making miniature bird feeders by using pine cones, vegetable shortening, and bird seed. This bird feeder will be perfect to set outside your home on the branch of a tree and observe some bird friends that will come visit for a meal! With fewer food resources available to wildlife in the wintertime, this is a great way to aid bird survival in suburban environments.

To finish off the day, a fun and interactive migration game was played to help campers understand what animals migrate and what kind of risks they might encounter along the migration route. The campers got to simulate an animal traveling through a life-size board game to see how easy or difficult it may be for them to make it to their wintering grounds.

Today’s activities revolved around the theme of ‘Birds in Winter’, and the kids had plentiful opportunities to learn about birds that live in and around the farm and explore their lifestyle together. We look forward to more fun to be had on our final two days of camp, diving into the topics of ‘People in Winter’ and ‘Winter on the Farm’!

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Wild Winter Camp Day #2

It was another wonderful day of wild winter camp at Tollgate Farm.  Today was filled with sunshine and lots of discovery as campers wondered just what plants do in the winter.

We began our day with the 4-H pledge and a gathering activity looking at different types of dried seeds from our gardens.  Campers used “I notice…” and “I wonder…” statements to brainstorm about the seeds and their functions. After our gathering we split up into our three pepper groups and began our morning activities.

We once again visited our animal friends, continuing our responsibility of caring for the farm animals.  Campers made sure everyone had the right amount of food, fresh water, and even found a few eggs in the coop.  Everyone’s favorite seemed to be visiting the hens keeping warm in the animal barn.

In garden kitchen, campers enjoyed fruit leather prepared on Monday using fresh strawberries, blueberries, and apples.  After being dehydrated last night, the fruit leather was ready for our morning snack.  Campers also got to enjoy the contrast of our fruit leather with some fresh fruit including mango!  We then worked hard grinding our own corn into cornmeal for our afternoon snack of cornbread.  We quickly learned that grinding corn is a lot of work and often requires a few trips through the grinder before we get a fine enough product.  One camper declared, “This is why we have machines that do this!”

Along with garden kitchen, our campers revisited their cardboard sled STEM project.  Using what they learned from their experiences the previous day, they improved and modified their design.  We all enjoyed investigating physics concepts of weight, force, speed, and kinetic energy, as we happily sped downhill in the bright sunshine.   

After sledding and garden kitchen, we came back together to explore seeds.  We first brainstormed the different ways seeds can be spread by plants, highlighting the seven Fs of seed dispersal (fly, float, fling, fire, fur/feathers, feces, and fruit). Campers then acted out the role of a seed, slowly emerging from their seed coat, sending their root down into the ground and sending their shoot up into the sky to capture the bright sunshine to create food within.  Each camper then dissected a bean seed, carefully removing the seed coat to reveal the radicle (the beginning of the root), plumule (the beginning of the shoot), and the cotyledon (the food storage).  We used microscopes to peer into our beans and see these structures up close. 

After lunch, we once again explored the serene Tollgate forest, looking this time for seeds.  Along the way we saw even more tracks and animals signs that campers eagerly pointed out.  All three pepper groups checked their track traps, but alas, only the yellow peppers saw signs of an animal taking the bait.  Along the way, the groups visited our newly minted Red Pepper Hill and Yellow Pepper Bridge.

A quick warm-up stop at the greenhouse allowed us to visit with botanists carrying out research right before our very eyes. Lush green plants and warm moist air helped us feel the role of the sun’s energy in growing. With plenty of bright sunshine, it wasn’t hard to think spring as we did a little seed-starting with a season-extending technique called winter sowing. They created their very own mini-greenhouse in which they planted herbs or veggies. Also in preparation for the growing season, campers created seed tapes to save and plant outdoors in their gardens come spring. 

As the day came to a close, our campers enjoyed one last ride down the hill on their cardboard sleds.  We hope our 2 day campers left the farm with new friends and good memories. We’ll certainly miss our new and returning camper friends, and we eagerly look forward to spring break and summer season ahead.

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Wild Winter Camp Day #1

What an exciting first day of Wild Winter Camp at MSU Tollgate! We began the day by getting to know each other with some engaging icebreakers, and then going through our CARES contract with creative skits, directed and acted out by the talented campers. We then did our first flag ceremony where we learned the 4-H pledge together, and then parted ways as three separate pepper groups.

Our morning activities consisted of animal chores, ice fishing, and garden kitchen. Campers loved getting to know our farm animals and taking on the responsibility of caring for them. Campers were very eager and willing to take on the various jobs carried out every morning to make sure Tollgate’s animals are safe, fed, and happy. We also made some great observations of the farm animals’ behavior and interesting adaptations for the winter months. Interacting with these beautiful creatures is always such a joy, so it wasn’t easy to say goodbye to them for the day and head off for the next activity.

The garden kitchen morning snack was a real treat – pancakes! Flour-less pancakes to be exact. Campers showed their helpful and curious spirit by taking part in all of the preparation. Made from banana, oats, rice milk, salt, and chocolate chips, this recipe is quite simple but incredibly delicious and rather healthy! Pan-griddled and served up with Maple syrup right from the Tollgate sugar shack, these pancakes were the perfect first garden kitchen snack.

Ice fishing was a blast to say the least. We got to see and use tools crafted particularly for ice fishing including a uniquely designed pole, an ice auger, and specialized shelter called a shanty. We also took on an exciting STEM project of designing our own poles. Although we didn’t catch anything, one camper got a bite, and we were able to reflect on why fish are less active this time of year and how dormancy helps them to survive. Campers also enjoyed the opportunity to “skate” around on the ice, which is several inches thick thanks to our wonderful winter weather.

All three pepper groups reunited in the upper barn following these morning activities to enjoy their lunch and warm up for a little while. Following this, we bundled back up to embark on our afternoon adventures – including an animal sign and adaptation hike, the making and stationing of animal track traps, a STEM sled project, and revisiting the garden kitchen.

We explored the beautiful Tollgate forest, which was covered with a fresh and sparkling layer of snow, on a quest to look for signs of wildlife. In addition to the snow being fun and pretty, it makes for wonderful opportunities to spot animal tracks. We followed in the footsteps of white-tailed deer, snowshoe hares, and various small rodents and found some other signs as well including scat, nests, and signs of browse. We also learned about some of the fascinating adaptations animals will undergo to survive winter, and about how many animals will migrate or hibernate to enhance their chances of survival.

Following these exciting discoveries in the woods, campers were eager to see what other tracks we could behold, and what better opportunity than to put together a unique invention called a “track trap”. This involved using a zip-tie to hold open the door of a live trap, so that animals could come and go as they please, and setting some materials to lure them in. We decided to use cat food, both wet and dry on a plate. And how to see their tracks? We set a piece of cardstock on a tray with a black ink-pad in front of the food. Animals would step in the ink, then step on the paper, before making their way to the meal laid out for them. We will get the opportunity to check back on these track traps tomorrow and identify what types of animals came for the food based on the shape, size, and pattern of their tracks.

For afternoon garden kitchen, we got to enjoy freshly cut veggies with roasted red pepper hummus made from scratch. The campers got to cut up the veggies themselves, including carrot, celery, and bell peppers. We mashed up chickpeas with tahini, lemon juice, salt, cumin, garlic, oil, and of course red pepper and then blended it all together for a scrumptious hummus treat to dip the veggies in. Some of the campers loved it so much that they enjoyed multiple servings. What a great way to get your daily dose of vegetables!

Our final activity of the day was to engineer our own cardboard sleds. Campers got the option to work solo or in groups to design and make a sled using simple materials including cardboard boxes of various shape and size, masking tape, and animal feed bags. The groups incorporated the basic principles of physics into their designs and got creative with unique features to add to the sleds. Some of the pepper groups got the opportunity to put their handiwork to the test in a very fun experiment – sledding! They could then see how their sled worked out, and tomorrow as we continue this project, they can incorporate more elements of the scientific method to improve upon their design and re-test the sleds.

After an eventful day, we wrapped up in the upper barn with some reflections on what we did and learned throughout our various activities with new friends and experiences around the farm. We then bid farewell as campers went home with their families, and all look forward to another exciting day tomorrow!


After exploring the ice fishing equipment of shanty, auger, ladle, lures, and poles, campers crafted their own poles from small branches from the Tollgate forest, outfitted them with hook, line, and sinker, added bait, and waited with hopeful eye for any nibbles.

The morning garden kitchen recipe of flourless banana chocolate chip pancakes was a huge hit, especially with Tollgate maple syrup as topping. Campers enjoyed making roasted red pepper hummus in the afternoon for a treat with fresh veggies.

Campers hiked the farm, looking for signs of animal life as they explored what we can learn about an animal from its tracks and scat. They even made and placed a ‘track trap’ with cat food, white paper, an ink pad, and a trap rigged to stay open so that they might capture animal tracks for identification.

Campers used plenty of science and engineering practices as they embarked on an exciting cardboard sled design project beginning with an investigation of what makes a sled move. They thought about the variables that impact the speed a sled travels, and applied these ideas to the design of their team’s sled. Lots of laughter and squeals were heard as campers tried out their sleds which became faster and faster as the fresh deep snow became packed. After reflection on what worked and didn’t work well, campers will have the opportunity to change their sled design.
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Spring Babies

Did you know that our goats and sheep will be pregnant for about 150 days? This is relatively short compared to the cow with a 9-month gestation, and a horse with an 11-month gestation. Unlike horses and cows, it is very common for goats and sheep to have more than 1 baby at a time! 

Here at Tollgate we rely heavily on the birth of baby animals in the Spring time to help us educate about reproduction of plants and animals. The campers during Mid-Winter Break camp and Spring Break camp get the opportunity to help care for the new babies and moms, and may even get to witness a birth in progress! 

These babies have big responsibility here at Tollgate. Although they may be cute and the miracle of life is amazing, they teach hundreds of kids (and adults!) life lessons that are not discovered in the classroom. As we wait patiently for our sheep and goats to grow these little bundles of joy, the educational staff at Tollgate begin preparing for a new season of discovery, wonder, and learning in our outdoor classrooms. 

Stay tuned in the coming months for the arrival of our Tollgate babies, and we hope to see you out at the farm soon!

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Introducing Sam Stokes

Hi! My name is Sam Stokes and I am an AmeriCorps member serving at MSU Tollgate Farm as an Oakland County 4H SPecial INterest Programs Coordinator. I am a 4H alumnus who spent 10 years caring for my family’s dairy goat herd, the Charmed Alpines, and showcasing our alpines and toggenburgs at county, state and national shows. I also participated in a number of still-life, chicken, horse and hog projects with the Paint Creek 4H club of Washtenaw County. After graduating from Milan High School leaving the family farm, I spent four years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I completed a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Ecology & Management and Environmental Studies. Since graduating, I have returned home to pursue graduate school opportunities and start a career in sustainable community conservation. Luckily for me, Tollgate Farm is the first stop in my post-college journey. I am thrilled to once again be a part of 4H and could not be happier to contribute to the great work being done within AmeriCorps and MSU Extension.

After several weeks of planning, curriculum writing and outreach, my first SPIN clubs are finally ready to start! Over the several months, myself and Oakland County volunteers will work to provide students with the opportunity to explore topics in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math through short-term “SPIN” clubs. By partnering with Oakland County schools, camps, cultural centers and farms to offer these clubs, I aim to provide hands-on programing that inspires students to engage in “real world” issues and develop passions for STEAM topics such as agricultural science, environmental issues, wildlife management and livestock husbandry.

Do 4H SPIN Clubs seem like an activity you or your child would like to be involved in? Opportunities are on their way! Keep an eye out for updates in the Tollgate & 4H Newsletters as well as on social media. Are you interested in volunteering or starting a SPIN Club at a location near you? Great! Feel free to contact me via email at stokess4@msu.edu or give me a call at (248)347-3860 so that we can discuss what topics your students are interested in pursuing!

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