Leaning against a fence at The Lands at Hillside Farms, 13-year-old Jake Dillon stretched out his hand and hoped a fuzzy-haired, long-necked creature would munch alpaca feed directly from his palm.
Then things got about 100 times more interesting.
“The llama pooped!” he pointed out with excitement.
“You can tell I have boys,” mom Nancy Dillon said, shaking her head.
Earlier this week, on one of the last days of vacation before school was to begin in the Middletown, N.J., area, Dillon brought her two teenage sons and two of their friends to check out the animals at The Lands at Hillside Farms in Shavertown.
“They’re pretty cool,” said her son’s friend, 15-year-old Matt Downey.
“It’s great to see the place getting bigger and better,” said Dillon, who typically includes Hillside as a stop on her annual visit to her sister.
If you haven’t experienced the 412-acre, non-profit farm in a while, you might associate the name mostly with the ice cream for which it is famous.
“Yum! We just had some,” Dillon attested. “Almond Joy is the best.”
And you might have heard about the milk “from the girls across the street” that is bottled in old-fashioned glass half-gallons and sold in the farm’s dairy store.
“I just brought eight bottles back, and we’re taking four,” said customer Jacqueline Mathis Knuth of Dallas, whose four children range from 9 years old down to 10 months. “It’s the only kind of milk we buy.”
But there’s more to Hillside Farms than dairy products.
Here you’ll find weekend-afternoon pony rides and school-day field trips as well as the occasional soap-making or jelly-making classes for adults.
Shoppers can step into the recently opened Mercantile, a 100-year-old barn transformed into a gift shop that specializes in USA-made goods, among them cosmetics, ceramic mugs, felt purses, carved ducks and jewelry.
You’ll find gardening supplies, too, from organic fertilizer to hoses to flowers.
The Lands hosts festivals with tractor pulls, crafts and games (mark your calendar for Oct. 5-6) and fund-raising farm-to-table dinners (if you don’t already have reservations for tomorrow, you might sign up for Oct. 19.)
The dairy store is stocked not just with ice cream, milk and butter but with chemical-free meats, line-caught Alaskan salmon, artisanal cheese, bakery items and even such hard-to-find products as ginger syrup and organic vinegar.
Then there are the “animal partners.”
Consider the alpacas, Miss Muffet and Miss Bell, who come from the same camelid family as llamas. Unless there’s a giraffe hiding in the neighborhood, these creatures probably get the prize for the longest necks as well as the fuzziest hair and possibly longest eyelashes.
Alpine goats and peacocks, donkeys and baby-doll sheep join them in fascinating visitors, especially small children.
“There’s more over here, buddy. See,” Maria Brogna of Pittston said on Wednesday afternoon, pointing out additional animals to her 1-year-old son, Vinny, while his older brother Anthony, 4, ran to inspect them more closely.
While the flow of visitors seems steady on a weekday afternoon, it can be even livelier on weekends.
Here, on a recent Sunday, Brian Zaboski of Sugar Notch held his 10-month-old granddaughter, Marleigh Rothermel, so she could stand on tiptoe and giggle at a flock of waddling ducks.
Three-year-old Aiden Hapshe of Scranton edged in for a closer look at the quackers, and 9-year-old Gabriella Leibman of the Parsons section of Wilkes-Barre ran alongside a goat pen, holding an impromptu race with one of the four-legged residents.
While visitors are welcome to buy 25-cent handfuls of feed pellets for some of the penned animals, signs at the barns across the road ask you not to feed the animals there. Still you’re free to admire such beauties as Mame the French saddle pony and Bella the large pinto pony.
Horses and donkeys, cows and sheep and goats are all popular, spokeswoman Suzanne Kelly said, but “Otis is our rock star.”
Otis, in case you’ve never met him, is a miniature pig Kelly described as going through his adolescence. Sometimes he can seem grumpy and act as if he wants to be alone, she said. “But when you get close you’ll see his tail starts wagging.”
While interaction with Otis and the other farm animals can be fun for everyone, it’s especially therapeutic for vulnerable children, including those with developmental or behavioral challenges, Kelly said.
Recognizing that, The Lands at Hillside developed a program called Green Guides.
It started about three years ago with one phone call from a mother who wanted to bring her son, who has autism, to the farm, Kelly said. His visit was so successful that word spread. One family after another wanted to come, and it turned into a program that has brought 2,000 vulnerable children to Hillside Farms.
Green Guides will benefit from a Farm-to-Plate dinner tomorrow, and another set for Oct. 19, Kelly said.
Along with everyone else who visits Hillside, Kelly said, the children who attend the Green Guides program will become ambassadors for The Lands and the values it represents.
“It’s all about sustainability, and we don’t just mean the environment,” she said. “When we say ‘sustainable,’ we’re talking about nutrition, family, community, spirituality, health. We want people born 200 years from now to have the same resources we have today, or more.”