The ‘realness’ draws crowds as Christmas, cows, farming, fellowship are shared. Yoder family has been providing this free community experiences for 7 years.
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, December 16, 2022
BELLEVILLE, Pa. – “As long as they keep coming, we’ll keep doing this,” says Mike Yoder about the Live Nativity in its seventh year at Dryhouse Farm near Belleville, Pennsylvania.
It’s always on the Thursday and Friday evenings before Christmas, with this year’s Live Nativity falling on December 22 and 23 leading right up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The times both evenings are 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. (Update: Dec. 23 showing is canceled due to the storm on its way, Dec. 22 going on as planned)
“We like that we are bringing the public to the farm and have the chance to share part of our world with others,” says Mike in a Farmshine phone interview this week. “We also like that this is becoming part of the family Christmas traditions for many people. We get calls weeks and months ahead from people wanting to get the dates on their calendars.”
For Mike and Maria Yoder and their four children Natalie, Paul, Grant and Cade, the preparations are underway this week. They’ve started moving bales, sweeping and cleaning the bank barn, recruiting volunteers to take shifts being shepherds and cast, and there’s a lot of coordination with the refreshments – mainly cookies, hot cocoa and coffee, plus kettle corn this year.
Mike makes a ‘show pack’ for the scene with a cow tied behind Mary and Joseph and several calves and the cast. They use a show cow that is accustomed to being handled on a show pack with crowds.
The main Nativity scene has a 3-foot wire fence around it, but people can reach in to pet the animals.
“We’ve added a petting area where kids actually get in with the animals, and we try to add some different animals every year,” says Mike, noting that last year, they had rabbits. “We also have a straw pit to play in.”
Christmas music plays in the background, some tables are set up for visiting, and the walk-through flow leads to refreshments at the welcome tent.
Of the nearly 700 people of all ages and backgrounds who attended last year, many were families with young children, and many come from the nearby retirement village and nursing home.
“The nursing home is close to us here, and we get a lot of older people from the cottages,” Mike confirms. “We have extended families coming together here, and we expect to have more of that this year. We have people come from two hours away, from southwest Pennsylvania, and we even had a family come down from New York to see it. We never know who is going to pop in.”
For the first few years, the Yoders advertised the Live Nativity in newspapers and on the radio, but now it is by word of mouth and through social media.
The event is free, and Mike says they firmly want to keep it that way.
“We have some that want to make donations, and in 2020, we gave those donations to the nursing staff at the local nursing home because we didn’t start this to charge for it,” he said.
What better celebration of the meaning of the season than with a Live Nativity — in a real barn on a real farm?
“It’s real for people in a barn. It’s cold, and there’s cobwebs, and there’s animals below us, and it smells like a barn, so it’s that realness,” says Mike.
People respond to this. It makes an impression. While the 190 milking and dry cows are housed in newer facilities, the youngstock are housed in the bank barn just below the event.
“The other part of this is the educational factor, getting people onto a farm,” Mike explains, “It’s amazing how many of these kids have never been up close with a cow.”
He makes another important observation, that the farm-to-consumer disconnect is not just an urban phenomenon, it’s within rural communities also.
“We don’t have big cities close to us,” Mike relates. “But even rural kids grow up without contact with cattle and other animals that we take for granted.”
While the family is busy running the dairy farm, and all four children play basketball at school, everyone knows “this is just what we do,” says Mike. “The kids’ friends often like to help and dress up, and we have people from our church wanting to help too.”
Everyone has a role and a job. The ‘angel’ sitting up high on stacked hay bales, for example, is the ‘counter’ to help keep track of attendance so they can plan each year for the growth in the number of people drawn in.
Why did the Yoders start doing the Live Nativity in 2016?
“At that time,” Mike recalls, “we had a donkey, a llama, some goats and a pony. Someone made a joke that we should do this, and that’s where it all began.”
The offhand suggestion got the wheels turning for Mike and Maria. They had the old bank barn where they have had events for church groups and the community. They thought, why not?
For the first couple years, they did the Live Nativity for just one night. As attendance grew, they added a second night.
During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, they did it as a drive-through, with stations set up in different themes around the farm, handing out cookies and hot chocolate as the cars went through. The first night was canceled that year due to a snowstorm blanketing the area with a foot of snow. But the next night, they were ready.
“We were surprised. We had 150 cars come through that one night. People were really looking for things to do that year,” Mike recalls.
In 2021, and again this year for 2022, they are back to the walk-through Live Nativity experience inside the bank barn.
The Yoders have been dairying here since they moved to Belleville in 2007, eventually taking over Dryhouse Farm for Ray and Lester Yoder (no relation), who were looking to transition out.
Mike and Maria worked for them for a year and rented the farm for four years. In 2013, they purchased the farm, having already purchased the original herd, which they grew to 190 cows. They also merchandise cattle and have sold bulls to A.I.
The Yoders bought into some good cow families and developed their Dryhouse-M prefix to keep their genetics separate from the original Dryhouse herd. There are several good cow families milking here, including one of cows they bought with the original herd that recently passed away at age 17. She was a 5E 93-point cow with numerous high scoring offspring on the farm today.
In addition to their registered Holsteins, the Yoders have gotten into some colored breeds as their children began showing. They go to the Mifflin County show, where they were premier breeder and exhibitor this year, and to the Central Pennsylvania Championship in Centre Hall, where they were premier exhibitor last year. They also show at Harrisburg every year, and in some years, they show at Louisville and Madison.
Aside from the Live Nativity at Christmastime, the Yoders have hosted other community and farm events.
This year, they had Mifflin County Farm Bureau’s third grade agriculture tour with 500 third graders on the farm all at once in September. They’ve hosted career events for the local school district, and they were a tour stop for the National Holstein Convention when it was in Pennsylvania in 2021.