Last year we did a series on the publicly owned farms managed by Friends of the Farms (FotF)*. Each of the farms have their roots as small privately owned farms and were donated or sold to the City of Bainbridge Island for the exclusive use as public farmland. FotF subleases the land to small and medium sized farmers around the island. However, there are still quite a few privately owned farms on Bainbridge that provide fresh produce, eggs, flowers, poultry, meat and more. In fact there are so many, that in 2021, islanders Caroline and Christopher created Finding Fresh Bainbridge, which shares the locations of farm stands throughout the island, visit the Finding Fresh map here.
I was inspired by my experiences writing about the FotF properties and Finding Fresh to reach out to some of these small farms and learn more about them, and starting this new series with a kindred wanderer seemed apropos.
For native Louisianians, Michele and Richie Muffoletto, finding their way to the PNW was just the beginning of an adventure that would take them across the country, abroad, and back to Bainbridge Island, where they’d eventually create their nature-based therapeutic farm, The Wanderers’ Nest Farm (TWN).
Michele and Richie met as teens, when they were both enrolled in the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the US Air Force. After college they headed west and discovered Bainbridge Island, it was love at first sight, and they decided to move here in 2005. Michele spent the next few years working for Bainbridge Youth Services as their Jobs Program Coordinator while Richie pursued a career in the tech industry. However, the wandering spirit was too strong to resist, and in 2009 they embarked on a year-long cross-country road trip. In 2010, they joined the Peace Corps, serving two years in Albania. When their service ended with the Peace Corps, they made their way back to Bainbridge Island in 2012 and purchased a 2.5-acre property off Finch Road.
Michele’s love of working with people, and especially children, spurred her to return to school, earning her Masters in Teaching and a Washington State Teaching Certificate from Antioch University Seattle. From there she spent the next few years teaching 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades at Ordway Elementary, quickly realizing the community’s need for social and emotional development, which could be achieved through interaction with animals and nature. She also realized the farm was the perfect environment to create such a space. During this time, Michele and Richie began to reimagine their property, shaping it into a space where they could raise rescue animals, grow vegetables of all varieties, and most importantly, share it with others.
Naming the property came next, so they turned to family and friends for suggestions. It was Michele’s Uncle John, who came up with “The Wanderers’ Nest Farm”. As Michele states on the TWN website, “It fits perfectly because we are all wanderers – myself, Richie, our adopted animals, and you. We are all looking for a place to belong, to feel safe and grounded, whole again. All are welcome here.”
The property had the main house, a few outbuildings, a small pond, greenhouse, and a fruit orchard when they purchased it. Over the years, they have worked to further improve the land by restoring and adding outbuildings and bringing more native plant species to the farm. Although Michele and Richie weren’t farmers, nor did they have a lot of experience building things, they learned by trial and error, took advice from friends and family who had various skills (as well as hiring out the larger projects), and of course, turned to the internet and YouTube. She noted that it’s a constant learning experience, but one that they both enjoy immensely.
She left teaching and spent a year earning her certificate in the study of Animals and Human Health from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, and a horticultural certificate through a local extension program. Michele also worked closely with Puget Sound Goat Rescue (where she’d taken classes the previous year) to learn more about goat breeds and their care. All the while, the property was taking on a whole new identity, which would eventually include a large fenced area to accommodate the vegetable garden, a sizable chicken coop and yard for their new flocks, meandering pathways lined with flowerbeds, comfortable seating areas, a meditation pavilion, a goat enclosure, a “hobbit house” (which they use for cold storage), and an expanded and restored pond. Additional outbuildings for storage, hooped greenhouses, and beehives were also added.
All of this would become the core of The Wanderers’ Nest Farm’s nature-based therapeutic backdrop, where clients of all ages come to the farm to work through and gain emotional support for understanding their anxiety (as well as managing it), to learn about boundary setting (this is done through animal interaction), improve communication, build confidence, connect with the self and others, work through grief and loss, and allow themselves a moment of self-care.
Michele tailors each session to the individual’s needs, and can be goal-specific or organically approached. Sessions may include visiting with the goats, working with the dogs, walking the property, working on nature-based activities, exploring mindfulness through yoga and meditation, or just quiet moments in one of the many tranquil seating areas. “The goal is to support what your heart needs that day,” Michele states on their website. *
The farm opened during the pandemic, which only emphasized the need for an outdoor therapeutic environment. During that time, she became a contractor through the Department of Social and Health Services to work with the developmentally disabled, and offered a safe outdoor environment for therapists to work individually and in small group sessions with their clients. It also provided a safe space for both children and adults to work through the emotional anxiety created by a worldwide crisis.
We started our tour at the greenhouse, where she showed me several vegetable seedlings that some of her clients planted. She explained that many of her clients enjoy the practice of gardening—planting a seed and watching it develop gives them a sense of accomplishment and joy. We toured the vegetable garden next where she showed me their comically large rutabaga that has been growing since July of last year. It is inedible at this point, but she and Richie just wanted to see how big it would get if they let it go, she added that visiting clients just love it.
The large chicken enclosure and coop, which runs along one side of the garden, houses one of two chicken flocks on the farm. It’s designed to give them plenty of shelter, but also to protect them from predators and when needed, keep them secluded in the event of a bird flu outbreak like we had this past year.
As we continued our tour, I received a warm greeting by Sydney, the farm’s oldest rescue dog. Michele and Richie also have two other rescue dogs, Theo and Rabbit, who are a bit shyer, but once they get to know you, they’re more than happy to spend time with you. As with all the animals at the farm, the dogs play an important role in teaching clients how to obtain consent and trust from an animal, which in turn can be used in their everyday life interacting with people.
We then stopped at the pond, where several chairs and picnic benches are set up for sessions, and then headed towards the old orchard and the meditation pavilion. Michele pointed out that since they’ve removed much of the invasive plant life and added in more native plants, an abundance of birdlife and pollinators have returned to the property. She also noted that a portion of the old orchard would eventually be converted to an additional apiary (there are currently three beehives at the back of the property) and a pollinator garden.
Everywhere you go at The Wanderers’ Nest, you encounter little surprises—a quiet seating area under a tree, the lily pad pond with its chorus of frogs, metal and garden art hanging from trees or perched sporadically along walkways and open spaces, “woodwatchers”, fun hand painted signs and mosaics (most of which were created by her clients), trickling fountains, a “gratitude gate” where you can write a note to inspire others or just share what you’re feeling at the time. It’s an almost endless journey of peaceful exploration where you can spend time working through your needs with Michele or taking time for yourself to reflect on “what your heart needs at that day”.
We wandered down to the main house, where we took shelter from the rain in the comfortable (and heated) screened-in porch. This spot is ideal for a cold and wet winter’s day. The porch overlooks a patio with another seating area and the “hobbit house”, which I was naturally curious about.
Michele explained that they wanted a cold storage room, and the gentle upslope of the yard across from the house was a perfect spot for it. They purchased a large concrete catchment box (typically used for large storm drains) that was lowered into position and back filled. They cut a doorway into the side, used recycled wood and other materials to create a façade and placed native plants on the roof and surrounding slope to integrate it into the landscape. It’s whimsical and fun and her clients love it.
The grand finale was a visit to the goat yard. The five all-male herd consists of Finley, Miles, Sailor, Bronson and Silas, and all are rescues. The goats love to interact and visit with Michele’s clients. Interactions are based on a client’s needs and may include brushing or even clicker training with a goat, with the goal of arriving at a mutually-beneficial connection. The goat yard chicken flock has a coop near the goat house, and are free to roam the area with the goats. They are quite personable, as well.
Michele focuses on ensuring animal consent at all times, so just before my visit, she checked in with the goats, and Finley was most interested in interacting that day. While I met with Finley, the rest of the herd in the nearby field still remained very curious about me. When Michele handed me a curry comb, Finley snuggled right up, allowing me to gently brush his face, neck and sides. As a cat owner, I often find it soothing to sit quietly, pet my cat and listen to him purr in delight. Brushing Finley was very much the same, but instead of being cooped up inside, I was surrounded by the sounds of nature, and the beauty of this remarkable parklike farm, and it was easy to see the therapeutic value in this wondrous place.
Going forward, Michele continues to allow TWN to grow organically as her clients’ and animals’ needs dictate. This year, she is also opening a farmstand selling eggs, honey, and seasonal produce produced at the farm.
*It’s very important to note that The Wanderers’ Nest does not provide health care services. Although clients may find the activities and environment at TWN to be personally healing and therapeutic, TWN makes no claim regarding specific health effects. In addition, Michele is not a licensed mental health counselor. She holds the following credentials: Master of Arts in Teaching, a Washington State teaching certificate, as well as certifications in the Human-Animal bond (animal-assisted interventions), horticulture, and ecopsychology. She is also a trauma-informed educator and facilitator.
*Photo credits: Michele Muffoletto and Margaret Millmore
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