Christmas bonus: Farm animals in demand for Nativity scenes
Some farmers have extra reason to rejoice at Christmas: Tis the season for renting out animals for live Nativity scenes and other holiday events.
Growing up in rural Burlington, Wisconsin, one of Larry Squire's favorite Christmas traditions was helping to set up a Nativity scene in his uncle's barn.
"We borrowed the animals from all over the neighborhood," he recalled.
So several years ago, Squire brought the tradition to Cargill United Methodist Church in his current hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, renting animals from petting zoos and small farms. The church rents two pens' worth of animals to stand next to a makeshift stable alongside volunteers dressed as Mary, Joseph, angels and the three wise men.
"It's a beautiful thing. There's a calm and peacefulness that comes from having the animals there," Squire said.
Farm animals, reindeer and camels are in high demand between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Megan Powell, event coordinator at Honey Hill Farm, a mobile petting zoo with locations in Berry, Kentucky, and Utica, Ohio.
"We will do 25 to 30 events in one weekend," Powell said. "It's not uncommon for us to sell out."
Renting animals for Christmas programs helps pay for their food and upkeep, she said, and has been a huge growth area for the business.
"Churches love it," Powell said. "We didn't create the demand. We just became overwhelmed by it."
Jodi Collen, an event planner at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and president of the International Special Events Society, explains it this way: "As event professionals, it doesn't take you long to say, 'I'm organizing a Nativity and I can get a donkey — why wouldn't I get a donkey?'"
Honey Hill works with dozens of churches, schools and businesses to provide sheep, donkeys and goats for live Nativity scenes, said Powell, whose mother started the business about 15 years ago with a pony that she rented for birthday parties. "It really took off and she started adding animals."
Rentals start at $325 an hour for a group of animals, depending on which ones are requested and for how long. In most cases, Powell said, visitors are allowed to touch and pet the animals.
"We do have a camel," she said. "But we only have one — so he goes really fast."
Few petting zoos and traditional farms raise camels, and they are harder to incorporate into programs and exhibits, said Bob Hudelson of Lost River Game Farm in Orleans, Indiana. He raises foxes, skunks and other exotic animals.
"There are a lot of camels out there — just not a lot of tame camels," he said.
Many churches want them, however: "The three kings definitely had camels on their journey to see Christ," Hudelson said. "With the camel, you get more of a feel of the story."
Customers also want reindeer, said Powell, who does not raise them but has thought about it.
"The demand for reindeer is really high," she said.
From his farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kyle Wilson rents reindeer to malls, Christmas tree farms, zoos, hospitals and other businesses throughout the South. His prices start at $1,500 for a pair of reindeer for four hours.
"I currently have 21 reindeer but that's not enough," he said. "I started 15 years ago and each year I have had a record year."
Families love to see Santa arrive with reindeer, said Amy Boyles, marketing manager of Kingsport Town Center in Kingsport, Tennessee.
"It's an added thing for our community and kids," she said. "How many people get to see a reindeer? It gives them a bit of a wow factor."
She has already booked "Dasher" and "Dancer" to appear with Santa during the mall's Black Friday sale.