Dasher? Dancer? Prancer? Nope. But there are "other" reindeer at this festive farm in Clare County

You might think reindeer are only the things of holiday tales, or magical make believe, but for one family farm, they’re the real deal -- all year long. 

Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm is a family-owned-and-operated business that raises trained reindeer for holiday and special events all over the state. Thousands of visitors, hundreds of businesses, libraries, and school field trips have witnessed the magic of these majestic animals since the Clare farm began operations in 1991.

Danny Aldrich, owner of Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm, says the 45-acre farm started with just exotic deer as pets, and then added two reindeer from Alaska. 

“Our family was always big into Christmas, we were one of the houses that everybody lined up in front of because we had so many Christmas lights every year,” Aldrich says. “The whole family started decorating the front yard in September.”

The gift shop at Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm.The farm continues to be a family-run operation, with Aldrich’s dad and stepmother on the farm, Aldrich’s brother, Aldrich’s wife and son helping with the animals and in the gift shop too. Depending on the day, anywhere from 15 to 20 people are working on the farm. On a weekend, there can be 2,000 to 4,000 visitors.

In 1991, the farm brought back the first two reindeer calves, and fell in love with the animals. One thing led to another, and a few local newspapers published stories around the holidays about the reindeer farm. Word started to spread, and more people came to see the unique animals.

“We had some businesses call …  chambers of commerce called asking us to bring reindeer down for tree lightings, and one thing led to another,” Aldrich says. “The hobby got a little bigger every year. We went from doing three or four shows a year to as many as 150 events.”

Over the years the reindeer have been tapped for parades, home visits, commercial events, school events, education programs, holiday parties and business promotions. 

The calendar of traveling events, however, has decreased to about 75 events in November and December, because activity at the farm has seen an uptick. 

After opening up to the public in 2013, Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm now has 20 reindeer, adding two to eight a year. 

Although reindeer are sometimes thought of as seasonal commodities, especially in the winter months, the farm celebrates the animal year-round. In the spring and summer, the farm welcomes travelers and visitors hoping to get a peek at the reindeer calves, then around six to eight weeks old. 

A heated patio in one of the buildings at Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm offers visitors a warm place to relax.“There’s not as much going on here at the farm, it’s not as big of an event like it is at Christmas,” Aldrich says. “There’s no Santa here, and we don’t do the wagon rides, but there’s still a lot to see. By the time Christmas comes, the babies are about 120 pounds, so it’s a different experience from summer to winter.”

Generally, reindeer live 12 to 14 years, with some females living up to 20 years, and they range in weight from 200 to 400 pounds. 

“All reindeers have antlers, that’s one thing that’s unique to reindeer and caribou only,” Aldrich says. “Reindeer are native to Norway, Finland, northern Russia and all around the Arctic Circle. They’re not native to North America, although there’s been lots of them up in Alaska for a few hundred years.”

Today, in the United States, there are about 100 different farms that raise reindeer, and four or five within Michigan. Aldrich refers to them as a small but close-knit group. 

Reindeer are used for their milk, meat, cheese, and hides, much like other livestock, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Rooftop Reindeer, however, only uses the animal’s antlers for crafts. 

“They drop their antlers every year naturally, and we make different things we sell in our gift shops,” Aldrich says.

Michigan’s reindeer farms are a small piece of the state’s flourishing agritourism – described as a type of commercial enterprise where farming and tourism meet. That includes everything from u-pick orchards and on-farm markets to entertainment, including corn mazes and pumpkin patches.

For many, the appeal of reindeer is more about entertainment and tourism, especially during the holidays when they’re sought for parades, parties, photo ops and other events.

Although the animals are fairly big (because they are domesticated and have been hand-raised for generations), they’re pretty much like puppy dogs, Aldrich says. 

“They know their names, they go by voice commands, and they’re very intelligent. That’s why we fell for them so hard. They’re similar to a horse, you can hook them up to pull sleighs, carts, and sleds. They’re very tame, we bottle feed them and they’re very docile.”

That calm demeanor is required – the farm receives so many families and young kids, especially to experience the reindeer on a snowy day in the holiday season. 

Santa arrives via parachute at the farm on Dec. 11, and there are visits with four elves every weekend until Christmas. Skittles the Clown paints Christmas-themed faces on the kids, and the Grinch also stops by. 

Among the other treats are the sweets created by Paul Ghinelli, a fourth-generation candy cane maker who spends a lot of his time during the busy holiday season in the candy kitchen at Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm. He’s been doing live demonstrations of candy cane making there for the past five or six years. 

“I like for people to see what we do and the old-fashioned way of doing things,” Ghinelli says. 

Each year, he looks forward to the holiday season, spending time in the candy kitchen.

"Growing up, Christmas meant work for my cousins and I," he says. "It’s part of life for me. It’s something I enjoy doing, and I like for people to see it happening. Over fifty years later, it still amazes me."

Aside from the reindeer, the farm also has South American alpacas in the barn, and the family breeds mini–Scottish Highlands, a smaller breed than a full-size cow. 

There are two gift shops, animals in a barn for visitors to feed, a cafe with donuts, cider and hot chocolate on-site, a patio and a new food truck. There are a dozen photo opportunities throughout the farm, along with a holiday-designed playground, kids train rides, and entertainment. 

Aldrich says his favorite part of the farm is seeing the joy from visitors of all ages, especially at Christmastime. 

“I always enjoy entertaining people, and we’re very fortunate that people are pretty happy when they’re here,” he says. “There might be a lot of bad things going on, but we get to put a lot of smiles on faces, not just kids, but their parents, their grandparents too. It’s definitely not just a place for kids. There are almost as many adults that come here without kids. You don’t have to be a kid to celebrate Christmas and to see these animals that can bring joy to anybody.”

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.
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