The first time we took our kids to a farm weekend, it was 80 degrees. We picked beans and cleared brush while our two boy toddlers chased chickens through the open fields and tried to cluck. The corn was high and prairie flowers waved merrily in the (occasional) breeze. I had my first taste of water straight from the well in an icy metal cup. We slept in tents in the meadow under a blanket of stars. Silence never sounded so good, nor sleep felt so deserved.
My mother, who lives in New Jersey, thought I was crazy. “Don’t you have lakes there?” she asked. But I was hooked. My kids are grown now, and I still like to spend my “time off” seeking the peace that comes from doing farm work. I’m not the only one. The idea is catching on, thanks to the growing network of small farms, increased interest in local food, and a yen for cheaper vacations closer to home.
“People are cherishing their backyards, not wanting to travel so far,” says Audrey Arner of Moonstone Farm in Montevideo. “They’re finding value in solitude and quiet. Since we decided to offer a farm stay, we’ve seen a growing number of people become interested.”
For urban cooks, there’s no better way to understand what it takes to produce fresh food. The farm can be a wonderful classroom for lessons in gardening, nutrition, biology, chemistry, wildlife, and water quality.
“Time was when everyone had a connection to a family farm. Each child could recall rising to the rooster’s crow when he or she spent a week with Grandma or an uncle in the country,” says Larry Schaefer, founder of The Lake Country Land School. “The farm provides a perfect confluence of experiences—nature, physical work, fresh air, good food.”
You’ll get all of that when you vacation on a working farm, but the range of farm stay experiences is as varied as the farms and farmers themselves. There are relaxed country respites as well as chances for lots of action in fields, barns, and kitchens. Accommodations range from tent camping and cabins to farmhouse inns and entire farmhouses. Prices vary greatly depending on location and amenities, but dollar for dollar, they’re a steal. Most provide kitchen facilities and farm-fresh food. Some serve full meals, others a continental breakfast. Most leave you on your own.
“Part of the fun is the unexpected,” says Schaefer.
Indeed. On my first visit to Round River Farm, a hard early summer rain had washed out the drive, so I hauled my stuff through calf-deep mucky water. Squishing up the rocky path in sneakers, swearing at no AT&T service, I wondered what I was thinking. But as I reached the farm at the top, greeted by chickens and laughter from young interns working the rows of kale, I dropped my bags—and everything else from my city life. It was just the kind of escape I needed.
Fun on a Farm
Dancing Winds Farm Stay Retreat. Just outside Cannon Falls, Dancing Winds was built in 1856 by two Norwegian bachelors, and it’s about as idyllic as it gets: a classic red barn, endless fields, an orchard, and a terraced garden with a pond and waterfalls. A private two-level guesthouse sleeps six; a sunny loft above the garage accommodates two more visitors. When guests drive up, goats scamper out, their bearded heads bobbing in hello. It’s a great retreat for families. “One family of two girls has been returning for several years; each brings a friend. Soon as they arrive, the girls head off to make dandelion chains in the meadow or chase each other to the creek looking for trolls and fairies,” says farmer Mairi Doerr. “Their dad is a watercolor artist who heads off early with his materials to paint; the mom sits on the porch and reads. They say they come here because the kids are totally unplugged and have unstructured time; it’s safe to go wherever they want and explore.” Doerr offers ricotta-making lessons as part of the stay, using fresh milk from her neighbors. She stocks the kitchen with local food for self-catered meals, and she is enthusiastic and eloquent on all things related to goat husbandry and farming.
Details: 6863 Co. Rd. 12 Blvd., Kenyon, 507-789-6606, dancingwinds.com
Nearby: Big Woods State Park
The Lake Country Land School Farm. About an hour and a half outside the Twin Cities, this farm offers stays for students of its school and members of its CSA on scheduled harvest days. The 160-acre parcel spreads over a varied landscape of prairie, cornfields, orchard, and vegetable plots bordered by meadow, rolling hills, and old wood forest. Chickens rule the roost over the lambs, llamas, and pygmy goats. Guests can camp on the land or stay in the lodge. The farm is notable for its rousing potlucks and music.
Details: N13183 30th St., Glenwood City, Wis., 715-265-7770, lakecountryschool.org/LandSchool/LCLS_Home.html
Flying Snakes Farm at Chanterelle Woods Preserve. A snug little cabin, built of local wood, includes a small kitchen and an outdoor solar-heated shower. The farm’s ducks, turkeys, chickens, pigs, goats, and small Dexter cattle meander about, but Richard Young and Christal McIntyre’s farm also offers wild mushrooms (trumpets, king boletes, and chanterelles), trout streams, and hunting land. Young offers classes in foraging, butchering, cheese-making, sausage-making, and pickling. The farm’s tiny store sells them all as well as Young’s award-winning artisan leatherwork. Young also leads fly-fishing trips to nearby icy-cold streams. Details: 33745 Star Rte. Rd., Bayfield, Wis., 715-779-3038
Round River Farm. The “Chaletini,” a teeny two-person sleeping cottage with a loft and a lovely porch overlooking the woods and a cliff, books up fast in summer, but late summer and fall are actually the prettiest, most bountiful times to visit. Spend a few days with David and Lise Abazs off the grid, and enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding forests. Depending on your interests, you may learn how to build stone walls, weave holiday wreaths, plant in crop rotation, build hoop houses, or harvest honey. The farm’s sheep provide wool that Lise spins into yarn and uses on her loom. Guests who pitch in to help with chores are rewarded with the mid-afternoon “supper,” a spread of fresh farm produce and eggs served in the field.
Details: 5879 Nikolai Rd., Finland, 218-353-7736, roundriver.com
Moonstone Farm. A few hours west of the Twin Cities, Moonstone’s “Broodio” is a tiny one-room roost on the bluffland that sleeps two. Appointed with original artwork and handmade furniture, this semi-solar-powered former brooder house (a coop for baby chicks) is a cozy spot where you’ll awake to morning birdsong and hear cattle lowing throughout the day. Farmers Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen raise grass-fed cattle, grow vegetables, and operate a vineyard. Visitors are welcome to help or just relax. “Some people help with the vineyards or pitch hay,” Arner says. “But most like to sip wine on the patio or wander in the garden and add to the list of birds in the farm journal, take a sauna, or sit on the beach near the pond.” In spring Arner offers “wild crafting” classes that involve foraging and cooking nettles, burdock, mushrooms, and watercress. Next year she plans to offer cooking classes that showcase Moonstone’s grass-fed beef, produce, and wine.
Details: 9060 SW 40th St., Montevideo, 320-269-8971, prairiefare.com/ moonstone
Nearby: Lac qui Parle State Park
What to Ask
Be sure to call ahead and ask lots of questions before committing to a stay. Most farms require a deposit and you want to know what to expect.
Does the farm provide meals? How do meals work?
Is bedding provided?
What are the bathing facilities?
Are city pets welcome? Don’t assume your dog will get along with the farm animals.
What will I experience or learn on your farm? If you’re interested in gardening, cheese-making, or having any specific farm experience, ask about it.
Agritourism (or agriturismo in Italian) is common throughout Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, where farm getaways play an important role in preserving rural food traditions and protecting small-farm livelihoods. In our country, farm stays have been instrumental in providing small, organic farmers needed income while helping connect city dwellers to the country.