Sunday, January 24, 2010

Farm of Peace

I visited the Farm of Peace, a farm stay and retreat center in Warfordsburg, PA last week. Here's my report.

Farm of Peace           

The Farm of Peace sits on 150 rolling acres of field and forest in South Central Pennsylvania, at the end of a long dirt road. Renata Parrino, animal caretaker, farm stay host, and head cook for retreats, is one of five farm owners. The owners are all part of a Sufi spiritual community who bought the farm in 2003. After focusing for years on offering a Sufi retreat, they have opened their beautiful and secluded farm to non-denominational visitors, and all are careful to make guests of any background feel welcome. A Philadelphia lawyer, who leased the fields to his neighbors for hay, was the farm’s previous owner. Yet neighbors still refer to the farm as “the old Gray place,” for the family who farmed the land before, raising pigs and cattle and selling eggs in nearby Hancock, MD. Neighbors tell Renata, “you better love the land like the Grays did,” and the current owners’ reverence for the land and careful stewardship indicate that they do.

Twenty Tunis sheep with copper-colored faces and legs graze the land in rotation, with two donkeys serving as protection for the herd. Tunis is a multipurpose breed that can be used for milk, meat, and wool. This flock is raised for meat, although a community member also plans to start using their wool for weaving rugs. Only five or six sheep are slaughtered a year, just enough meat to use for retreats and to sell to friends and neighbors. There are plans to increase the herd size in the future. The farm also supports a flock of laying hens, and roughly 200 pastured broiling hens during the summer. A large vegetable garden and small orchard produce organic vegetables and fruit for guests and for a CSA that’s offered to nearby communities.

Three main buildings -- the original farmhouse, a new retreat center, and a new event barn -- are scattered around the property. The farmhouse, which has two rooms available for farm stay guests, was built in three parts. First the original log cabin was built roughly 100 years ago, then two additions were added in the 1950s and 1970s. The second main building, a remarkable straw bale, passive solar retreat center, was completed in 2008 thanks to community donations and a beautiful design by Philadelphia-based green architect Sigi Koko. The third main building is a large, non-insulated barn where the farm’s annual Unity Music Festival is held.

The farm’s owners were inspired to open their farmhouse as a farm stay after meeting representatives of the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show. Hosting farm stay guests seemed like a good way to bring in additional income, to make use of the old farmhouse that they no longer used for retreats, and to invite more people to come and enjoy the farm. The Farm of Peace started accepting farm stay guests in 2009. Most visitors have been families with young kids, including a group of Russian tourists who visited twice, the second time with friends, to show them what a great time they had on a working American farm.

The old farmhouse is cozy, providing simple though comfortable accommodations in two rooms. The upstairs guest room is set up specifically to welcome families with young children, with play mats lining the floor and plenty of toys. Guests can walk the dirt roads or around the edges of the fields. Right outside the farmhouse, children can enjoy the swing set and sandbox, and can peek inside of the yurt when it’s not in use.

Breakfast ingredients are provided by the farm, most notably the fresh free-range eggs with their rich, creamy, deep orange yolks. Children are excited – and welcome -- to pet and feed the animals, and to collect eggs. As one guest remarked after sharing a meal with other member of the community, “being on a farm makes you see how hard it is to raise animals, it makes you think about food differently, and about the food chain. It makes you think about how much food you’re eating, and how much you’re wasting.”

The farm owners are considering opening the new retreat center to farm stay guests whenever retreats are not in session. Guests will be lucky if they do. The retreat center is warm and inviting, with massively thick, sixteen-foot-tall straw bale and cob walls, which act as a thermal mass that helps regulate the building’s temperature. The walls are hand-plastered and gently curved, and a geodesic dome provides the ceiling for a large meeting room. A wood-fired boiler heats the radiant floor. And a low-maintenance green roof populated by hardy sedges tops the flat part of the roof. A composting toilet and low-water flush toilets are available, and many of the guestrooms have private baths. The center has six bedrooms that sleep 14.

If you go:           
Rooms start at $50/night, with a DIY breakfast included.

Farm of Peace
1212 Haven Lane
Warfordsburg, PA 17267

member, PA Farm Vacation Association

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blog changes, Sleep in the hay!

I wanted to quickly explain the changes I made to my blog format a couple of weeks ago. Instead of sharing relevant articles that I come across as posts, I've started sharing them in the list to the right, via google reader, which, by the way, is a free service from google that I highly recommend. It's an excellent way to quickly digest and share lots of information. To view the entire list of articles that I've shared, click on "view all" at the bottom of the "articles of note" box.

My posts from now on will mainly include write-ups from my visits to farm stays. I'm writing up a few of these right now, so stay posted for stories and photos from Smithfield Farm in Berryville, VA, The Farm of Peace in Warfordsburg, PA, and Creek Crossing Farm in Lincoln, VA.

Also, check out the new website, and if you're a farmstay owner, sign up for a free, six month trial listing! Site creator Kari Brayman recognized the need for a website devoted solely to farmstays in the USA, and she aims to fill that gap.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Armstrong Farms

I visited Armstrong Farms in Saxonburg, PA a few days ago. Following are the notes from my interview with owners Kathy and John Allen. Unfortunately, it was snowy and not a good day for photos; fortunately, others have already taken some great photos of the farm. Thanks to DJ Pifemaster at for the lovely exterior photos.

Armstrong Farms sits on a vast 1000 gently rolling acres, with three separate and secluded barns where the Allens host weddings and offer many different b&b options, including five guest houses and cottages. Scots-Irish relatives of John with the last name of Love founded Armstrong Farms in 1816, and John is the 5th generation of his family to run the farm.

John Allen bought Armstrong Farms in the 1960s after he was injured in a motorcycle accident while a student at the University of Wisconsin. Returning home to Pennsylvania and the farm, John was able to complete his Masters of Arts in History while commuting to the University of Pittsburgh 25 miles away. Before John decided to raise cattle and expand the farm, Armstrong Farm's 1000 acres were home to a few different and diverse farms. Today, the farm sells hay and purebred Angus beef cattle, which mainly serve as a replacement herd for other farms. The cattle are treated to a system of rotational grazing, for which Armstrong Farms was chosen as a demonstration farm by the Natural Resources Conservation District. The Allens also sell some freezer beef, though in recent years they have found that potential customers had lost interest in cooking steaks and soup bones. Still, the Allens plan to sell more beef in the future, as the demand for whole local foods increases.

Kathy Allen decided to open the Armstrong Farms B&B in 1996 after a brief case of empty nest syndrome. Since then, the business has grown tremendously, and in addition to the one original farmhouse guest room, the Allens now offer two guest suites and five guest cottages and houses; the largest sleeps 12. Kathy enjoys developing and suggesting itineraries for guests, many of which include a trip to historic Saxonburg. The village, two and a half miles away from the farm, was founded in 1832 by German immigrant brothers John and Carl Roebling. John Roebling is better known for engineering wire rope suspension bridges, most famously the Brooklyn Bridge. Kathy also directs guests to two local wineries, a golf club, and a farm market, among other local businesses. For breakfast, Kathy treats guests to "lighter-than-air" souffles and "breakfast pizzas," individual-sized pie crusts topped with eggs and bacon.

Kathy is a great believer in capitalism, and she's happy that her business has been successful enough to provide employment to so many people in the area -- including high school and college students -- during the peak summer wedding season. She also keeps the other area b&b's filled with wedding guests. "When the local businesses work together," reflects Kathy, "it provides a reason for each of us to exist." The vibrant association of Saxonburg area businesses provide experiences and products that both locals and tourists appreciate.

Kathy says that her greatest success has been "creating the wedding niche," which began, modestly enough, when one couple asked to have their wedding at the farm. Since then, the Allens started little by little to grow their wedding business, and focused simply on developing good services and products. Last year, Armstrong Farms hosted about 60 weddings, and that number has continued to grow every year.

Despite keeping busy with the b&b and weddings, Kathy still remains somewhat involved with the farm animals. She went to school in Colorado for collecting and transferring embryos, which is helpful when it comes to breeding the animals. She also has a Masters of Social Work, which she says is helpful for wedding hosting. As Kathy notes, "We care about the brides and grooms," and she prides herself in giving couples lots of options and really letting them take control of their event. She aims to create an entire wedding weekend, not just a wedding day, and her goal is for guests to come away from the farm content and relaxed.

Since their marriage, Kathy and John have worked together as partners on many of their projects. Adaptively reusing the Fieldstone Barn, one of the main wedding venues, feels particularly special, because the barn is emotionally significant for them -- it once served as the farm's main barn, and housed many generations of cattle. When the barn's roof started wearing out, the Allens decided to restore it, but they wanted to be pragmatic about the expense. They have, of course, reaped the rewards of their restoration.

Kathy says that she doesn't plan to retire. Florida vacations don't appeal to the Allens; she and John take a walk down the street from their house to a suite in one of the barns when they need a break. There, they have their own private retreat.

According to John, "Everyone used to have relatives with a farm, and they would spend vacations there. Now hardly anyone has the opportunity to spend time on a farm." The Allens are proud to offer guests the opportunity explore their farm, to visit the barn and feed the animals, and to camp, fish, hunt, and horseback ride for those who bring their own horses. Guests can take advantage of seven miles of hiking trails on the property and three stocked ponds for fishing. Through a collaboration with Ducks Unlimited and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Allens have restored and developed wetlands, planted tree seedlings, and established warm grassland habitat, with the aim of providing cover and nesting areas for many birds and mammals. The Allens also offer a guided wildflower and bird identification walk each May to support the local library. And history buffs will be intrigued by the farm's Civil War-era belt buckles and other curiosities that have been turned up in a field that was once the site for a soldiers' meetinghouse; a display case now holds the antiques.

The countryside surrounding the farm, particularly to the south, is developing quickly with both residential and commercial construction. The Allens have sold off close to 450 acres of development rights for their farm, which will make a big difference in future years, considering the increasing pressure on rural property in the area. The family holds regular meetings to make decisions like the one to sell the farm's development rights. Kathy and John, together with their children, have decided that they want to preserve their farm, and they want the farm to be green. Says Kathy, "It's tempting to develop the land, but it's really not necessary. We don't want to have the temptation to develop, and we don't want anyone else to, either."