Friday, May 28, 2010
When my sister and I were growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania, our best friends lived just down the hill and across the field from us. Their father had a great big garden that captured our imaginations and encouraged us to dream. We kids would feast on strawberries and scheme to get rich selling the extras from the end of their driveway. Nobody ever stopped to buy our strawberries, but we weren't too discouraged; the strawberries tasted too good for us to be sad about it, and besides the cornstalks were starting to grow. I really couldn't believe that something as incredible as an ear of corn could have such humble beginnings, starting out as one single shriveled kernel pushed into the soil of a little cup.
Like many lucky kids, exploring nearby fields and watching a garden grow were essential parts of my childhood. Children gain so much from having the opportunity to roam and explore a chunk of land, and to see and eat their food at its source. A hundred years ago, Americans often took vacations to farms simply because many people in those days had relatives who farmed. Over the years, the percentage of farmers has dropped to below 2% of the population, and most of us have lost our connections with farms. But losing that connection has meant missing out on what was once a key part of life - exploring the countryside, and learning about and tasting the freshest possible food.
To honor the place I grew up, here are six hands-on, family-friendly farm vacations in PA. Pennsylvania has one of the oldest and most active Farm Vacation Associations; check out their website to find more PA farm stays.
1. Weatherbury Farm, a 102-acre, organic grass-fed cattle and sheep farm 45 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, draws many of the same guests back year after year. Owners Dale and Marcy Tudor pride themselves in offering guests a fully interactive farm stay experience, with many opportunities for kids, especially, to get involved in farming. Families staying for two or more nights are given a packet filled with coloring & activity books. Regardless of age, kids are invited to earn an official "Weatherbury Farm Kid" certificate and cow wristband, which are awarded after helping with farm chores and completing a workbook.
The main Weatherbury guesthouse, called the Livery, is an area barn that the Tudors transported from a nearby farmstead, rebuilt, and renovated. The rough barn exterior belies surprising elegance on the inside, with 20-ft loft ceilings, a deeply-lacquered original hayloft wood floor, and lovely antiques. Farm breakfasts are served in a large dining and common room in the lower level of the Livery.
Rates start at $127/night for a two night stay. www.weatherburyfarm.com
2. 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.
Twenty Tunis sheep with copper-colored faces graze the land in rotation, with two donkeys serving as protection for the herd. The farm also supports a flock of laying hens, and roughly 200 pastured broiling hens during the summer. Children are excited - and welcome -- to pet and feed the animals, and to collect eggs. A large vegetable garden and small orchard produce organic vegetables and fruit for guests and for a CSA that's offered to nearby communities.
Families are welcome to stay in the farm's original, 1900 farmhouse. Occasionally, the new retreat center is also available (but only for guests ages 16 and up). It's a remarkable straw bale, passive solar building designed by Philadelphia-based green architect Sigi Koko. 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.
Rates start at $50/night, with a DIY breakfast included. www.farmofpeace.com
3. Mountain Dale Farm
Ken and Sally Hassinger have created a little cottage village for guests on their farm in Central Pennsylvania. The cottages have been fully recycled, after serving a range of functions in their previous lives. All of the cottages have kitchens and bathrooms. In addition to the eight recycled cottages - which sleep 2 to 14 - there are also three rustic forest cabins. The Hassingers offer four more rooms in their farmhouse. The Hassingers grow mostly field crops on their 175 acres, including corn, grain, and hay. Most of the field crops go towards making feed for the animals, the rest are sold to guests and locals. Mountain Dale Farm also has a herd of 60 beef cattle, chickens, ducks, sheep, and fainting goats (a special breed that actually falls over when startled). Guests (especially kids) are welcome to gather eggs and help feed the animals. Near the guest cottages, a pond offers opportunities for fishing and skating.
Rates start at $30/night for rustic forest cabins, and $70/night for efficiency cottages. www.mountaindale.net
4. Stone Haus Farm is a three story, 200-year-old stone farmhouse B&B situated on 100 acres of Lancaster County farmland. The farm grows the best celery you might ever try, so sweet and tender that it could win over even the celery adverse. Merv and Angie Shenk, along with their three children, are friendly and helpful hosts. Accommodations are family-oriented: each room sleeps four, and a playground, yard games, and barn rope swing await adventurous kids. Guests are welcome to feed the goats, gather eggs from the hens, and tour the fields. Breakfast is served family-style at the farmhouse's long dining room table, and features Lancaster classics like baked oatmeal and shoofly cake, along with fruit, sausage, and scrambled eggs.
Rates start at $69/night. www.stonehausfarmbnb.com
5. Schantz Haus Farm, historic homestead of Swiss Amishman Josef Schantz, the founder of the nearby city of Johnstown, is notable for its big, old barn, rich family history, and present-day dairy farm. Although friendly host Jeanette Hunsberger, with typical modesty, says that the three farmhouse B&B rooms are not romantic or fancy, they are in fact lovely, comfortable and simply, beautifully decorated with antiques. The guest common room has a separate entrance, plus a TV, microwave, and fridge, along with a photo album where Jeanette records all of the guests who stay here.
The Hunsbergers sell the milk from their 80-Holstein herd to the Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative. In the farm's large garden, the Hunsbergers grow vegetables, berries, and grapes. They've also got peach and apple trees scattered about the property. Jeanette cooks seasonal breakfasts with her garden's bounty when possible, and she is happy to oblige requests for the farm's delicious fresh milk. Jeanette also has a few sheep, which she keeps for their wool. Guests are welcome to tour the farm, help to bottle feed a calf or milk a cow, or to simply observe fieldwork and milking. In addition to the dairy operation, the farm also grows field crops -- feed corn, hay, beans, and wheat. The original farm comprised 118 acres of woods; now the Hunsbergers farm on 800 acres.
Rates start at $50/night. www.schantzhaus.com
The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a 150-mile trail open to cyclists and hikers, stretches from Cumberland, MD to near Pittsburgh, PA, passes only one mile from Stepping Stone Farm. Many cyclists, some of whom are "thru-bicycling" the GAP, stay at the B&B, as the trail passes only one mile from the farm. The Rempels offer a courtesy shuttle for cyclists arriving in the little town of Confluence. Train lovers will also enjoy seeing the train passing literally along the edge of the Rempels' backyard, hauling coal or passengers across Western Pennsylvania. A short walk from the farmhouse is a swimming hole in Casselman Creek where a beaver can sometimes be spotted. For nighttime entertainment, the Rempels offer a campfire, featuring a glittering show of fireflies, satellites, and stars.
Rates start at $80/night. www.steppingstonefarmbnb.com