New England Farm Stay Vacations
Rural Retreats to the Family Farm
“It always amazes me how many people are discovering, for the first time, where their food actually comes from.” Jackie Caserta, proprietor of The Inn at Valley Farms, echoes the sentiments of the growing number of innkeepers and farmers throughout New England. We are out in her garden admiring a vigorous garlic patch and talking about farm stay B&Bs. “It’s usually the country inn experience that attracts our guests at first,” Jackie says. “But after they’ve been with us a while, they begin to become involved in what we do here, and that’s what makes their experience really special.”
A farm stay vacation combines the relaxing pleasures of a rural retreat with the chance to experience first hand a little of what it takes to grow, raise, and tend the vegetables, fruits, and animals that sustain us. This kind of holiday has long been popular in Europe and the British Isles, and it’s a trend that is quickly catching on here, for reasons ranging from interest in organic food to a move toward environmentally-friendly tourism. And thanks to this “agri-tourism,” many small family farms are finding new ways to survive, even thrive.
We visited four such farms, each with a particular agricultural focus and its own ambiance.
Grand View Farm
We drive a few muddy miles in low gear to arrive at Grand View Farm at the crest of a hill in Washington, Vermont, where Kim Goodling and her husband, Chuck, raise sheep. This morning, pregnant ewes jostle each other in the stalls while new lambs nudge their mothers.
On any given day, Kim can count almost 100 mouths to feed: ewes, rams, lambs, llamas, angora goats and their kids, angora bunnies, meat birds and laying hens, pigs, a Border Collie and three cats. “And that doesn’t include people!”
A kitchen divides the family side of the house from the cozy guest rooms. Kim serves breakfast in the private parlor or, on beautiful days, outside on the porch that overlooks the “grand view.”
“People come here from everywhere, and for all kinds of reasons,” Kim explains. “There was the woman who simply wanted to work alongside me mucking out stalls for a weekend to get away from her day job in an office cubicle.” A father visits the farm with his young daughter. A wife gives her husband an anniversary gift of a weekend at the farm, complete with a day-long tutorial on how to raise sheep. Sisters and girlfriends come for reunions. Kim and her home-schooled children run a summer sheep and wool camp for children and their moms where they learn felting, weaving and braiding. And people book stays during lambing and shearing seasons for the express purpose of helping with those activities.
“My favorite story so far,” says Kim, “is the one about the young man from Montreal who brought his fianceé here (she had loved sheep since she was a little girl), had me tie a diamond ring to the collar of one of the ewes, and then led his bride-to-be on a ramble in the field where she discovered her ring in a heart-shaped envelope.” She laughed. “You can bet I tied that on with double knots!”
Liberty Hill Farm
Across the valley, in the lee of the Green Mountains along the White River, Liberty Hill Farm and B&B carries on a proud tradition of dairy farming in Rochester, Vermont. Beth Kennett and her husband, Bob, were the first farmers in the region to open their home and farm to visitors for an authentic farm experience. And authentic it is. We arrive to a spitting rain, but the B&B’s young guest-cum-tour-guide, Danielle, is undeterred. She bundles up in a pink jacket and dons rubber boots. First she shows us the tent-like pens that house the new calves, the ones she had helped feed that morning. Then she leads us to the cow barn. “I milked this one yesterday,” she says proudly. She goes on to explain how each cow has a name tag in her ear and how every calf will be named with the same first letter as the mother.
“I’m waiting to see a calf being born!” Danielle announces. We follow her to the “maternity ward” in another barn and there it is! A calf, not 15 minutes old, being licked by its mother. Danielle is over the moon. She runs to tell her parents and her younger sister Raquel. “Oh, and that’s Pearl,” she calls over her shoulder, “so her calf will have to have a name beginning with ‘P’.” Danielle and Raquel confer and agree that the newest arrival will be called ‘Princess.’ Their South African parents, along with a couple from India, are as charmed and excited as the children.
Inside the farmhouse, the common rooms are spacious and the bedrooms cheerful. Beth offers her visitors both breakfast and, when they return from exploring the regions many attractions, dinner served family style. As she puts the finishing touches on a carrot soufflé for tonight’s meal, she describes the cuisine. “It’s grandma’s cooking, really. Everything’s fresh and local.”
One of the ways this small operation can survive is that it is a member of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, a farmer-owned organization that provides markets for the milk produced by New England dairies like Liberty Hill. “The Vermont artisan cheese industry wouldn’t have developed without the help of Cabot. We have always had the philosophy of working together,” says Beth.
If Beth’s guest book entries are any indication, it’s the unique opportunity to participate in the life of a hard-working dairy family that draws visitors from all over the country and around the world and keeps them returning year after year.
Fern Hill Farm
At Fern Hill Farm in Naples, Maine, Amy and Bob Jensen cobble together a living that combines part time employment in the “outside world” with raising their Nubian goats and running a small B&B. Amy makes the goat’s milk cheeses that can be found on the menus of high-end restaurants in Portland. She confides that her delicately flavored Fern Hill chèvre owes its mild taste to the fact that they don’t keep a buck on the farm.
The house, which once belonged to Civil War hero Gardner Wiley, includes four painstakingly restored guest rooms, including the new Mt. Washington room which boasts a view of the storied peak as well as a bathroom fitted out with a claw-footed jacuzzi and a dish of Amy’s handmade goat’s milk soaps.
A chef by trade, Amy prepares a different breakfast every day, alternating the savory and the sweet in offerings that might include her goat cheese with maple almond topping, fresh fruit, eggs prepared many ways, crêpes, homemade bread and rolls and local sausage.
Bob and Amy and their four children, two sets of exuberant twins, are pleased to include guests in the daily activities of their farm lives.
“It’s hard work and a bit of a balancing act,” admits Amy. But clearly she and her family are happy with their choices.
The Inn at Valley Farms
The Inn at Valley Farms in Walpole, New Hampshire, is our last stop. The 1774 farmhouse, with its enormous barn and outbuildings on 105 rolling acres, offers beautifully appointed bedrooms, elegant parlors, and a dining room where guests gather at a long polished table for sumptuous breakfasts. Adjoining the inn are two roomy cottages with kitchens that are stocked daily with fresh eggs; across the meadow sits another farmhouse that can accommodate larger groups. Guests have carte blanche to snip herbs and pull vegetables from garden rows conveniently marked to aid uninitiated gleaners.
The Inn at Valley Farms might be called a laboratory (albeit a graceful and elegant one,) for green lodging practices, organic vegetable growing, and pasture-based methods of farming.
“Everything we do is geared toward sustainability,” Caserta says. Their cattle are 100% grass fed, daily rotated in fields kept fertilized by the “direct deposit” method. They don’t use any pesticides or commercial fertilizers.
The chickens and turkeys are pastured as well, feeding on the seeds and insects turned up by the cows. They are moved from site to grassy site in large wooden wheeled conveyances that resemble carnival wagons. Pigs roam the acres, further tilling and fertilizing the soil and providing more compost for the gardens. Many of them are heirloom Large Blacks whose velvety floppy ears fall over their eyes, an adaptation that protects them as they forage. Jackie’s half dozen cashmere goats are pets and, although they don’t produce enough wool to warrant spinning it, she has found the tufts they leave when they rub against fences recycled in the nests of wild birds.
Jackie and her brother Chris, who lives in a second farmhouse on the land, are experimenting with passive solar housing for their chickens to minimize the use of fossil fuels. And to further decrease their carbon footprint, they are in the process of constructing a portable hothouse in order to extend the gardens’ growing season.
Their beef, pork, and poultry are for sale at the farm. And what Jackie doesn’t harvest to feed her guests and family—breads and cheeses and cream—she buys from local purveyors whose commitment to organic produce matches her own.
Across the road from Alyson’s Orchard, which grows almost 100 varieties of heirloom apples and other fruits, close to excellent area restaurants, farmers’ markets, specialty stores and recreational opportunities of all sorts, The Inn at Valley Farms in the Connecticut River Valley provides an experience that is at once luxurious and satisfyingly down-to-earth.
So toss those mud boots and work gloves into the back of the car and head out into the countryside to experience firsthand a way of life that is all but disappearing from the land, traditions preserved by a dwindling few out of love and a deep commitment to notions of family and stewardship.
Collect the eggs and herbs that Jackie will make into your morning’s frittata. Pull a few carrots from Kim’s garden and, while you’re there, cut some of that kale you’ve been meaning to try. It’s marked on a stick at the end of the row in case you’re not sure where it is. Try your hand at making goat cheese; Amy will guide you through it. Take a turn at milking one of Beth and Bob’s cows.
A farm stay will refresh your spirits, nourish your body, and give you the added satisfaction of participating in the community of dedicated people who are hard at work keeping yesterday safe for tomorrow.
Photographs by Charter Weeks
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Agritourism is becoming increasingly popular across the U.S., from day-long excursions to longer farm-related vacations. Links to farms nationwide can be accessed here.
Another work and learn approach is provided by Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF-USA™), part of a world-wide effort to link volunteers with organic farmers.
Each half-day of volunteer help is traded for food and accommodation, with no money exchanged. WWOOF farms offer a variety of educational opportunities, including growing vegetables, keeping bees, building straw bale houses, working with animals, making wine, and more. The WWOOF-USA Host Farm Directory lists more than 1000 organic farms and gardens across the country. The program is open to anyone 18 years of age or older, regardless of experience.
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For complete information (including rates, directions, etc.) on the farm stay B&Bs mentioned in this article, please go to:
Grand View Farm
Liberty Hill Farm & Inn
Fern Hill Farm
Inn at Valley Farms
Other farm purveyors:
King Arthur Flour
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