Alternative vacation: City slickers, suburbanites head to farms | June 7, 2004

As reported by Judy Lin, Associated Press Writer, in the  June 7, 2004:

” One sunny morning, a lanky middle-age man who likes to be called Farmer Dale lifted a wooden panel revealing a square cutout in his chicken coop. From there, half a dozen free-range hens strutted out in a line on the chicken run.

‘It’s like a fashion show of chickens,’ 9-year-old Tresa Rentler screeched to 15 of her fellow Brownie Girl Scouts gathered in a half-circle at the bottom of the runway. Little feet shuffled in the grass to make room for the exiting flock. High-pitch gasps turned into sighs at the sight of chicks nesting inside.

Rentler, like many of the suburban Pittsburgh tweens in her troop, has never been to a farm, much less participated in the morning chores of feeding animals and collecting eggs. Yet the girls and their mothers are part of a growing number of city dwellers and suburbanites choosing to spend their vacations on farms instead of taking conventional excursions to the beach or mountains.

The federal government does not track how much farmers make from hospitality services each year, but farm associations and agritourism officials say farm vacations are a popular niche business that help preserve America’s heritage.

One Northeastern state that has charted the growth of farm vacations and other farm visits is Vermont, where the agritourism business took in $19.5 million in 2002, up from $10.5 million in 2000, according to Michael Schaefer, communications director for the Vermont agriculture agency. The figure, however, represents only 4 percent of the state’s total farm income.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering adding an agritourism question to the agricultural census, which would allow the business to be tracked nationally, said Aubrey Davis, director of the New England Agricultural Statistics Service.

Troop 495 leader Bernadette Gardner and the other troop mothers said they wanted their daughters to know the joys and rewards of a simpler life before they’re enveloped by the 21st century bustle of music lessons and soccer practices.

In turn, the adults get to shut off their cell phones and reconnect with a once-common experience for most American families.

‘We just thought it’d be a great experience for the girls,’ said Gardner, who found the troop’s farm vacation package online.

Preliminary figures from the most recent agriculture census show a continued decline in the number of America’s farms, from 2.2 million in 1997 to 2.1 million in 2002. And nearly 60 percent of farms recorded less than $10,000 in sales.

While people in the West have a tradition of hosting guests _ think dude ranches _ farmers in the East have only recently started opening their private homes and cottages to strangers in an effort to supplement low food prices, Davis said.

‘Farmers are desperate. In my mind, they need to do all they can for business,’ he said.

To combat the loss, states like New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida and Maryland are working to bring more visitors onto farms, whether it’s getting people to spend a few hours picking fruit or living the life of a farmer for weeks at a time.

North Carolina has created an office dedicated to agritourism while Indiana is working to compile county by county lists of agri-destinations on the state’s official Web site. Most are tailoring their promotions around their traditional crops, with Hawaii planning a railway for visitors to tour a sugarcane plantation on Kauai.

Many guests come from Europe, where farm stays are as common as bed and breakfasts, and some can be counted among the post-Sept. 11 travel-weary. Others are hardened city dwellers seeking an escape.

‘People from Washington or New York, they just want to get out of the city for a while,’ said Gary Schubert, who runs Hummerhaven Farmstead in central Pennsylvania. ‘We have a ball. Some just want to get on a tractor or roll a ball of hay or just shovel manure.’

Schubert, who welcomes about 300 people a year, says the initial loss of cell phones and satellite televisions can be unnerving for some. But for $75 a night for a cottage near wooded trails, rivers and rolling valleys, they soon learn to let go.

‘They go through withdrawal the first day. They’re pacing, not sure what to do with themselves and then the start taking to an animal or get into a paddle boat and the next day they’re not as jittery,’ Schubert said.

German newspaper correspondent Wolfgang Koydl said he took his wife, their 9-year-old daughter and their border collie mix to Hummerhaven over the Easter holiday because it was within driving distance of Washington, D.C., they had fond memories of staying on farms in Austria, and the Schuberts were among the few operators who accepted pets.

‘That sort of cinched it for us,’ said Koydl, who writes for Suddeutsch Zeitung.

Farmer Dale, aka Dale Tudor, began operating Weatherbury Farm Vacations, a 100-acre parcel of land 25 miles west of Pittsburgh near the Ohio border, in the early ’90s after he lost his job during a downsizing at drug-maker Bayer Corp. With the help of his wife, Marcy, and son, Nigel, the family has renovated the farmhouse and recently added a barn.

The farm offers the intimacy of a bed and breakfast in a rural setting and a respite from city congestion, strip malls and stress.

‘When I was a kid, my grandparents had a farm. They don’t have farms anymore. They’re more likely to be living in a condominium on a beach,’ said Marcy Tudor, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association, which has two dozen members.

Proponents now include the mothers of the Brownie troop, who snapped pictures of their daughters feeding corn and hay to heifers, lambs and goats. Darlene Gray, 41, who brought her daughter Casey, 8, said with dance, softball and karate piling on top of school, it’s important to ‘just get away.’

After chores, the group hiked up a grassy hill to share a picnic lunch.”