City Slickers welcome

Pittsburgh Post Gazette | August 1, 2004

As reported by Karen Kane, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on August 1, 2004:

” Sure, even a preschooler knows that hens lay eggs.

But, does your 10-year-old really understand that the plateful Mom serves for breakfast doesn’t start out in the Styrofoam carton at Giant Eagle?

One short trip to Washington County’s Weatherbury Farm in Independence is an instant lesson in the connection between the bounty of the table and the bounty of the land.

Proprietors Marcy Tudor and her husband, ‘Farmer Dale,’ are making it their business to give city-slicked kids a taste of authentic farm life.

And they’re not the only ones.

According to the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association, 26 family farms across the state are playing host to visitors. Some raise sheep, others have dairy cows. Some are home to ostriches and peacocks, while others have beef cattle. Some offer horseback riding, others provide fishing and hiking.

All are marketing a smattering of rural charm with their hearty breakfasts and a chance for kids — and parents, if they like — to get their hands dirty with more than just the dust from a soccer field or the sweat from a ball bat.

Call it the Northeast’s answer to the Western dude ranch.

‘What we all have in common is that we’re offering to people an experience that’s getting harder and harder to find,’ said Kathy Allen, who, with her husband, John, owns Armstrong Farms Bed & Breakfast in Clinton, Butler County.

‘Not too many years ago, everybody either grew up on a farm or had grandparents or an aunt and uncle who lived on a farm. Well, those family farms don’t exist anymore, but the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation is allowing people to have the experience.’

From the weathered wooden boards of the 1850s farmhouse to the rusted hand pump outside the old ice house, Weatherbury Farm’s unvarnished beauty and no-frills functionality is an immediate transport to a slower time, a quieter place.

These are not the manicured lawns and brightly painted outbuildings of Amish country.

As Marcy Tudor puts it, Weatherbury is a working beef cattle farm and definitely not a Disney resort.

A recent visit there found all six sleeping quarters filled with visitors from as far away as Wisconsin and as close as Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood. Named after the village in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd,” it was the Tudors’ subtle way of emphasizing the great divide between farm and city, though it’s only 20 miles from Pittsburgh.

The day here begins with farm chores, and everybody is invited to pitch in after they’ve indulged in a hearty breakfast served in an old livery that was transported piece by piece in 1997 to Weatherbury from a farm in Washington, Pa.

One of the chores is collecting eggs from the henhouse, where the kids also get to hold the next generation of laying hens. Then there’s the bottle-feeding of sheep and the feeding of goats, who eat corn kernels from the children’s hands. The rabbits, geese, ducks and guinea fowl that run loose — plus two dozen cats that include a quad of weeks-old kittens — need attention, too.

When chores are done, guests can take long walks in the pasture aside a field of cultivated hay with charming vistas in each direction. The backdrop to it all: the low-slung moo of the cattle grazing on the hillside outside the livery, the bleating of goats, the squawking of fowl.

Children who stay two or more nights are encouraged to complete an educational coloring and activity book about farming and farm life. In exchange, each child is named an “Official Weatherbury Farm Kid” and is given a certification verifying the same.

Marcy Tudor said the idea of a farm vacation business had its roots in the couple’s experience with bed-and-breakfasts in Germany, where her husband was on assignment for Bayer in 1980 and ’81.

A decade later, they moved to the farm and now raise Hereford and Scottish Highland cattle and grow a mix of timothy grass, clover and alfalfa on 50 acres of the 100-acre spread.

‘ We just love the lifestyle,’ said Dale Tudor, who was raised on a farm.

It’s the same for Kathy Allen, co-owner of Armstrong Farms. Her three children are the sixth generation to live on the cattle farm. While it is a lucrative, thriving business, she said she decided to open her spread to visitors in 1996 as an antidote to the empty-nest syndrome following her youngest son’s departure for college.

Nature is the emphasis for the visitor to Armstrong Farms, where miles of walking trails traverse the property, three fishing ponds are stocked with bass and trout, and ducks and cats and goats roam. A main attraction for the children who visit are the dozens of calves on the property. ‘ They help us feed them and tag them and have even helped deliver some,’ Allen said.

She enjoys knowing that for many kids, it will be their only firsthand experience with a farm and the work that goes into running one.

Jim Eriser believes he’s doing God’s work in giving families an opportunity to experience the serenity of nature. Eriser helps his wife, Juanita Martin, with their farm, Ber-Nita Acres, in Beaver County.

‘ We’re an opportunity for people to appreciate nature, away from the hubbub of city and suburban life. They get to see up close some of the gifts God has given us, whether they choose to take advantage of them or not,’ Eriser said.

The 92-acre farm in North Sewickley is home to ostriches, beef cattle, sheep, peacocks, ducks and geese and sports two large ponds suitable for fishing and paddle and row boating. It’s been a three-room bed-and-breakfast for six years, though Martin had farmed the land for 42.

Eriser said children are delighted to feed the fowl that roam free on his property and collect their feathers. And he delights in watching them come face-to-face with nature.

‘ We get a lot out of it, too,’ he said.

Judy Davis said the families who visit her 166-acre farm just outside Westmoreland County near Blairsville are ‘ awestruck ‘ by the amount of work it takes to raise her standard-bred race horses and to maintain her menagerie of goats, alpacas, ducks and geese.

‘ It’s morning to night, seven days a week. Kids from the city and the suburbs don’t get that,’ said Davis, owner of Jed’s B&B Farmhouse and Cabin by the Woods.

She said she has been moved by the interest and passion of children who visit, recalling in particular a group of youngsters, all 10 years old or younger, who visited her farm and plied her with intelligent questions about the operations there.

‘ It’s clear when they come here they’re responding to something deep inside themselves that’s being brought to the surface by the experience of being out here, away from it all,’ said Davis, who has operated the farm vacation spot since 1989.

Visitors wander through the barn and outbuildings, feed the animals, fish the pond and experience firsthand the peace of country living, she said.

‘ People just don’t get this experience in their day-to-day lives anymore,’ Davis said. ‘ They have to seek it out. And when they do, I think they’re amazed at what they find.’ ”