Down on the Farm

“A vacation on a working farm helps youngsters cultivate a new appreciation for their rural roots”
 Baltimore Sun | May 19, 2002

As reported by Peter Jensen, in the Baltimore Sun  May 19, 2002: ” What do you call it when a suburban, minivan-driving family of four is transplanted to a small family farm in rural southwestern Pennsylvania where children are expected to help with the daily chores?

Some might call it cruel and unusual punishment, others a potential PBS miniseries.

We called it a vacation.

For three days and two nights, my 6-year-old daughter Anna, my 3-year-old son Daniel and my wife and I lived and sometimes worked on Weatherbury Farm, a 102-acre spread in the rolling Allegheny foothills about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

We were determined to have a back-to-nature adventure, or at least hark back to our modest agrarian roots (my mother was raised on a farm — and harked the heck out of there at the earliest opportunity). It seemed high time the children learned that hamburger patties don’t grow on trees.

The notion that living on a farm could be a vacation is not new, but it’s a concept whose time has arrived. Have children ever been less aware of rural life? A growing number of farms and ranches are offering overnight lodgings, and an experience that is more evocative and educational than a mere field trip.

My first clue that my own children might require such a lesson took place several years ago when Anna was in preschool. On a tour of a cider mill, the guide asked her class, “Can anyone tell me where apple cider comes from?”

My daughter’s hand shot up, and her reply was unabashed: “From cans.”

After the laughter died down, she turned to me and whispered, “I should have said bottles, right, Dad?”

Weatherbury Farm is a five-hour drive from Baltimore in the tiny village of Avella, spitting distance from West Virginia’s northern panhandle and a stone’s throw from Ohio.

I discovered the farm by accident — it was listed on a Web site sponsored by the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association. Weatherbury advertises itself as child-friendly and family-oriented and a “perfect escape from every day pressures.”

From the moment we drove through the gates, we knew this was going to be an authentic farm experience. Weatherbury’s 30 or so head of cattle were grazing the hillside. Guinea fowl were scrambling to climb a tree for their evening roost. A white picket fence surrounded the 150-year-old farmhouse.

And, in the true test of a family farm, the half-painted barn looked from the outside like it could collapse in a stiff wind.

Welcome to the country

“We tell people we’re not Disneyland,” says Marcy Tudor, 55, who runs Weatherbury with her husband, Dale, and 21-year-old son, Nigel. “We don’t have people with pooper scoopers running behind the animals.”

The Tudors made us feel immediately at home, inviting us on a brief tour of the property and their two-story clapboard house, a portion of which dates to 1830. Anna got a chance to hold baby chicks that had recently hatched in an incubator the family kept in the living room.

The interior of the house is cheery and country-friendly, full of dried flowers, quilts and a scattering of toys with a farming theme. The kitchen is filled with antiques, red-handled tools and a refrigerator from the 1920s.

It was getting late, so we adjourned to our room in an outbuilding, a renovated one-time summer kitchen with a queen-size bed, sleep sofa, stone fireplace and some charming antique fixtures, including a claw-foot tub.

Aside from a few ladybugs that didn’t exactly charm Anna but amused Daniel, we had no complaints. As a gentle rain struck the tin roof, we dreamed of green meadows, quiet solitude and the chores ahead.

We rose at 7 a.m., jostled awake by a rat-a-tat sound that turned out to be a woodpecker who had discovered that pecking on the metal fence near our room was much more satisfying than knocking on mere wood.

Outside our door, the air smelled fresh and clean, but rather damp as it was still raining hard. The children would soon learn their first farm lesson: Just like in the city, the combination of dirt and water equals mud puddles that are ever so much fun to splash in.

Over breakfast, we learned that Weatherbury, named after the village in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, became a bed and breakfast 10 years ago. The Tudors loved the intimacy of a B&B and had wanted to get in the business for years before that. They already lived in the Pittsburgh area thanks to Dale’s job as an executive with Bayer, the multinational chemical and health care company.

The fact that Weatherbury was a farm was a bonus for Dale, who grew up on one. “It’s a lifestyle you miss,” says Dale, 49. “Living in the suburbs is not the same thing. It’s nice having all the space.”

Dale is lean and lanky, deep-voiced and somewhat stoic. Marcy, who describes herself as a farm wife, runs the B&B. She’s friendly and also efficient (she helps local farmers with their tax preparations).

As we get our fill of banana pancakes, eggs and potatoes, the grownups start to wonder about how the kids will react to their chores. Will Anna be intimidated by the livestock? Will she even go near them? Will Daniel chase the ducks and geese (a Weatherbury no-no) or climb the machinery (a double no-no)?

My wife and I cross our fingers.

Popular experience

According to the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, there are about 20,000 B&Bs in the United States with probably fewer than a thousand located on some type of farm or ranch.

But as a niche market, the family farm vacation appears to be gaining popularity. Jerry Phillips, the association’s executive director, speculates that families seek exactly what my family was looking for — a reconnection with the rural life and the very basics of the food chain.

“It’s an incredible experience,” says Phillips, a longtime B&B owner. “We want to return to a sense of our rural roots and solace, particularly since the events of last Sept. 11.”

The combination has also provided an opportunity for struggling farmers to get into a new business — albeit one that is probably as difficult, financially uncertain and time-consuming as farming.

At Weatherbury, chores are always optional at any age, but the Tudors say most children want to pitch in. The farm’s herd of Hereford beef cattle require relatively little attention, which leaves the daily feeding and basic care of the sheep, chickens, ducks, geese and goats to Dale and his visitors.

“We don’t expect guests to do a whole lot of manual labor,” he says. “It’s all meant to be relaxing.”

Several weeks before we arrived, the Tudors sent a copy of their safety rules for us to explain to the children. They take these precautions seriously, partly because many of their guests have never been on a farm.

“Some people who come here do know a lot, but it’s surprising how many know very little about farming,” Dale says. “They know much more about football and baseball. I guess that’s the way things are.”

Lila Chapman, who co-owns a B&B in downtown Seattle as well as one on a small farm 17 miles northeast of the city, says she and her husband have found running the farm more enjoyable because the visitors are relaxed and appreciative.

“People come to a farm and they’re more laid back. They don’t expect a computer hook-up in the room or a private phone,” says Chapman, owner of Red Barn Country Inn in Woodinville.

“Kids learn about rams and ewes, and their eyes get as big as saucers,” she says. “It’s amazing how people nowadays haven’t been exposed to rural life of any kind.”

Donna Justin, co-owner of Justin Trails Resort in western Wisconsin, says she and her husband converted from a dairy farm to a farm resort in 1996 chiefly because the “farm economy had gone south. … We liked the land and we wanted to stay here.”

These days, the Justins still grow corn and alfalfa, but the guests are more likely to be hiking or skiing than helping with chores. Most guests, she says, are city folk who want the privacy of living on a farm.

Farming organizations in several states have begun to actively promote the farm B&B experience. At Olde Fogie Farm near Lancaster, Pa., a one-time organic tobacco farm was converted into a vacation getaway 15 years ago.

“Why were we raising organic tobacco?” Biz Fogie, the farm’s co-owner, now wonders. “Nobody cared for that, so we tried just about everything else until we saw an ad looking for farmers who wanted to start bed and breakfasts.”

In their first year in business, the Fogies entertained 118 people. Last year, they had more than 1,000 visit their farm and its menagerie of animals, including turkeys and llamas, a pot-bellied pig and pair of peacocks.

Their favorite stories are of the engineer who was puzzled by how roosters could get around to all those eggs to fertilize them, and the city slickers who enjoy collecting eggs but would rather eat the store-bought variety for breakfast.

“As if there was a difference because they came in Styrofoam,” Fogie says.

Eager helpers

By 10 a.m. Saturday, it’s time for the kids to tromp off to the barn and get dirty — well, dirtier. We leave the breakfast dishes behind and head out to the barn, the children armed with bottles of formula for the baby sheep, goat and calf. The bottles get sucked down fast, and the children are delighted to play surrogate moms.

Then it’s time to hand out cracked corn to the ducks and geese, pitch hay to the goats and the baby animals, and refill water containers all around. The children even help feed the Scottish Highland cattle who, along with their intimidatingly long horns, are kept safely behind a fence. Next, they feed the cats — the dozen or so mouse-chasers no barn could do without — and then it’s on to the henhouse.

The Tudors keep a variety of chickens, and Dale instructs his young helpers how to tell them apart. He demonstrates as much skill as a teacher than as a livestock handler, patiently fielding questions and encouraging the children’s curiosity.

Inside the chicken coop, young Daniel is so proud to find an actual chicken egg that he spikes it — NFL-wide-receiver-style — into the wire basket with predictable results.

“Scrambling them a little early, Daniel,” Dale chides.

Later, the kids will climb a hill and help fly a kite. They’ll feed the same animals in the early evening and on Sunday before we leave. Not once is Anna intimidated by a single animal, not even the mother goose who likes to chase guests.

By the third day, she’s memorized most of the animals’ names. She can even tell many of the cats apart, a task that can tax the Tudors themselves.

On Sunday morning, the Tudors present both children with certificates as official “Junior Weatherbury Farm Kids” for their demonstrated knowledge of farming (an honor given only to children who have met the standards, properly identifying animals, taking a farm tour, reading a book on farming and helping with chores), and Marcy even posts their names on the farm’s Web site. The kids are delighted.

Rural-life museum

After chores are finished, the Tudors’ son, Nigel, gives us a tour of his blacksmith shop, where he forges decorative fences, light fixtures and many other works of art in iron. Nigel first learned his trade at nearby Meadowcroft Village, part of a local museum where authentic 1890s farm life is re-created.

Meadowcroft is also home to an archaeological dig that has uncovered evidence of human activity from 16,000 years ago. (The museum and village open for the season May 25.)

Still clutching their awards, Anna and Daniel spend a good chunk of the five-hour drive home asking even more questions about what it’s like to live on a farm. After a weekend with the livestock, their parents are still no experts, but we are pleased to see their curiosity piqued and ask them what they enjoyed most.

“I like feeding the goats and the lambs the best because they drank from bottles,” says Anna. “You could act like they were babies.

“So when are we going back?”

Even budding farm families can’t spend all their time on the homestead. Fortunately, there are some unexpected delights in the lower left-hand corner of the Keystone State near Weatherbury Farm.

Your first stop has to be Breezy Heights, a family restaurant and golf range less than a mile from Weatherbury. It’s a unique outpost — a one-time dance hall with a 1930s-era mural of rural life with golfers in their knickers.

At one end of the dining room is an assembly of stuffed animals including a lion, a leopard and a standing black bear, not to mention the antler chandeliers, bear rugs and stools made from elephant feet.

Ask to sit in a booth overlooking the miniature golf course, and be sure to order the broasted chicken. What is broasted chicken? Was it some combination of broiling and roasting? We had no idea until we talked to Alice and Dominic Esposto, owners of Breezy’s since 1954.

Here’s a hint: The restaurant’s deep-fat fryer was made by the Broaster Co.

The other can’t-miss spot is the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, Pa. Like other cities, including Baltimore, Pittsburgh once had an impressive network of streetcars.

Call in advance and ask if a volunteer named Bryant Schmude is on duty. Rarely will you meet someone more passionate on the subject of streetcars.

On the day we toured, Bryant had spent the night at the museum cleaning up a vintage streetcar that once served the nearby town of Munhall. A Munhall Girl Scout troop was visiting.

After we toured the museum and took a ride on the Munhall trolley, we headed over to Bethany College, about a half-hour drive west in West Virginia. The private liberal arts college made headlines this year when it dropped its tuition a whopping 42 percent to spur admissions.

The most interesting tourist attraction here is the Campbell Mansion, 19th-century home of religious leader Alexander Campbell, the college’s founder. Be sure to ask about the French wallpaper and the unique hexagonal study.

Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-70 west to I-68 west across Western Maryland. At Morgantown, W.Va., take I-79 north to Washington, Pa., and get back on I-70 west. Take Exit 17, Jefferson Avenue, and turn west on Route 844. Turn right 12 miles later at Route 231 and left on Sugar Run Road.

Weatherbury Farm, 1061 Sugar Run Road, Avella, PA 15312

724-587-3763 ”

The sidebar to the article described an “ideal day at Weatherbury Farm.”:

” 8:30 a.m.: Breakfast on French toast stuffed with peaches at Weatherbury Farm and listen to Nigel Tudor’s stories about city folk who don’t know the difference between a hen and a rooster. (Make a mental note not to say anything too foolish.)

10 a.m.: Chore time. Wear boots if you have them. “Not everything brown around here is dirt,” Marcy Tudor says.

Noon: Lunch of broasted chicken at Breezy Heights restaurant. Maybe hit a few golf balls, too.

1:30 p.m.: Head to Pennsylvania Trolley Museum and ride the short line, learn about streetcars and pick up a toy train in the gift shop.

3:30 p.m.: Drive to Bethany College and stop by Campbell Mansion. Walk across the hilly campus to work off that broasted chicken.

6 p.m.: Pick up supplies for a picnic back at Weatherbury Farm.

7 p.m.: Time for evening chores. Make sure the children fill out their workbooks, so they’ll be eligible for certificates of achievement.

9 p.m.: Slip under your quilt and nod off to sleep. You earned it. ”