WALTON, New York — There are those who might say throwing bales of hay is a stupid way to spend a vacation — especially a vacation where the accommodations cost $332 a night, tax and fresh eggs included.
But in a world where small farmers need to diversify to keep their fields afloat and city dwellers are more desperate than ever to learn where their food comes from, a “haycation” for about the price of a nice hotel room in Manhattan didn’t seem like such a far-fetched idea.
For my family, the appeal was a fancy floored tent with a flush toilet and running water. On the Web site, it looked bigger than a junior one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I’m no stranger to this kind of thing. My mother grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. I was once so tough, I hiked for days across Alaskan tundra. But I have gone soft from all this city living. And my partner makes a point of telling me regularly that her people don’t camp.
On the other hand, we have a toddler who had never seen a live chicken. And I was desperate to get out of the city and eat vegetables still warm from the sun. So what if I had to do chores? How tough could a $300-a-night farm stay be?
This is essentially how we talked ourselves into spending a long weekend at Stony Creek Farm in Delaware County, New York, a part of the Catskills so rough that most everyone who grew up there describes it as “two stones to every dirt.”
Sleeping and eating on a farm is a common way to vacation in Europe, where the ties to farming are strong and motels are few. It’s rare but not unheard of in the United States. Stony Creek Farm is part of a new way to get hay in your hair.
The owners are often young, recent converts to farming, with few acres and strongly held beliefs: Animals should be raised on pasture, vegetables should be grown without chemicals, and America needs to be re-educated about food.
They cater to people looking for a connection to their food that goes beyond a stroll through the local farmers’ market. Their customers, like me, want to get manure on their Vans.
“When we first started, we were like, ‘Why would somebody want to come to a farm?’ ” said Kevin McNaught, a former chef from Boston who bought Trevin Farms in Vermont with his partner six years ago. “We were pleasantly surprised that there are a whole lot of people out there who want to know what a brussels sprout looks like when it’s growing, and actually want to milk a goat.”
They charge up to $500 for a two-day cheese-making package that begins with milking goats and hanging cheese. Guests select vegetables for the owners to cook for dinner. Breakfast with eggs from their chickens is included.
These new farm stays are profitable. For three years, Scottie Jones has been subsidizing her small lamb and turkey business by renting out a cabin on her 60-acre Leaping Lamb Farm, about two hours from Portland, Oregon. For $125 a night, visitors can feed the animals, bring in hay and learn the basic rule of farming: Closed gates stay closed and open gates stay open. It now brings in seven times what she makes on her meat business, plus a little free labor.
“Even those people sitting on the porch drinking a glass of wine will come help me feed eventually,” she said.
Of the 2.2 million farms operating in the United States, about 8 to 10 percent offer some kind of agritourism, like apple picking, school tours, a farm store or letting hunters on the land. Only a few do farm stays, said Jane Eckert, president of Eckert AgriMarketing and creator of a national farm-stay registry called Ruralbounty.com.
In Vermont, Beth Kennett of Liberty Hill Farm has witnessed the evolution of the farm stay. She opened a bed-and-breakfast on her dairy farm almost 25 years ago. In the 1980s just visiting a farm was novel. “People would say: ‘Oh, there’s a cow. There’s a chicken,”‘ she said. By the 1990s, guests became interested in what actually went on there: “It was: ‘So when does the cow give its milk? What do you do with it?’ ” Now the game has changed. “There are questions about global warming, food politics, land use and environmental stewardship,” Kennett said. “It doesn’t stop.”
I didn’t want to debate the politics of food. I just wanted to eat some, and learn a little more about life on a farm.
Our hosts were Kate and Dan Marsiglio, a couple in their 30s with two young children, Lucia and Isaac. This year they signed on with Feather Down Farms, a high-end European farm-stay chain.
A Dutchman named Luite Moraal created the luxe farm-stay company in 2003. Each farm has tents with wood floors and wood-burning stoves for heat and cooking. The beds are comfortable. Light comes from oil lamps and candles and the kitchen is generously equipped.
Feather Down became popular in the Netherlands, then the United Kingdom. The Marsiglios’ is among the first three farms in the United States to sign up. By next year, there will be 20, said Feather Down’s manager for the United States, Paula Disbrowe, a food writer based in Austin, Texas.
The tents were shipped to Stony Creek Farm from the Netherlands, along with two technicians to help set them up. The farmers didn’t have to pay a thing. Everything was included, down to the framed photographs of farm animals and a hand-cranked coffee grinder that decorate the tent.
The company required the Marsiglios to provide plumbing for the tents and to build a shower house with hot water. The couple also had to construct a paddock so guests can pet small farm animals and search for free eggs. They expanded their farm store so we wouldn’t have to visit the grocery store.
A pizza oven was the last of the required amenities. Every Saturday, each Feather Down farmer has to offer guests a make-your-own pizza night for $15 a person. We used thin slices of green tomatoes from the 60 plants they had to pull because of late blight.
In exchange for the tents and for booking them, Feather Down keeps about 65 to 75 percent of what guests pay. Extra charges, like the gardening package I bought, go into the farmers’ pocket.
“You’re staying on their farm and you can hang in the tent, but if you want to do more with them you have to pay for their time,” Disbrowe said.
Kate Marsiglio was the one who pushed to sign up, even though some friends and neighbors worried for her.
“I grew up here, and I think it’s crazy,” said Annie Avery, a close friend who buys chickens and produce from the farm. “But if people want to come be on a farm and they can afford to do it, more power to them. They need to see that meat starts with a little cow.”
And no one can argue that food doesn’t taste better so close to the source, or that watching your child wander around after a chicken isn’t cool.
Just wear sturdy shoes. And take your checkbook.