I stood in a field of spongy green clover, my rubber boots sinking into the fresh rain as I watched my son, Isaac, cuddle against a miniature Sicilian donkey named James. Minutes before, Isaac had beamed with pride as he led James by leash from barn stall to pasture for a lunch of tender grass. Isaac has been enthralled with farm animals since toddlerhood, and the pure joy on his 7-year-old face was priceless. I snapped a picture then tucked my camera away. If ever there’s a time to savor the moment, I thought, it
is here on the farm.
We are urban folk but had decided to play farmer for the weekend, choosing a farm stay at Hoehn Bend Farm, a 30-acre plot of emerald pasture along the Skagit River, just a few hours north of our Seattle home. Although we grow a few veggies and occasionally chicken-sit our neighbor’s hens, my husband and I are novices when it comes to actual farming. Our goals were simple: Get out of the city for some country air and learn more about where our food comes from before it hits the grocery shelves.
Farm-stay vacations are booming in the Pacific Northwest as families seek authentic, rural experiences and a connection to local, organic food that’s deeper than a stop at the farmers market. For small-scale farmers, welcoming visitors and sharing their knowledge of rotational goat-grazing or cow-milking techniques is not only fun, it provides needed extra cash.
On a typical farm stay, you can help with daily hands-on chores and commune with barnyard animals, and then spend the night in digs that range from rustic yurts to posh bed-and-breakfast rooms. You’ll smell earth in the air (probably manure, too), cake your boots with mud and (like us) get some hay stuck in your hair — if you want to. Farm-stay hosts are eager to share their knowledge with curious children, and chores are both educational and optional.
At the end of our two-day stay at Hoehn Bend Farm, Isaac, wearing the mud on his overalls like a badge of honor, asked farmers Jean Eagleston and Terry Sapp if they could manage without him after we’d gone back home. “You’ll just have to come back and find out!” Terry told him. And we will.
This working organic grass-fed cattle farm is tucked into a pastoral pocket of the Cascade foothills. (The more than two dozen reddish brown and black cows are a heritage breed of Irish Dexter cattle.) Your stay begins with a tour led by the owners, with Maggie the collie bringing up the rear. They’ll introduce you to Polly, the sweet and social pot-bellied pig; a small herd of kinder goats; a trio of miniature donkeys; and two flocks of free-range hens. (Jean can tell you which hens lay the most uniquely colored eggs.) Kids: Be sure to keep a count of the vintage tractors around the farmstead, and don’t miss the rope swing hanging from an old apple tree by the cottage.
Fun farm chores: Help lead goats and donkeys out to their pastures each morning, and round up the chickens for the henhouse each evening. Dole out carrot sticks to the donkeys (they’ll gingerly pluck them right out of your hand), brush the goats, push hay to the cattle (make sure the little calves get some!) and collect eggs from the chickens. The cattle here are truly pasture-raised, so all the hay for winter feeding is grown on the farm’s 30 acres. If you’re lucky you might get to ride on the big plow through the hay field. The luckiest of all stay here in July when calves are born.
Digs and rates: The turn-of-the-century cottage is all yours and sleeps six comfortably in three bedrooms. In the modern, fully stocked kitchen you’ll find a dozen eggs and homemade jam in the fridge to get started on a farm-fresh breakfast. A spacious mudroom helps keep messes manageable (and stores a variety of rubber boots in kids’ sizes). In summer, take advantage of the outdoor patio and picnic table with a view of craggy Cascade peaks. The cottage has kid-friendly extras like a crib, outlet protectors, Disney DVDs and a huge basket of farm-themed books and toys.