$300 a Night? Yes, but Haying’s Free
By Kim Severson | The New York Times
Jennifer May for The New York Times
THE FOOD CONNECTION Chickens roam empty guest quarters at Stony Creek Farms in Walton, N.Y., owned by Kate Marsiglio and her family. Guests sign up to do farm chores. More Photos >
LET me start by saying that if you want to throw bales of hay into the back of a truck, Vans are not the best choice in footwear.
That’s the sort of thing one learns when the family vacation is on a farm.
Of course, 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.
They might also say I was a fool to pay the farmer an additional $35 so I could dig up the beets and carrots she would later sell at a farmers’ market. It did have a little of that Tom Sawyer fence-painting quality to it. But I got a little education in the process. And I got to keep a pile of spectacular Tuscan kale, some tender stalks of fennel and a few crookneck squash.
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.
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, N.Y., 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. Call it farm stay 2.0.
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, Ore. 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.
Still, vacationing on a farm is not a new concept for Americans. Wealthy city dwellers have been heading to the countryside since the 1800s. As cars and road trips became more common, so did camping on farms. In the Depression, farmers added amenities to take in a few extra dollars. But farm stays started to die off as motor courts and motels began to pop up. By the early 1950s, Interstate culture gave birth to vacations punctuated by drive-in restaurants and the lure of the motel pool.
“For most people my age, the farm was something to get away from,” said Tom Chesnutt, a tourism specialist at Auburn University in his 60s. Lately, he has been trying to encourage Alabama farmers to take a chance on hosting people but hasn’t had much luck.
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,” Ms. 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. They met in R.O.T.C. at Syracuse University and later taught school in New Jersey.
Farming fever set in when they moved to Rindge, N.H., to teach at the Meeting School, a Quaker boarding school and working farm. Mr. Marsiglio’s parents, from Mahwah, N.J., bought Stony Creek Farm in 1985. Dan and Kate were married in a field near the creek. With grandparents fairly close, moving to the 85-acre farm four years ago was an easy decision.
They began to practice what they call “seat of the pants” farming. They raised sheep, chickens, Tamworth pigs and, eventually, registered belted Galloway cattle. They figured out how to coax vegetables out of the hilly, rocky fields. They sold meat and vegetables to neighbors, at a farmers’ market and even to the local senior feeding program.
But it quickly became clear that they weren’t going to make it financially. A mink decapitated dozens of chickens. A fox decimated the turkeys. And the farmers’ market is so small they are lucky if they clear $100 on a Sunday.
And perhaps as much as farming, they wanted to teach people about agricultural alternatives. So 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 comfy. 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, Tex.
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,” Ms. Disbrowe said.
Ms. 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.”
It wasn’t an easy sell for Mr. Marsiglio. “My initial feeling was that this was some kind of cop-out,” he said. But he came to see that it would help his family and their agricultural cause. “We are asking people to put money into our coffers so we can stick to our guns about this new way of agriculture.”
Eventually, they hope to offer chicken-butchering sessions where guests can scald, pluck and gut their dinner.
“I love the gutting,” Ms. Marsiglio said. “It’s becoming a lost skill and I am so happy to do it well.”
The innkeeping skills she’s still learning. Of course, it’s not easy to deal with wired guests who have just huffed their way up a steep hill to their tent, complaining the whole way that the iPhone doesn’t work.
Uh, that would be me.
Just to be sure we had a soft landing after our drive from Brooklyn, I ordered the “turn down” service for $35. That meant that in between chores, Ms. Marsiglio had to light our wood-burning stove, make our beds and leave out eggs, goat cheese and vegetables so I could make an omelet for dinner. For good measure, she added a dense loaf of wheat bread and some muffins thick with zucchini.
The only problem was, our tent was filled with smoke from a malfunctioning stove. We had to grab the eggs and our bags and move to another tent. That night we slept great. Until 4 a.m. when the rooster started crowing.
The next day, after my private vegetable-picking session in the 80-degree heat, we went on a farm tour. Then we visited the shower house. Clean, we trudged back up to our tent to rest. This farm life was hard.
Just as the baby started napping and I cracked open a book, Ms. Marsiglio yelled up from the paddock, “Kim, we’re starting the hay in about an hour!”
The haying, which was optional and free, was actually fun. It felt good to do the kind of work that makes cool water in a metal cup taste like the best thing to ever go down your throat.
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.