Europe doesn't have a monopoly on agritourism. The opportunity to experience life on a working farm exists right here in New England, where guests can bunk in an old farmhouse, participate in barn chores, and share a hearty breakfast at the family table.
"People have been coming home to the family farm for generations," says Beth Kennett, owner of Liberty Hill Farm & Inn in Rochester, Vt., with husband Bob. "But maybe Uncle Joe moved to Florida or your grandparents sold the farm. People can still come visit us here."
And they do. The Kennetts started taking guests into their home in 1984, and some of those original visitors still come back today. Liberty Hill, a conventional dairy farm and member of the Cabot Cooperative, has 120 Holstein milking cows. Spring saw children helping to bottle-feed the newborn calves, playing with the barn kittens, and exploring the cavernous hayloft, which Farmer Bob calls "cathedrals of the countryside." In addition to breakfast, Beth serves a hearty communal dinner where guests get to know one another and their hosts over baked chicken, carrot soufflé, asparagus, and cheddar scones. Indeed, by dinner's end, everyone feels like one big family.
Located off a dirt road outside Montpelier, Hollister Hill Farm sits on 205 acres of pasture, woods, and hayfields, with a pond, several barns, and an 1825 Federal-style farmhouse complete with porch swing. Lee and Bob Light raise pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, beefalo (a cross between wild bison and domestic cattle), and a half-dozen Jersey cows for raw milk. The inn offers four clean and cozy bedrooms, some with working fireplaces, plus a private family suite with galley kitchen, full bath, and patio overlooking the sugarbush. The stellar breakfast offerings are made almost entirely with the naturally raised ingredients from their farm, from the ham and eggs to the spring-dug parsnips glazed in maple syrup to the homemade butter and jams.
What sets farmstays apart from traditional B&Bs, says Lee, are the educational opportunities, especially for families. There are no televisions in the rooms or common area. Farm life isn't something to be observed from afar, but to engage in actively. Children are invited to pick berries, feed the animals, collect eggs, climb trees, play on the tire swing, fish in the pond, and ask lots of questions. Like most farmstay innkeepers, the Lights are generous with their time and knowledge.
Knitters will delight in the secluded charm of Vermont Grand View Farm, a homestead overlooking the Green Mountains run by Kim and Chuck Goodling. Kim raises mostly Gotland sheep, a gray Swedish variety, for her yarn business, but also keeps pigs, a llama, and a sheepdog. In her beautiful, antique-furnished two-bedroom guesthouse, she hosts knitting retreats, bridesmaid parties, and family weekends. In the summer, guests can learn felting and how to make jam, and use the farm as home base for a Vermont cheese tour or the local sheepdog trials.
On any given farm, the nature of the chores varies by season, and guests participate to the extent they want. "Someone came and said he wanted to shovel manure, so he did!" says Kim, but manure shoveling is purely optional. It's expected that guests will take time to relax and enjoy the farm as well as the activities in the local area.
While Vermont has a large number of farmstays thanks in part to a federal agritourism grant championed by Senator Bernie Sanders, other farms around New England offer similar experiences. Spiritwind Farm in Lebanon, Maine, has a herd of Nubian and miniature Nigerian goats, from which owner Kathy Ossinger makes her own fresh goat cheese and goat's milk soaps. Activities might include milking the goats, grooming the two English Shire horses, going for a cart ride, or picking blueberries and peaches in the orchard. There's even an in-ground pool open to guests.
Here in Massachusetts, Stonehaven Farm offers a peaceful agricultural retreat in coastal Westport. A bright, airy second-floor guest suite with cathedral ceilings overlooks sheep pasture and the nearby Westport River. Owner Virginia Merlier raises Dorset Horn sheep, free-range chickens, turkeys, and ducks, and maintains a large garden. After breakfast, guests can let out the poultry, bottle-feed the spring lambs, and pick vegetables. In the afternoon, they can collect a basket of eggs in different shades of brown and light blue. The farm's proximity to scenic Horseneck Beach, Westport Rivers Winery, and Newport makes it particularly popular with European visitors.
When packing for your trip, bring clothing you won't mind getting dirty and sensible footwear like boots. Keep in mind that these are real working farms. The sights, sounds, and, of course, the smells will be consistent with that experience. You adjust quickly, and you just might find that you don't want to leave.
Hollister Hill Farm: 2193 Hollister Hill Road, Marshfield, Vt., 802-454-7725,
www.hollisterhillfarm.com. Summer rates: single $110, double $120, family $175-$200
Liberty Hill Farm & Inn:
511 Liberty Hill, Rochester, Vt., 802-767-3926,
www.libertyhillfarm.com. Summer rates: $132 per adult, $75 per teen, $62 per child
Spiritwind Farm: 57 Spirit Wind Farm Road, Lebanon, Maine, 207-457-3001, www.spiritwindfarmllc.com. Summer rates: $100 per room
1506 Drift Road, Westport, 508-636-1361, www.stonehaven
familyfarm.com. Summer rates: $150 for double occupancy, $25 per child, $50 per additional adult
Vermont Grand View Farm:
1638 Scales Hill Road, Washington, Vt., 802-685-4693, www.grandviewfarmvt.net.
Summer rates: $170 for one-bedroom suite, $240 for two-bedroom suite.
For more farmstay options, visit www.farmstayus.com.
Tammy Donroe Inman is a Boston-based freelance writer and author of "Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.