To her friends, Rebecca Onie’s decision two years ago to get married on a farm in New Hampshire didn’t come as much of a surprise.
After all, Onie heads up a Cambridge nonprofit that provides low-income people with resources they need to be healthy, including high-quality food, and her husband arranges financing for farming cooperatives in Latin America and Africa.
But Walpole Valley Farms in New Hampshire has since become the couple’s go-to vacation destination. They went back on their anniversary last year to stay in one of the cottages on the 105-acre property, which also has an inn and farmhouse guests can rent, and returned again this summer with their 5-month-old.
“Staying on a farm is in every sense just such a different experience from our day-to-day lives and day-to-day work,” said Onie, who, among other things, relishes walking outside and picking strawberries to accompany breakfasts of just-laid eggs and farm-fresh milk.
“It’s both beautiful and real at the same time,” she said.
While the fast-growing local food movement has made people hungry to know where their meat and produce come from, farm stays like the one at Walpole Valley means they now can do more than just buy it at their local farmers’ markets.
They can sleep with it.
There are 92 farms in New England alone with guest accommodations and about 1,000 nationwide, according to the US Farm Stay Association, which posts a list of them at www.farmstayus.com. Many have gotten into the farm-stay business in the last five years, said the association’s president, Scottie Jones, partly responding to demand and partly to add another source of revenue.
That’s a drop in the slop bucket compared with other countries. England has 7,200 farms that welcome guests, for instance, France 5,000, and Italy 20,000.
“There’s huge opportunity for us to be able to provide that kind of weekend getaway or vacation getaway that has been going on for a long time in Europe,” said Jones, who, with her husband, raises grass-fed lamb on a farm in Oregon.
“For a lot of Americans, it wouldn’t occur to them that they could actually go and stay on a farm,” she said.
But when they find out, many like the idea.
“They’re feeling really disconnected, and they may not want to buy a farm, but they’d like to stay on one,” Jones said. “They realize they don’t know anything about farming, or they want to make that connection for their children.”
That’s what Michelle Seaton enjoyed about her vacation at Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe, Maine, just north of Belfast.
Her son and daughter, 10 and 12, “just loved it,” said Seaton, who lives in Natick. “They were asking a lot of questions about where does our food come from? They wanted to know, ‘Really? They milk the goats?’ ”
The family kayaked on the lake for which the farm is named, played with the owners’ border collie, walked to the farm store for fresh-made ice cream and sheep’s milk gelato, and investigated frogs, birds, and mushrooms spread over 500 acres of woods and pastures.
Not having a TV in the guesthouse “was fine,” said Seaton, although there was Wi-Fi. (“God forbid they should be without that. Let’s don’t be crazy.”)
In fact, some farms are so remote they don’t have even cell service. And Jones said the chance to unplug is precisely one of the things that brings farm-stay guests back.
As it turns out, she said, “People really like that. It’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or Beaver Cleaver time.”
It’s also prettiest in the fall, when the harvest coincides with foliage season and guests can go apple-picking and enjoy seasonal foods made with apples, pumpkins, and cranberries.
Heide Purinton-Brown, who, with her husband, Greg, owns Toddy Pond Farm, said a guest once told her that, while living on the farm, she got an e-mail from a friend who wrote about a delicious artisan yogurt she’d just eaten. “ ‘Yeah, me too,’ ” the guest said she’d replied, “ ‘And I’m standing 10 feet from the cow it was made from.’ ”
Farmers don’t go on a lot of vacations themselves, tied as they are to milking schedules and caring for the animals, Greg Purinton-Brown added. “But it seems that a key part of going on vacation is to have some different and real experiences. And going to Cancun, that’s been done. Going to Old Orchard Beach or Bar Harbor for a Maine vacation, that’s been done. People want to have more of a connection with their food, and you don’t get that when you stay at a Comfort Inn.”
Guests on most New England farm stays may be invited to help out, but they’re seldom required to. In fact, health laws and time constraints mean they probably won’t get a chance to milk the cows or get friendly with any of the other animals.
“What some people do is they have the one really nice cow set aside separately who will let you milk her,” Jones said.
At the other extreme, a British organization, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, lets people sign up and work on host farms in any of 50 countries in exchange for food and lodging.
But people on most US farm stays seem just as happy to relax. Rates start at about $175 to $275 per room based on double occupancy, and often include breakfast, or, as in the case of Walpole Valley Farms, fresh eggs and milk in every cottage and just-baked bread delivered every day.
“People can’t go back to grandma and grandpa’s farm any more, so Bob and I become grandma and grandpa for a lot of families,” said Beth Kennett, who, with her husband, runs Liberty Hill Farm and Inn in Rochester, Vt., and who last year was named innkeeper of the year by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s also a kind of antidote to the whole Disney thing, or an escape for parents who see their kids on video games all day. Swinging on a tire swing and feeding baby calves is a completely different universe than where they live,” Kennett said.
She said she rolls her eyes when prospective guests ask if staying on a farm is boring.
“We don’t do boring,” Kennett said. “There’s always something going on every day. Sometimes it’s really the very simple things that are truly profound and exceptional. Last night I had guests here from New Jersey and we went for a walk to see the stars, and they said they had never seen so many stars in their entire lives.”
As for Onie, the social entrepreneur from Cambridge, she plans more farm stays, just as she continues buying local, recycling, and researching the sources of the foods she buys her family.
“It’s not just a practical exercise but a philosophical exercise,” she said. “Even when you’re on vacation you get to live your values and make choices about them.”