When I was a child growing up on a small farm in Virginia’s rural Blue Ridge Mountains, it never occurred to me that wading through yellow grass among cattle who watched with casual indifference or throwing newly split armfuls of firewood onto the back of Dad’s pickup each fall was anything but normal. My friends all grew up like this, among cattle and horses, even chickens and rabbits, and the pastures and woods of our parents’ grazing lands were our playgrounds.
But as our society grows ever more urban and suburban, many people, even those who may have grown up on farms, are becoming increasingly alienated from rural landscapes. Now, thanks to the hospitality of several working-farm bed-and-breakfasts in the Mid-Atlantic, even city dwellers can experience a taste of life down on the farm, sometimes referred to as a “farmcation.”
Whether you just want to sit in a rocking chair on a long front porch and watch sheep graze or you actually want to get down and dirty taking care of horses and Alpacas, these farms provide plenty of opportunity for getting back to the land.
Juniper Moon Farm—also called Camp JMF—offers a variety of workshops throughout the year on an 11-acre sheep farm outside Charlottesville, VA. Among them is a weekend session on poultry keeping (Sept. 7-9), where participants learn how to care for chickens, ducks, or geese, and can purchase a coop in advance to take home two healthy, egg-laying hens—which means almost instant breakfast the next morning.
But one doesn’t have to be into chickens to enjoy a weekend at Juniper Moon (434-589-4455, fiberfarm.com), which offers accommodations for four in a bunkhouse.
Farm owner and shepherdess Susan Gibbs opened Juniper Moon three years ago after moving her herd of about 100 mostly Cormo sheep (as well as a few Angora goats and Babydoll Southdown sheep) from her previous farm on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. A former CBS network news producer, Gibbs gave up her career in a quest to find out what she really wanted to do with her life. “I was in a bookstore one day and saw a book about raising sheep,” she says. “Something in my head just clicked.” Today, she also operates a successful yarn CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), selling mainly to spinners and knitters, along with her bed-and-breakfast and farm workshops.
And while Gibbs offers a popular shepherding camp, where people can learn about everything from trimming hooves and catching sheep to fence building and veterinary skills, there are less intense offerings, too.
Among them is a cheese-making weekend (August 2-5 and August 23-26), where participants go through the process from start to finish, including milking dairy goats and cows and making 10 to 15 different cheeses that they can take home. Gibbs also offers a yarn-dyeing workshop (August 10-12), where guests not only learn how to hand-dye yarn but also leave the class with enough yarn to make a sweater. Gibbs says the farm’s most popular workshop is culinary camp (August 16-19). Gibbs, who attended culinary school, teaches participants of all skill levels basic techniques and how to cook without recipes. She tailors the classes to each group and individual participant.
The weekend workshops range from $350-600 and generally include all meals and accommodations. And even for those who only want to be farmers for a weekend (and are not interested in becoming shepherds or cheese makers), Camp JMF can be empowering, Gibbs says. She’s seen women in the shepherding camp discover they can build a fence by themselves. “It’s really confidence building,” says Gibbs, “as most of our guests are women.”
Equine enthusiasts can try a different experience. Whether they are novices or skilled equestrians, they can spend a weekend on a working horse farm about an hour from Baltimore at Fairwinds Farm and Stables (410-658-8187, fairwindsstables.com) near North East, just off Interstate 95. Fairwinds, located on 52 acres in the heart of Maryland horse country, features a restored Victorian farmhouse bed-and-breakfast that welcomes families with children as well as couples and singles.
Owners JoAnn and Ted Dawson purchased the farm 14 years ago and currently have 25 horses of their own, although they also accommodate guests traveling with horses. “Our niche is actually people who have never ridden before,” says JoAnn, noting that most of their patronage comes from people “looking for a farm experience.” Rooms start at $95 a night, with a $10 discount for those who bring their own horses.
The couple offers riding lessons in an indoor ring and also takes guests out on trails. Hayrides, carriage rides, and pony rides are available, too. A highlight of the hayride, especially for kids, is taking along homing pigeons, which are released during the ride. Guests can watch them fly back to the farmhouse.
If they’d like, visitors can also help gather eggs from the Dawsons’ chickens and then enjoy those same eggs for breakfast, and they can go fishing at the farm pond. Fairwinds also recently began offering formal tea parties, especially popular with groups of women looking for a day retreat, where they serve sandwiches, desserts, and teas followed by a carriage ride.
“I grew up on a farm, and I believe everyone should have exposure to the lifestyle,” JoAnn says. “Sometimes people even help us clean the stalls. It opens a new world to them.”
She loves to watch her guests go through a transition on the trail rides. “Sometimes guests are initially terrified of the horses, but then they relax,” she says. “It’s very laid-back and informal here, a way for people to get away from the stress of everyday life.”
Another type of farmcation is offered at Stargazer Bed and Breakfast at Sunset Hills Farm (724-586-2412, stargazerbedandbreakfast.com), north of Pittsburgh. Proprietors David and Laurye Feller raise and breed show-quality Alpacas on the 70-acre property.
One of the farm’s most popular offerings is the opportunity to shadow a farm manager for a day. Guests learn about the diets of Alpacas, how to care for them, halter-train them for a show, as well as basic veterinary skills. The workshop lasts four to five hours.
“We see a lot of parent-child teams coming for this,” says Brian Edward Leach, director of sales and marketing at Sunset Hills. The cost is $25 a person in addition to the cost of accommodations and breakfast, which ranges from $79-125 a night.
At Sunset Hills, there is a choice of lodgings. In addition to a cabin, guests can stay in part of a two-story barn, where an upstairs windows overlooks the hills and valleys of Butler County, while another looks directly into the Alpaca barn, putting guests right next to the pack of 150 animals.
The owners are also known for being proponents of “full-circle farming,” meaning they look at ways to use their whole property to produce income. The Fellers do this by raising and selling animals (they’re among the largest Alpaca breeders in the United States), operating the B & B, producing fleece, and running a retail store to sell it.
The farm is hosting its first Fiber Fest June 23-24, offering classes and seminars on raising Alpacas and showcasing fiber products from around the globe. The owners are hoping it will become an annual event.