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Agri-tourism: $240 a Night plus Chores
By Jenna Russell, The Boston Globe
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 7, 2005 - ROCHESTER, Vt. -- On their last morning at Liberty Hill Farm, Isadora and Rayna Shamah rushed to the front porch to pull on dusty barn boots and set off eagerly for the big red barn and its wonders: massive Holstein cows in need of feed and milking; week-old calves and newborn kittens; steaming piles of fresh manure ready to be shoveled.

Much had changed for the 6-year-old twins, residents of a New York City suburb, in the five days since they came to stay at Liberty Hill with their parents, who happily paid $240 a night to watch their daughters evolve into willing farmhands.

"At the beginning they said, 'Ew, disgusting!,' but last night when they were shoveling the cows' number two, the girls were shouting, 'That's mine!' and running to shovel it," said their mother, Nitza Shamah, standing in the muddy barnyard later that morning.

The farm vacation is making a comeback, with a twist: Families are paying to stay on a farm and do chores together.

The trend is fueled by surging interest in environmentally conscious tourism, and by increased zeal for local organic food, especially among educated, affluent suburbanites who believe their children should know where food comes from. Some parents say the farm stay is more relaxing than a Disney vacation -- and promotes simpler values like hard work and respect for nature.

For the region's farmers, the influx of guests willing to pay to do work, which might include gathering eggs, feeding sheep, weeding, or watering, is increasingly vital to their economic survival. In Vermont, where the number of farms has dwindled from 32,700 in 1910 to 6,400 today, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and concerns about development have reached a fever pitch, farm vacations and other forms of "agri-tourism" are seen as a key to preserving the rural landscape.

"There's no way we could have stayed and kept the farm going without the extra income," said Beth Kennett, co-owner of Liberty Hill Farm and chairwoman of the Vermont Farms Association. At Liberty Hill, where guest fees are $80 a night for adults and $40 for children including breakfast and dinner, guest stays make up about one-third of the farm's net income, she said.

The Kennetts started taking in guests during an economic downturn in the 1980s, ahead of the trend. Today, about 20 Vermont farms offer lodging year-round, and more than 50 others boost their incomes with some form of agri-tourism, such as pick-your-own orchards and school tours, according to the Vermont Farms Association. Total annual income from agri-tourism in Vermont increased 86 percent from 2000 to 2002, to $19.5 million, according to the most recent survey by the New England Agricultural Statistics Service.

The Maine Farm Vacation Bed and Breakfast Association has 18 member farms. In Massachusetts, the number of farms that take overnight guests has roughly doubled in a decade to a dozen, and the state Department of Agricultural Resources published a new map of farms that welcome tourists this year.

The department helps farmers figure out how to use tourism to boost profits, said Rick LeBlanc, agri-tourism coordinator for the department. "The farms that are doing [agricultural] tourism are very healthy," he said.

Still, the practice has its critics, who fear that farms with audiences will be sanitized into theme parks. Frank Bryan, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, worries that farms may be tempted to put on a show for guests.

"But I'm willing to risk it, because I think it's worth it," he said. "I've seen the demise of agriculture, so now I'll do anything to keep the cows on the land."

Four families from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were guests last week at Liberty Hill Farm, the last surviving milk-shipping dairy farm in the upper White River Valley. Parents said they were drawn to the farm, which dates to the 1780s, by fond memories of their own childhood stays at relatives' farms, and by their wish that their children develop an understanding of rural life.

The simplicity of the farm was another attraction: Here, days revolve around trips to the barn, slow floats downriver on inner tubes, and large group meals in the homey kitchen. Fifteen guests sat together at one table for a breakfast of baked oatmeal, blueberry cake, and pancakes one recent morning.

"With so many vacations, so much is mechanized and supercolored, and there's the selling element," Nitza Shamah said. "I don't want my kids to always want to buy something, and here, there's nothing to buy. It's simple -- a tire swing and a bunch of cats."

A farm vacation offers a break from the modern world that some might find too abrupt. The seven plain guestrooms in the Kennetts' white farmhouse have no phones or TVs, and bathrooms are shared. There is no cellular phone service. A list of house rules reminds guests that they are sharing quarters with a real farm family; barn shoes and cats are not allowed inside, and quiet is requested after 10 p.m.

Other farms are more rustic, or more comfortable. At Colonial Hill Farm in Petersham, Mass., where alpacas, related to llamas, are raised for their fleece, guests have been welcomed since last year, and stay in a separate wing of the 19-room house with private baths, owner Teresa Emmrich said. Four Springs Farm in Royalton, Vt., another farm that opened its doors to paying visitors a year ago, offers one cabin and eight campsites where guests pitch tents. Owner Jinny Hardy Cleland said she plans to cater to families who home-school children and can use the farm for hands-on science lessons.

Last week at Liberty Hill Farm, as a half dozen visiting children traipsed among rows of 1,800-pound milk cows in the barn, Bob Kennett acknowledged that having guests around during chores is not always ideal. The distribution of grain to the animals slowed to a crawl as the Shamah twins pitched in, a farmhand coaching them to use both hands on the heavy silver scoop.

"It's a balance, between being here for people and getting work done," Beth Kennett said.

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To see more of The Boston Globe, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.boston.com/globe.

Copyright (c) 2005, The Boston Globe

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