Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.
Make yourself at home at a Lancaster PA farm
Kids connect with animals, not electronics
When I told my 6-year-old daughter that we would be staying on a farm again for her spring break, she was elated. But when I told her I wanted to try a different farm than the one we visited last year, her smile disappeared. “Can we please go back to the Olde Fogie Farm?” she asked.
So when the first week of April rolled around, we packed the car and drove the 70 miles to the Marietta, PA, farmhouse where we’d spent three happy days the year before. And just as they had the year before, Biz and Tom Fogie greeted us like family.
Within minutes of our arrival, Maya was playing in a treehouse next to a stream with two boys close to her age. A couple of hours later, she became fast friends with two newly arrived girls. In the mornings, after the rooster crowed, the under-10 set assembled for chores: feeding horses and pigs, bottle-feeding a kid and gathering eggs from chickens. In the evenings, they played under the moonlight in a playhouse nestled among anise plants and tulips. Meanwhile, Maya’s baby sister took her time happily looking at the llamas.
The adults savored the fresh air and the happy kids. Although our phones and computers had signals, we didn’t take them out.
Some kids covet a trip to Disney; for Maya, there’s nothing more exciting than a trip to “her” farm. And she’s not alone.
Many of the farms listed on www.afarmstay.com book up months in advance, often with return visitors. Like Maya, they see no need to explore options when they’ve found a place that makes them smile.
“When you’re here, it feels like home,” said Kim Colon, a Queens, New York office manager who was finishing breakfast at the Rocky Acre Farm Bed and Breakfast. It was Colon’s fifth stay; she always comes with her daughter, Samantha, 13. On this visit, she came with friend Diana McAuley, who was also making a return trip to Rocky Acre with her teenage daughters, Ariel and Ashley.
On her first visit the farm had just survived a twister, and Colon soon saw how everyone pitched in to rebuild. Then, she saw something even more amazing — baby ducklings being born. Samantha still remembers releasing them into a creek.
At home, the Colon and McAuley children said they’re attached to their phones; at Rocky Acre, Ariel said, she only uses hers to take pictures. There is a lot to capture: calves being born, ponies for riding, a tractor to take children on rides and bikes and canoes for exploring in the green hills and streams around Mt. Joy, PA.
At Verdant View Farm, owner Don Ranck said visitors often book their rooms for the next year’s spring and summer breaks before they pack their bags for home. Kids love exploring the 115-acre dairy farm in the heart of Amish Country. The old-fashioned locomotive from the nearby Strasburg Railroad circles the farm, firmly rooting the area in the past.
“We’re filling that need for people to come and truly experience a farm, since there is often no one with a farm they know personally,” Ranck said.
It’s not clear how long Lancaster County families have opened their homes and their kitchens to tourists. The Rancks have offered overnight stays for 37 years — and Don Ranck’s parents were in the farm-stay business eight years before that. At Rocky Acre farm, Galen and Eileen Benner have welcomed guests since 1965. Their daughter, Holly Noll, remembers attending one of their regular guest’s bar mitzvah. Now, that man brings his own family three times a year and she was just invited to his son’s bar mitzvah.
Farm stays seem to be gaining popularity; places that once opened one room now have guest houses. Lancaster County is within driving distance of more than 10 million people. Many of them are searching for a meaningful way to see where their food comes from because they are so far removed from it, said Joel Cliff, media relations manager for the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau in Lancaster.
“The educational aspect of a farm stay, it really remains with them. When they get to see how their food starts, I think it provides an understanding of how responsible stewardship of the land affects them in so many direct ways,” said Cliff, who has spent some happy hours of his own at Verdant View Farm. “Hopefully, people take those lessons back to their own lives and decisions.”
The economy’s downslide has affected travel, but not much. Biz Fogie said some of her regulars will ask for one night instead of two. One woman called to book a stay because they couldn’t afford their regularly scheduled cruise. Two nights and three days at a farm, including gas, tax and meals, costs around $500 for a family of four — less than one plane ticket to an exotic destination.
Biz Fogie entered the farm stay business in 1987, after seeing an ad in the paper that a newly formed organization was looking for farms to participate in tourism. With a few thousand dollars of inheritance from her mother, she and her husband renovated one of the home’s front rooms into a small apartment, which they call the Chicken Coop. It had been a natural-foods store where Biz sold her whole-grain bread.
Demand grew, and Biz persuaded her husband to let strangers share their common quarters. The first time they allowed guests in their kitchen, Tom Fogie was worried the visitors might rob the place. Instead, the guests — an Australian couple — left a large tip and a nice note. It was then that Tom Fogie decided they could spare another room, and added two rooms and two suites with kitchens.
They see close to a thousand visitors a year.
Like the Rancks and the Benners, the Fogies have some family help. Their daughter, Vickie, leads the children in the morning chores. Their son, Tom Jr., helps mow the lawn and work the fields. Visitors can see Biz and Tom, both in their 70s, hard at work in their lush gardens and fields.
Asked how long she’d stay in the hospitality business, Biz laughed and said, “We’re going to lean on each other, Tom and I, until we each have a cane.” That is no doubt good news to the dozens of guests who have filled up several notebooks with testimonials.
One young girl, Rose Hayman, summed it up in her neatest grade-school penmanship: “I don’t know any place better than Fogie Farm.”
Is there a farm stay in your future?
About two dozen Lancaster County farms offer overnight stays.
During peak times, some farms require two— or three-night minimums. They book up months in advance for summer vacations and spring break. Many are closed in winter.
Most welcome children, but check to make sure what activities are provided; some are more like vacation homes in the country and others are more of a farm experience. Some offer classes, or connect visitors with an authentic Amish experience. Many don’t allow pets.
If you are visiting with children, ask when you check in about any off-limit areas and safety hazards. Bring boots and warm clothes for cold nights, as well as bug spray.
Start your research at pa.dutchcountry.com, “Places to Stay.” The site www.afarmstay.com lists more than two-dozen possibilities and lets you search by animal. If a farm is booked, ask them for recommendations. Many farmers know each other.
Here are particulars on the three we visited:
The farm is about one mile from historic Maytown, and three miles from downtown Marietta and its Susquehanna walking trail. The Turkey Hill Experience, where you learn how ice cream is made (and sample as much as you want) is about six miles away in Columbia. The Fogies offer morning chores, where children feed horses, turkeys, chickens and pigs, bottle-feed a baby goat and gather eggs for breakfast. The lush grounds are small compared with other farms, but they include a fish pond, treehouse, playhouse and stream.
Midway between Lancaster and Hershey, Rocky Acre offers hayrides, pony rides, a playhouse and lots of room to run around. Adults can relax and watch the action from porch swings attached to the stone Victorian housing the bed and breakfast.
In the heart of Amish Country, Verdant View is a half-mile from the Strasburg Railroad — the tracks run through the farm — and a short walk to the Toy Train Museum and the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum. Verdant View offers morning and evening chores. Guests can milk cows, feed calves, collect eggs, or cuddle with a rabbit. About once a week, a new calf is born.
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