Travel

That time I took my family to do farm chores for our "vacation"

What I expected to happen, what actually happened, and what I (and you) might want to do differently.

What I expected to happen, what actually happened, and what I (and you) might want to do differently

The author and her daughters. (All photography by Jessica Brooks)

Planning a family vacation is never easy. Success requires finding the right balance between kids' activities and parental fun. Too many kids' activities and you feel like a sellout. Too much adult fun (think good restaurants, sunset cocktails, hammock reads) means kids are unlikely to be entertained.

This is why I booked my family into a farmstay this summer.

My great plan

If you're not familiar with what a farmstay is, it's a vacation, on a farm, where you can help out with farm chores. I wanted my four-year-old and 22-month-old to get a break from the urban jungle, where our backyard doubles as a parking pad. The idea was that they could spend a few days connecting with animals and nature and learning where their food comes from. We, the adults, could cook and eat farm-to-table meals, do the relaxing in a hammock with a glass of local wine-thing, and unplug from the world (there's no wifi).

Maeve admires the view from the fence that separates our accommodations from the fields.

What actually happened? A lot of work, guess who did it?

Now if you tell someone familiar with farmstays that you're going to try it, they may say things like "make sure you get your money's worth and that you get to do all the chores!" We were out checking on a flock of sheep by 8:30 a.m. to make sure they were all healthy and happy in the pastures, where their poop fertilizes the fields they graze in. I set my purse down in excrement the very first morning, as I made friends with one of the sheep who nuzzled my neck as my purse sat in the poo. But I was forced to send it on it's way when it tried to eat my hand.

Cass, 9, Phoebe, 4, and Ainsley, 7, practice their “sheep calls,” a deep, guttural yell used to summon the flock.

This is a working farm, where animals are raised in specific, careful conditions. We were instructed to be quiet to as not to scare the sheep, but the kids climbed up on a pile of logs, because kids will climb anything, and started yelling at, or about, the sheep.

Phoebe collects eggs from the chicken coop to be sold at the farm store.

Collecting eggs from the chicken coop was the most popular activity. We were instructed to set the eggs in the baskets gently so they wouldn't break. Also easier said than done when you're dealing with kids.

Maeve, 22 months, carries the eggs back to the processing shed, where they’ll be cleaned and sold to the public.

There were cute moments to be sure, but I was reminded that we are dealing with, well, animals. One of the farm hands offered to take us to the pen to see the babies. "I'll see if I can grab one for you," he said, tipping his straw hat with a feather in it. As he picked a piglet up we watched with our mouths open as the mother pig heaved her 300-pound body up and let out a blood-curdling cry as she bounded toward the man holding her baby. I mean, I fully sympathized with her, but couldn't help feel anxiety for the cowboy as he sidestepped her full-throttle chase.

We fed apples to the other sows kept separate from these mothers. The apple-feeding technique was a daily chore to win over their trust, so when they were to be loaded up to market the task would be... easier.

The cows required minerals to supplement their diet of wild grass. As I carried the plastic tub of white crystal nourishment towards the cattle, the kids hung back. They were as leery of the cows as the cows were of them, but also too little for the heavy lifting. Alone in the pasture, I couldn't help but wonder whether dodging cow patties is really what I was meant to be doing on vacation. Meanwhile, the farmhand taught the kids a "cow call" — the kids did not have to be asked twice to yell in weird and agonizing tones.

So much... nature!

We slept in a restored barn, set up loft-style with two sleeping areas on either side of the kitchen. There was an outdoor grill and fire pit along with hammocks looking out over the fields. There was only one farmstay group of guests at a time, and for the next three days, my friend, along with her family and mine, were it.

For meals, we raided an untamed patch of garden, from which we'd been told we could pick all we want. We stuffed cheese into the middle of zucchini blossoms and fried them. We seasoned the freshly picked cherry tomatoes with salt and pepper and olive oil and ate them like candy. And we scattered peppery nasturtiums on kale wilted on the grill.

Flood warnings and a power outage reminded us of nature's touchy temperament, but at least the rain kept the mosquitos away as we cooked s'mores. Really, the thunderstorm scared the animals more than the kids; the sheeps' cries resonated across the pasture as the rain stopped and the sunshine opened up again.

Other aspects were slightly more inconvenient. We wore long pants during the sweltering heat and our socks pulled up over our pants to keep out the ticks. The cockroaches weren't timid during our bathroom breaks in the middle of the night, but that's, I guess, life on the farm. In the farm's swimming hole we met a whole other gang of animals — a pack of iridescent blue fish that surrounded us as if we'd missed their feeding. Not being one for that nibbly-toe-fish pedicure, I shoved my four-year-old out of the way in my rush to reach the dock quick. In my defence, she had a life jacket on.

What I'd do differently

Maeve and I get up close with the pigs for a feeding.

Thinking of doing a farmstay yourself or with your family? I highly recommend it, but if I was to do it all over again, there are a few things I would do differently. Heed my warning: even in the middle of summer, country life just requires more long sleeves and pants and protective socks. Several pair of socks — after our tick warning upon arrival, I sure wasn't taking mine off. Button-down shirts make the most sense for pasture work, as you can button them high up to your neck if you're followed to the field by a pack of gnats.

I would pack gumboots, far superior here than flip flops as a secondary pair of shoes, and you'll want slip on shoes for inside to keep the creepy crawlers away, plus a pair to get you to the campfire and back.

Surprise: a purse, out in country life, just isn't practical either. A fanny pack makes more sense or pants with pockets big enough to securely hold a camera. The other ten bajillion things in my purse quickly became irrelevant out in the pasture, although I was happy to have a packable straw hat I could throw on when the morning mist had lifted.

I'd pack a headlamp to see hands-free after the sun goes down and a waterproof table cloth to throw on the picnic table because even after a rainstorm you'll want to eat outdoors. And because barns aren't equipped with the same plug placement as real life, I'd bring along a travel clock to keep beside the bed.

And I'd pack a meat thermometer to ensure those farm-fresh cuts get cooked right and maybe a cast iron for making pizza on the grill.

I hope my experience gives you a realistic expectation of what to expect on a farmstay vacay, that my tips help you have an even more rewarding time. Ours certainly made an impression. Back at home my oldest daughter stops and looks at the peach she's just bitten into. "Mom," she says. "What animal do peaches come from?" I guess, if nothing else, the farm taught her that. Every living thing comes from something.

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