Vacationing down on the farm Real life: Families can get back to nature or just relax in accommodations in the country.

Taking the Kids

January 14, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

All year long, the Tussins plan their trip home to the farm, excitement building as the trip nears. The fact that this suburban couple didn't grow up anywhere near a farm makes no difference.

After four visits in as many years, the Tussin children can gather eggs, milk cows and feed goats with the best of them at New Hampshire's Inn at East Hill Farm, a working farm and informal resort in Troy that has been welcoming families for 50 years from around the country.

"Going to the farm is the best of what your childhood was," explains Naomi Tussin, a creative director who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and now lives near Hartford, Conn. "It's a real time warp."

"It's like going to visit your grandparents that you would only find in a dream," agrees Anne Hefler, who lives in St. Louis and is already planning a return trip to Hobson's Bluffdale Farm in Eldred, Ill.

No wonder. Whether it's New Hampshire or Illinois, Vermont, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, '90s suburban and urban families are finding farms an ideal antidote to the stresses and strains of modern life. Parents not only can give their children a sense of the innocence and freedom they enjoyed themselves as kids, but they also can expand everyone's horizons in the bargain. How close have you ever gotten to a new litter of kittens?

Anne Hefler, for one, jokes that as a transplant from Los Angeles to St. Louis, she didn't find the "Midwest experience" she'd been searching for until she visited Bluffdale Farm. "It was one of the nicest, most relaxing times I've ever had with my children," said Ms. Hefler, whose kids are 2 and 5.

For one thing, there's no cooking. Instead, everyone gathers at big tables for hearty home-cooked meals -- unheard of these frenetic days at most homes.

Another plus: Even the littlest children can wander safely all over the expansive grounds on their own, presenting "their" eggs to ++ the kitchen, feeding the pigs, jumping in the hay.

The adults relax all the while, reveling in the kids' freedom, patting themselves on the back for happening on such a terrific vacation idea that is within the budget. (An all-inclusive week at a farm for a family of four often can be less than $1,500.)

"We see the folks come up and unwind as the days go on," jokes Dave Adams, who with his wife, Sally, has owned the Inn at East Hill Farm for 20 years and says that more than 90 percent of the farm's guests are repeat customers.

Dude ranches offer a similar outdoor experience in the Western states and California, but typically are geared for families with school-age children. (If you are dedicated riders and the parents of young children, there are a few ranches around the country that offer programs for the preschool crowd. Call American Wilderness Experience at [800] 444-DUDE for more information.)

Farms are especially good bets for young families as well as those with older children. Naomi Tussin's teen-age son Josh was happy to spend his week at the farm alternately snoozing and eating, hanging out in the rec room at night with other teen-agers.

The younger children were thrilled just to be able to explore all the new sights and smells. (If you can't find them, look around the bunny hutch.)

"It didn't take us doing anything to keep our kids happy," Anne Hefler says. "They felt great that we weren't hovering over them. As a result, they were remarkably well-behaved."

Perhaps that's a function of all the fresh air or maybe the less harried lifestyle. Forget television or computer games. Never mind a phone in your room, much less fancy clothes. "Most of the time you don't even know what people do in real life," says Ms. Tussin.

Choose wisely, however. Some farms offer just a Spartan spare room or two for guests and the chance to help with the chores, leaving it largely up to the visitors to decide how to spend their time -- fishing or berry picking, hiking or reading.

Others, such as Rockhouse Mountain Farm and the Inn at East Hill Farm in New Hampshire or Bluffdale Vacation Farm in Illinois, provide far more amenities, from canoe trips to horseback rides, even to Bill Hobson's lectures on the Native American artifacts at Bluffdale. (Call the Rockhouse Mountain Farm at [603] 447-2880, the Inn at East Hill Farm at [800] 242-6495 or Bluffdale at [217] 983-2854.)

Don't expect lavish accommodations anywhere. That's why it's a good idea to ask lots of questions before booking, suggests Pat Dickerman, who has been writing about farms and ranches for more than 40 years. Her newly revised "Farm, Ranch & Country Vacations" is a good place to look for the right farm for your family. (Adventure Guides, $19.95; to order, call [800] 252-7899.)

Ms. Dickerman's tip: Always ask about discounts for the children. Check out other resources as well to find that special farm. If you'd like to introduce your children to the Amish or Mennonite way of life, for example, a list of local farm families who take in families is available from the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau (Call [800] PA-DUTCH.)

Some state tourism boards also provide names of local farmers who welcome guests. (Try the Iowa Tourism Office at [800] 345IOWA, the Wisconsin Division of Tourism at [800] 432-TRIP or the Vermont Travel Division at [800] VERMONT. The California Farm Bureau suggests calling local county farm bureaus to find those that accept guests. For a list of guest ranches in the state, write P.O. Box 1499, Sacramento 95812-1499.)

Wherever you go, Naomi Tussin says, "It will be better than camp and nobody will get homesick."

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