Down On The Farm

A vacation on a working farm helps youngsters cultivate a new appreciation for their rural roots.

Pennsylvania

May 19, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

What do you call it when a suburban, minivan-driving family of four is transplanted to a small family farm in rural southwestern Pennsylvania where children are expected to help with the daily chores?

Some might call it cruel and unusual punishment, others a potential PBS miniseries.

We called it a vacation.

For three days and two nights, my 6-year-old daughter Anna, my 3-year-old son Daniel and my wife and I lived and sometimes worked on Weatherbury Farm, a 102-acre spread in the rolling Allegheny foothills about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

We were determined to have a back-to-nature adventure, or at least hark back to our modest agrarian roots (my mother was raised on a farm -- and harked the heck out of there at the earliest opportunity). It seemed high time the children learned that hamburger patties don't grow on trees.

The notion that living on a farm could be a vacation is not new, but it's a concept whose time has arrived. Have children ever been less aware of rural life? A growing number of farms and ranches are offering overnight lodgings, along with an experience that is more evocative and educational than a mere field trip.

My first clue that my own children might require such a lesson took place several years ago when Anna was in preschool. On a tour of a cider mill, the guide asked her class, "Can anyone tell me where apple cider comes from?"

My daughter's hand shot up, and her reply was unabashed: "From cans."

After the laughter died down, she turned to me and whispered, "I should have said bottles, right, Dad?"

Weatherbury Farm is a five-hour drive from Baltimore in the tiny village of Avella, spitting distance from West Virginia's northern panhandle and a stone's throw from Ohio.

I discovered the farm by accident -- it was listed on a Web site sponsored by the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association. Weatherbury advertises itself as child-friendly and family-oriented and a "perfect escape from every day pressures."

From the moment we drove through the gates, we knew this was going to be an authentic farm experience. Weatherbury's 30 or so head of cattle were grazing the hillside. Guinea fowl were scrambling to climb a tree for their evening roost. A white picket fence surrounded the 150-year-old farmhouse.

And, in the true test of a family farm, the half-painted barn looked from the outside like it could collapse in a stiff wind.

Welcome to the country

"We tell people we're not Disneyland," says Marcy Tudor, 55, who runs Weatherbury with her husband, Dale, and 21-year-old son, Nigel. "We don't have people with pooper scoopers running behind the animals."

The Tudors made us feel immediately at home, inviting us on a brief tour of the property and their two-story clapboard house, a portion of which dates to 1830. Anna got a chance to hold baby chicks that had recently hatched in an incubator the family kept in the living room.

The interior of the house is cheery and country-friendly, full of dried flowers, quilts and a scattering of toys with a farming theme. The kitchen is filled with antiques, red-handled tools and a refrigerator from the 1920s.

It was getting late, so we adjourned to our room in an outbuilding, a renovated one-time summer kitchen with a queen-size bed, sleep sofa, stone fireplace and some charming antique fixtures, including a claw-foot tub.

Aside from a few ladybugs that didn't exactly charm Anna but amused Daniel, we had no complaints. As a gentle rain struck the tin roof, we dreamed of green meadows, quiet solitude and the chores ahead.

We rose at 7 a.m., jostled awake by a rat-a-tat sound that turned out to be a woodpecker who had discovered that pecking on the metal fence near our room was much more satisfying than knocking on mere wood.

Outside our door, the air smelled fresh and clean, but rather damp as it was still raining hard. The children would soon learn their first farm lesson: Just as in the city, the combination of dirt and water equals mud puddles that are ever so much fun to splash in.

Over breakfast, we learned that Weatherbury, named after the village in Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, became a bed and breakfast 10 years ago. The Tudors loved the intimacy of a B&B and had wanted to get in the business for years before that. They already lived in the Pittsburgh area thanks to Dale's job as an executive with Bayer, the multinational chemical and health care company.

The fact that Weatherbury was a farm was a bonus for Dale, who grew up on one. "It's a lifestyle you miss," says Dale, 49. "Living in the suburbs is not the same thing. It's nice having all the space."

Dale is lean and lanky, deep-voiced and somewhat stoic. Marcy, who describes herself as a farm wife, runs the B&B. She's friendly and also efficient (she helps local farmers with their tax preparations).

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