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Getaway 'haycations' turn families into farmhands

| Monday, April 25, 2011

Kathy Allen grew up as a frequent visitor to her grandparents' farm, where she would spend weekends with her siblings helping the older generation tend to the chickens and other animals.

"I had the opportunity to have a life in the city and a life in the country. Mom and Dad would pack myself and my brothers up," Allen, of Saxonburg, says. "Today, you don't have that."

With the popularity of rural getaways, though, many people can find that. Allen and her husband, John, own and run Armstrong Farms in Saxonburg, where they offer "farm vacations" for people seeking to immerse themselves in farm life for a day or two, or longer. Visitors do all kinds of things like observe the herds of black Angus cattle, stroll along the walking trails, go fishing in the handful of farm ponds and interact with and help feed the geese, donkeys and chickens.

"This gives kids the opportunity to know what it was like," Kathy Allen says. "You can't go very many places to enjoy the antics of barnyard animals."

Farm vacations -- often called "haycations" -- give people a break from the bustle of city life, and a chance to pack up the kids and enjoy a down-home night or two out on a farm. Pennsylvania, California and Vermont lead the nation in "haycation" destinations, according to the database at . Pennsylvania even has its own organization for haycations: the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association.

Southwestern Pennsylvania farms interviewed report that visitors come in from all over the country, sometimes for less than $100 per night.

"I think the scenery has a lot to do with it," says Eric Cowden. He is the marketing manager for fairs and agritourism for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "And we are such a short-distance drive from over half of the U.S. population."

The family farm has become rarer over the years, Cowden says, and guests have a great opportunity to experience one through a haycation and learn a lot about agriculture.

"They are certainly wanting to have their children and themselves ... experience what the generation before them experienced," he says.

"I think that the farm stay gives the nonagricultural public an appreciation for their food and fiber, and where it comes from," Cowden says.

Along with the nice escape into the countryside, taking a farm vacation educates visitors, says Marcy Tudor. She is one of the owners of Weatherbury Farm, which raises cows and sheep for meat in Avella, Washington County.

"Our whole mission here is to educate folks about farms and agriculture and where their food comes from," she says. "It's amazing how many people, especially children, think their eggs come in Styrofoam containers at the supermarket."

About 95 percent of the guests at Weatherbury Farm are families, including grandparents, and they can stay at the farm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights during June, July and August, Tudor says. Guests stay in a barn that has been converted into a house. The haycations here offer mostly unstructured time for guests to escape and relax, although they help with some farm chores -- like pumping water, feeding the goats and collecting chicken eggs -- after a hearty, home-grown breakfast with Weatherbury chicken eggs, and grains and vegetables from the fields.

"I think it's great for children," says Tudor, whose grandmother lived on a farm. "Most of them have never seen a farm animal up close and personal. ... It's just a wonderful experience to be out in the country and hear the chickens and sheep and cows."

At Sunset Hills Farm, which raises alpacas for their fleece, two types of vacationers come: those seeking peace and solitude in a beautiful country setting, and those who seek a more interactive experience by taking on-site alpaca classes, and helping staff care for the often-friendly South American animals, officials say. Guests can stay at the Stargazer Bed and Breakfast and shop at the farm's Alpaca de Moda boutique, where they can buy all kinds of products made from yarn spun from the fleece, like coats and scarves,

"It's a chance to leave the daily grind behind," says Karen Stefaniak. She handles marketing, public relations and sales for the Butler County farm. "It's a very quiet rural setting, but not too far away from the city, so you don't have to travel far. You can escape and leave your worries and concerns behind. That's one of the most important things people get out of it."

At Ber-Nita Acres Bed and Breakfast near Ellwood City, Beaver County, visitors on a haycation can walk around the farm, look at the animals, fish and ride paddleboats and learn about daily life on a farm. In the morning, visitors can enjoy the hens' dark brown, organic eggs. Children can enjoy the farm's playground. The guests stay in owner Juanita Martin's bed-and-breakfast home, where she raised 11 children.

"They say it's a very calm place to be -- very relaxing -- and they enjoy the food," Martin says. "That's what they want to get away from: the city and the world. It's just a quiet place to get away."

Farms for vacations

At Farmstay U.S., , you can do searches for farms throughout the country that offer haycations. The Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association's Web site, , lists farms just within the state.

Regional farms include:

• Armstrong Farms, 724-352-2858 or

• Ber-Nita Acres Bed and Breakfast, 724-752-1455 or

• Sunset Hills Farm, 724-596-2412 or

• Weatherbury Farm, 724-587-3763 or

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Farm vacations

Farm vacations

'Haycations' give people a break from the bustle of city life, and a chance to pack up the kids and enjoy a down-home night or two out on a farm.

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