Date: April 1, 2011
Last summer, my husband and I enjoyed our best family vacation ever, spending a week with our two kids, his parents and my mother in what we have since come to think of as paradise.
But we weren't living it up on a Disney cruise, sunning on the beach or thrilling at an amusement park. We were on a farm, waking up to cows grazing in front of our restored log cabin and guinea hens chasing insects in the garden. Our daughters gathered eggs, picked wildflowers and went an entire week without television. We enjoyed the kind of peace and quiet you can find only when you wander off the beaten path.
As it turns out, more and more families — some several generations removed from the agrarian lifestyle — are seeking out farm stays as a way to reconnect with nature and the food supply and enjoy the simpler pleasures of life. In turn, this kind of agritourism supports farmers dedicated to sustainable agriculture and the local food movement, allowing them to raise livestock in humane conditions and grow crops without chemicals. It's a win-win situation.
The best part: North Carolina offers many farm stays with choices of location, lodging type and on-site activities. Here's a sampleof what you can enjoy with your family.Steeple Hill Farm, Summerfield
Guilford County, in the Piedmont-Triad
Proprietor: Renée Weidel
* Your stay includes: Rental of the two-bedroom 1930s farmhouse is suitable for up to four people, including children ages 6 and up. The renovated kitchen and other modern amenities combine with the old-fashioned fireplace and porch swing to offer the best of both worlds in a quiet, secluded setting. Rates are seasonal. Farm activities, riding lessons or guided trail rides are offered with package rates.
* Don't miss: The Fun-for-All Adventure, which includes educational activities, hay rides and a corn maze, is open to the public each fall, with weekends set aside for families.
* Back in the day: Steeple Hill Farm was an abandoned cattle and tobacco farm when Renée Weidel purchased it in 1983. By 1984, she had established 60 acres of orchard grass and fescue, followed by hayfields for the horses she added in 1989. By 1994, the farm was home to a horse-breeding operation and wholesale nursery for trees and woody ornamentals.
* By the numbers: The 138-acre farm raises sheep, goats, cows, chickens, ducks, horses and mini-horses. Since 2003, Weidel has grown organic strawberries and hosted schoolchildren and other groups for educational visits. The farm also hosts equestrian competitions and offers riding lessons.
* Quotable: Transforming the property has been a labor of love. "I took out three tandem loads of barbed wire, scrap metal and pieces of old cars. I took down three dilapidated barns and moved the original barn," Weidel remembers. "This place was like a diamond in the rough, and it has been transformed into a multi-faceted jewel."The Inn at Celebrity Dairy, Silk Hope
Near Siler City in Chatham County
Proprietors: Brit and Fleming Pfann
* Your stay includes: The elegant Greek Revival Inn was added on to the original 1810 log cabin five years ago. Room rates range from $90-$150 per night, double occupancy. (Kids under 6 stay free.) Guests enjoy farm-fresh breakfasts and are free to explore the property, ask questions at the barn, and maybe even peek in on Fleming's cheese-making through the dairy's kitchen windows.
* Don't miss: Spring at the inn means kids — as in baby goats. The dairy also is a popular farm
tour stop and an integral part of the county's sustainable agricultural community, with the inn hosting gourmet dinners one Sunday a month.
* Back in the day: The farm dates to the early 1800s. It was so overgrown when the Pfanns bought it in 1987 that they brought in goats to clear the brush. They started making cheese with goats' milk after realizing it was a remedy for Fleming's lactose intolerance. In 1991, Celebrity Dairy became North Carolina's first licensed farmstead dairy.
* By the numbers: Today the farm encompasses 330 acres, with 40 acres fenced for the 80 Alpine and Saanen goats whose milk is made into award-winning chèvre. The open woodlands offer 10 miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking or bicycling. Other livestock includes 300-400 free-range chickens, guinea hens, ducks and several "guardian" llamas, which protect the goats from predators.
* Quotable: The farm was purchased to create a gathering place for the Pfann family, and sharing it was the purpose behind the inn. "What works for our family works for other families as well," Brit says.Pisgah View Ranch, Candler
Near Asheville in Buncombe County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Managers: Mark and Hannah McMullen
* Your stay includes: The property is dotted with rustic cottages and cabins sleeping from two to 17 people, with rates starting at $110 per night for adults (children 5 and under stay free). Three home-cooked meals made with local produce are served daily at the main house. Guests enjoy horseback rides along woodland streams, nightly entertainment including bonfires and cookouts, and an outdoor swimming pool.
* Don't miss: The ranch evokes its history with Cowboy Action Shooting demonstrations, livestock roping simulations and a pioneer museum.
* Back in the day: Pisgah View Ranch has been owned by the same family for more than 200 years, and the property still includes the log cabin built by patriarch Euriah Davis in 1790. The farm produced tobacco, cattle and pigs. In the early 1900s, the farmhouse served as a restaurant and inn. The property opened as a vacation ranch in 1941.
* By the numbers: Boasting 2,000+ acres of private woodland and pastures, Pisgah View Ranch is now home to 26 trail horses and is one of the only all-inclusive guest ranches in the state. More than 100 acres are devoted to producing hay. Wild berries and grapes and a vegetable garden provide fresh treats for guests.
* Quotable: Visiting the ranch means stepping back in time. "There are no TVs in the cabins, no Internet except in the main ranch house, and most cell phones do not work here," Hannah notes. "This is a great place to step out of the fast-paced environment of our daily lives and back into nature."Frog Holler Organiks, Waynesville
Haywood County, in the Great Smoky Mountains
Proprietor: Robyn Cammer
* Your stay includes: The renovated farmhouse opened as a vacation rental, The Gardener's House, in 2007 and sleeps seven or eight. Rates start at $195 per night. While guests cook their own meals, they enjoy complimentary free-range eggs, produce and fresh-cut flowers. The 1,500-square-foot deck offers secluded mountain and water views. Guests may gather eggs, cuddle with chicks and baby rabbits, help in the gardens, and enjoy nature hikes that start right from their front door.
* Don't miss: In nearby Great Smoky National Park, visitors can observe the elk population at Cataloochee Valley, and frequent arts and crafts fairs in charming downtown Waynesville provide fun outings throughout the year.
* Back in the day: The original property was a rhododendron farm dating back to the 1920s. When Frog Holler expanded from another location in 2005, organic farmer Robyn Cammer replenished the soil with compost and biodynamic soil she makes herself. She now grows flowers and produce without using any pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
* By the numbers: The house sits on three flat acres, two of which are cultivated in flower, herb, fruit and vegetable gardens. Livestock includes 10 breeding rabbits and 40 chickens, including Silver Lace Wyandotte, Barred Rock, Araucana, and Black Star varieties. Koi swim in ponds by the house, and horses and cows graze in nearby pastures.
* Quotable: "I love having people to the farm to enjoy the gardens. That's why I wanted to make a space for families to stay in," Cammer says. "[Children] get excited about what they're doing and may be inspired to do this when they grow up."Cloud 9 Farm, Fletcher
Near Asheville in Buncombe County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Proprietor: Janet Peterson
* Your stay includes: The remodeled Cloud 9 Relaxation Home sleeps up to nine people. Rates begin at $275 per night. Guests may use the kitchen and amenities, including fine china, an outdoor hot tub, mountain bikes, and beach toys and fishing tackle for the swimming hole. Children are welcome to join Peterson gathering eggs, digging in the garden, hiking in the woods and learning about nature. (The nearby Hideaway Cabin is ideal for couples.)
* Don't miss: Older children may don beekeeping gear and help collect honey, and younger children can play "animal detective" whenever wild critters have left tracks near the chicken coops. Scrap lumber is available for building forts.
* Back in the day: When Janet Peterson's parents retired to the 200-acre mountain property in 1968, they tackled overgrown pastures, a depleted cornfield and 100 acres of burned-over or heavily logged forest. They restored the 18 acres of open valley land, putting in a blueberry farm and building a spacious mountain home.
* By the numbers: Today the property includes the 3-acre U-Pick Berry Farm and 10 acres that support a herd of hormone-free Angus cattle. The farm also sells honey and free-range eggs. A small logging operation, part of a N.C. Forestry Conservation effort, produces rough-cut lumber and firewood.
* Quotable: A former teacher, Peterson is delighted to share the principles of conservation that guide Cloud 9. "One guest who was a biology major described the farm as being like a big science experiment," she remembers, "because there were so many things to observe about nature."
Karen Lewis Taylor is an Apex-based writer and self-proclaimed "city girl" whose daughters, ages 10 and 7, are now determined to live on a farm when they grow up.