A Change of Place: The hearty pleasures of a farm stay
By Eric Lucas
Western Journey Magazine for AAA Members
Ah, the glory of country life. Clean, pine-scented air. Birds crooning in the trees. Golden sun in a cloudless sky. The luxurious sense that time is stretching. The stiff, glutinous mass of compost stuck to my shovel.
I shake it. Glue. Won’t drop.
I whack the shovel against the compost bin, provoking a small eruption of clucking and nattering among the 20 or so hens whose morning entertainment I’m providing. The commotion lasts a few seconds, then the chickens dart back into the middle of my project, eager to snatch the worms unearthed by the shovel.
Time for a break. I saunter over to the strawberry patch, kneel down, and search for berries at the peak of their delectability — bright red, off the ground, warmed by the morning sun. I pop them one at a time into my mouth and the burst of flavor reminds me of the tart candies of my childhood. I tarry a bit longer. After all, my assignment for the morning is to turn compost and do some strawberry-inventory management. “Don’t forget to stop and eat berries often!” I was instructed.
I’m not a farmer, nor do I even live on a farm. But for a couple days I’m a guest — or agritourist — at MaryJanesFarm near Moscow, Idaho, where I’m paying to work, eat, learn, and generally soak up the unmatched quietude of farm life. The main business for MaryJane Butters and her husband, Nick Ogle, is to grow organic produce and to package meal mixes for sale in natural-food and outdoor-outfitter outlets. But they also offer short farm stays (usually not longer than a week) to people who may wish to learn about establishing their own small farms or who simply want to experience a change of pace.
I was particularly interested in MaryJane’s garlic harvest — 60 kinds of garlic stored in the barn and curing in bushel baskets. She clasps a handful of an experimental variety she’s dubbed “MaryJane,” and holds them up for inspection. Drought and heat had curbed garlic growth, but MaryJane’s bulbs are full and fat and blushing sunset-purple. We head to the cookhouse for a session in practical garlic use. Instead of using the bulbes, which are best saved for winter, MaryJane shows me how to make a pesto using scapes, the fresh flower stems nipped from hardneck garlic. We blend them in a food processor with grated parmesan, olive oil, and lime juice. The result is a rich, fulsome pesto sauce that took all of oh, 15 minutes to make. “Good food isn’t complicated,” MaryJane says.
Amen to that. If there’s anything we’ve forgotten in our 150-year national exodus from farm to city, it’s just how simple making savory meals can be. Aside from the sheer wonder of food growing, preparation, and consumption, farms invariably offer an aesthetic reward that urbanites can drink in like cool tea. MaryJane’s farm is in a particularly luscious site, held fast in a small vale at the base of pine-studded Paradise Ridge, flanked by twin-sentinel old-growth ponderosa pines that peer out over the blissful rolling hills of the Palouse.
After dinner I retire to my quiet quarters. The cottages are single-room affairs, built of reclaimed wood, featuring painted wood floors, skylights, throw rugs of tied fabric, a propane light, an old dresser, and bedside picture windows that overlook a shrub-rose thicket. As dusk yields to starlight overhead, I drift off to the murmur of mourning doves in the pines.
In such a glorious place you can learn a lot simply by sitting on your cottage deck and absorbing the rhythms of country life: Daylight wakes you and jays clatter in the pines while you have your coffee. Midmorning is best for hard physical effort. In the afternoon, the heat stills the farms. Then, in the evening, the last rush of light brings a final flurry of activity.
As evening’s indigo curls down from the ridge it’s tempting to wander into philosophical time warps — but let’s just keep things simple. “My idea of agritourism is that people come and visit and eat a lot of good stuff. All I want to do,” says MaryJane, “is encourage people to add truly fresh food to their daily lives.” Not to mention starry nights, pine-scented breaths, and the realization that the world is far gentler than we sometimes think.
See www.maryjanesfarm.org/About/paydirt/ for more information on extended farm stays, and www.maryjanesfarm.org/tour/ for more information on day tours.
The Simple Life
Farms are evocative places that fuel the imagination, even for those who live on them. At Kelowna Land & Orchard, a third-generation farm in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, owner Richard Bullock was contemplating an old tractor one day seven years ago when an idea struck: Why not hook up a trailer to the tractor and invite people to tour the orchards for a small fee? “I just wanted to see if anyone would come,” Bullock says.
The response astounded him. Hundreds of area residents and visitors happily paid a few dollars each to ride around the 180 acres of apple, pear, and peach orchard while perched atop straw bales, listening to Bullock talk about the business of fruit production.
Today that old tractor sports a spiffy coat of bright yellow paint, as do the two hay wagons that trundle behind it. Bullock explains to guests the differences between the orchard’s dozen or so main apple varieties, from the new Ambrosia to the tried-and-true tart mainstay, Granny Smith. He also dispenses advice on how to tell whether the fruit is ripe enough to pick.
“Look at the depth of the color. Smell the apple. Is the stem still stiff? I can tell in two seconds if an apple is ripe just by looking, but anyone can get a good idea pretty quickly,” Bullock says as he whisks a ripe Gala into a harvest bin.
Bullock is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of agricultural tourism — or agritourism, for short — which seeks to make a 21st-century visitor attraction out of the farming way of life. It’s a two-way proposition that benefits farmers and farm visitors. “For a lot of small-farm owners, it’s the difference between being able to stay on the farm and do what they love or having to find additional work in town to supplement the income,” says George Sharp, manager of rural development for the Washington State Tourism office. Farmers not only gain income, but an opportunity to educate their customers about what goes into food production.
City dwellers get to enjoy a day in the country, see how a farm operates, and meet the farmers who grow their food. “Believe it or not, there are kids who think milk comes from a carton,” Sharp says. Perhaps best of all, at U-pick places, visitors can taste the freshest produce — straight out of the ground or off the tree or vine.
The idea of agritourism began germinating in Washington in 1999, when about a hundred farmers gathered for a forum to discuss ways to diversify their business. During the meeting, they learned about European agritourism, which is much more evolved than the American variety. In Europe, hundreds of Italian and French agriturismos offer guests the chance to participate in, for instance, late-summer grape harvesting, crushing, and winemaking. “All the classic European agriturismos are heavily subsidized by the government. They receive stipends and assistance with capital costs because they Europeans see it as a way to help preserve agriculture,” explains Leslie Zenz, coordinator of the direct-farm-marketing program at Washington State’s Department of Agriculture. “I don’t see the U.S. industry adopting that model in any widespread fashion any time soon.”
Still, a handful of small farms in Washington and in surrounding regions do offer overnight stays, where guests can immerse themselves in the flow of farm life. More typical farm experiences may involve simple half-day visits to pumpkin patches and U-pick farms (some with elaborate corn mazes and petting zoos), or classes on harvesting and preparing food, or farm country bus tours featuring commentary along the way. And the farm visits don’t have to revolve around food. The Skagit Valley’s famed Tulip Festival, for example, is one of the oldest such agricultural enterprises in the West. Every April thousands of people roam the countryside around Mount Vernon to admire the colorful quilt of bulb-flower blooms and traipse into growers’ sheds to buy sacks of bulbs. “People don’t say ‘Let’s go do agritourism,’” Sharp says. “They just say, ‘Let’s go do something fun!’”