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Camping Connection: And On His Farm He Pitched a Tent

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By Bill Steiden

Agritourism is a fancy word for an idea that has been around for a long time. The West is dotted with dude ranches, many of them in business for almost a century. They began to spring up almost as soon as the once-Wild West was tamed, drawing Easterners whose romantic notions of the frontier were fueled by the novels of Zane Grey and Owen Wister, and later by moviemakers such as John Ford.

But the twenty-first century vision of life on the land is considerably different. It’s not about cattle drives, gunfights and riding the range, and to the degree that involves American Indians, it’s about emulating their relationship to the land, not driving them from it. As organic and sustainable farming has gone from being a social movement to a thriving industry, a new kind of agritourism has taken root in places far from the old West, including Kentucky, Georgia, Illinois and Vermont.

A growing number of small farmers devoted to earth-friendly practices are supplementing their incomes by welcoming city dwellers who want to learn about their lives and labor via workshops, internships and volunteer workdays. Taking a page from the dude ranches, some are setting up facilities on their farms for those who want to use their vacations to see what it’s like to live at harmony with the land.

All ages can get involved and learn what it takes to grow your own food. All ages can get involved and learn what it takes to grow your own food.

The most common kind of farm stay is a bed and breakfast or cabin rental, but a handful of farmers recognize that they also have a lot to offer to campers, especially families. Typically, they set aside some acreage for campsites and provide picnic tables, campfire rings and bathhouses.

Some larger organic farms — particularly those involved in community supported agriculture (CSA), an arrangement under which local residents pay subscription fees and/or provide labor to a farmer in return for a share of the crop — offer organized instruction in various farming techniques. Others, run by single families, may be too busy with their daily chores to offer an organized program, but they welcome volunteer work, passing on their knowledge and lore as part of the process. For aspiring home gardeners, particularly those who want to learn about sustainable practices, it’s a hands-on way to learn.

Both the two and four legged kinds of kids get along well at Enota Mountain Retreat.Both the two and four legged kinds of kids get along well at Enota Mountain Retreat.

Here are some examples, and new ones spring up on the Web every week:

Four Springs Farm, Royalton, Vt., near the Green Mountains. A well-established CSA farm, Four Springs has walk-in campsites with tent platforms dotted around the property. There’s also a primitive rental cabin and a bathhouse. Guests can shadow the farmers as they do their daily chores. Or they can plan their vacations around formal programs of various lengths, run by a staff program director. Among activities are exploring the gardens, learning to make bread at the farm’s bakery, nature study and field trips. For more information: 802.763.7296; www.fourspringsfarm.com/programs.php.

Terrapin Hill Farm, Harrodsburg, Ky. Another CSA farm, Terrapin Hill operates a retreat center for groups both small and large, and welcomes families. There is a campground with bath house as well as rental yurts and a teepee that can accommodate up to 10 people. The farm offers a series of sustainable farming workshops known as Earthworks, with instruction in such skills as herb growing, soap making, cooking with seasonal produce and preserving. It also has an annual festival in September. Harrodsburg is home to Old Fort Harrod State Park and Shaker Village, and offers numerous other camping options. For more information: 859.734.7207; www.terrapinhillfarm.com.

The entrance sign at Enota.The entrance sign at Enota.

Enota Mountain Retreat, Hiawassee, Ga. Enota, on the former site of a Cherokee village in the North Georgia mountains near the Appalachian Trail, offers camping choices ranging from fully developed RV sites to streamside tent sites. A nice touch: There are separate primitive campgrounds, one for families and the other for adults only. Enota’s array of activities is as wide as its camping options, including tours of its certified organic gardens; an animal sanctuary where children can help with the daily feedings; recreation areas with trampolines and horseshoe pits; a fishing pond; its own hydroelectric power plant; and workshops that focus on Native American teachings regarding the land, healing, growth cycles, the harvest and other topics. For more information: 800.990.8869; enota.com.

There's room for fun on the farm. It’s not all work and no play on the farm.

Kinnikinnick Farm, Caledonia, Ill. Outside Rockford and a few hours from metro Chicago, this family-owned farms is part of a farm-camping chain, Featherdown Farms, that started in the Netherlands and is expanding to the U.S. Guests are house in large, walled tents, with a wood floor, woodburning cook stove and equipped kitchen area, table and chairs, separate sleeping areas for parents and children and a flush toilet, though there’s no electricity – illumination is by oil lamps and candles — and the running water is the cold sort. It’s more like grand safari lodging than a campground. The farm itself raises chickens and Italian-style herbs, greens and vegetables, with much of the produce sold to Chicago restaurants. Guests are invited to join the work, and there are numerous activities for the kids. There are also two Feather Down farms in upstate New York. 512.485.3009; www.featherdown.com.

Keep in mind that farm vacations are, obviously, for those interested in experiencing the lifestyle. To get the most from the experience, you have to want to learn and be willing to cheerfully pitch in with the never-ending work of planting, harvests and maintenance of the grounds and equipment.

Cooling off was never so much fun!Cooling off was never so much fun!

You also must be aware that farmers live by the sun – early to bed, early to rise. Save the late-night revelry for another time. But bring your appetite. Especially for those who plan their trips near harvest time, farm camping offers a chance to enjoy the freshest possible produce – perhaps even harvested with their own hands.

All photos courtesy of Enota Mountain Retreat.

Bill Steiden is a Decatur, Ga., journalist who camps whenever he can and valiantly tries to maintain a garden on his condo patio.

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