Question: Can you please tell me where I can stay on a working farm in California and do chores such as feeding the animals, milking the cows and staying in a nice farmhouse?
Answer: Amid the glitz and glam of California, we often forget that agriculture is a top industry in the Golden State, its 77,500 farms bringing in about $47 billion, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture 2015-2016 report.
"California has the most farm stays of any state, having pushed out heritage states like Vermont that started offering farm stays back in the late '90s to try to revitalize their family farms," said Scottie Jones, a representative for Farm Stay U.S. Its site lists more than five dozen farm stays in the state, she said in an email, and "more farms are opening up."
Proprietors make some money, of course, but that's not their primary goal (and several said no one is in it for the money).
The organization's aim, besides helping farmers set up the infrastructure they need to market such vacations, involves helping potential vacationers learn about life on a farm or ranch.
"Many of us find our urban neighbors so disconnected from how food is grown that the educational part of the farm stay just comes naturally out of the questions we are asked," said Jones, whose Leaping Lamb Farm Stay is in Alsea, Ore. "Since this is our livelihood, it's an easy conversation."
But there is a big difference between a farm stay and, say, a bed-and-breakfast inn experience, said Jones, author of "Country Grit: A Farmoir of Finding Purpose and Love."
"The easiest way to explain the difference is that we are sharing our lifestyle, not just our farmhouse," she said. "These guests are not just lodgers. They want to come to a farm, and most are highly respectful of what we do.
"Some are even researching the lifestyle for themselves, although most are disabused of the notion in a weekend.
"A weekend on a farm is a world apart from urban life, so we often have guests return again and again just to 'get out of town,' knowing they don't have to buy a farm to stay on one."
Despite the familial feelings and the peace and quiet of pastoral lands, "farm stays are not for everybody," said Cathie Orr, who runs Willow Creek Ranch Farm Stay with her husband, John, in Mountain Ranch, Calif., 80 or so miles southeast of Sacramento.
Really? Who wouldn't love a farm? "People that have a problem with poop," Orr said, laughing as she recalled the guest who was offended by the natural byproducts of chickens and cows.
But she added, if you want to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, this is an "old-timey" kind of respite that lets everyone, especially families with kids, unplug and unwind.
The younger set often will put aside their electronics, Orr said, and just be kids, running around, finding rocks in streams, whooping and hollering with no worry about disturbing the neighbors. The safety threats of urban life are quickly forgotten, she said.
Enjoying the fruits of their labors
If those aforementioned byproducts are a concern, blossoms may be more your speed, and that's what you'll find at Naylor's Organic Family Farm Stay, run by Mike and Nori Naylor in Dinuba, Calif., about 30 miles southeast of Fresno. It's a stone-fruit farm where you'll learn about growing apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums, which you can sample and also harvest in the you-pick part of the farm.
"Everybody's used to Disneyland," Nori Naylor said, "but this is far from that. We do have Wi-Fi, but one of our goals is to have people just chill out … and [spend time] in nature.
"When it's clear, you can see the Sierra from our house."
And see a glorious profusion of flowering fruit trees, some of which are almost always in bloom in season.
You also can see (and get acquainted with) Penny, the Vizsla, a family-friendly dog breed that hails from Hungary.
Here, guests can interact with the goats as much or as little as they like. They can learn to milk them, said owner Gloria Putnam, or steal away to the private cabin, Airstream or campsite just to be in the quiet.
Visitors also may join Putnam as she shepherds her goats, which she characterizes as an ancient and sustainable agricultural concept that "maximizes their nutrition and minimizes their impact on the landscape."
Be aware that the goats are there for milk, of course, and they also supply meat for Putnam's table (and occasionally for guests, who may sample the goat meat in a "taco kit" that she makes available). "Not everyone is happy to learn that" the goats aren't pets, but a farmer's relationship with his or her "crop" is very different from that of a house pet.
Meals and accommodations at farm stays vary widely, so it's best to investigate costs, lodgings, eating arrangements, amenities and activities before you book.
Most of all, be prepared to be introduced to a realm you may know only from movies or TV. Each of the proprietors has a unique relationship with his or her guests.
"When people come into our home," Nori Naylor said, "we tell them, 'Now you're family.'"
And when was the last time you felt that way after a vacation?
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