Tod Foreman gave his sister a cow for Christmas last year --minus the manure.
Foreman's sister never actually saw the cow, but she got a photo and regular updates from the animal saying the milking was going fine but the hay wasn't what it was last year. And, after a couple of months, Jill Oberheim received six wheels of cheese from "her" cow, Franny.
"My brother is completely insane. Only he would give me something like this," said Oberheim, who lives in Orinda, Calif., and whose cow grazes in Corinth, Vt. "It's so very different and so extraordinary, and it's also very good cheese."
The bounty of the land arrived via Rent Mother Nature, a Cambridge, Mass., company that gives city slickers a taste of the country and a lesson about nature, but none of the backbreaking farm chores.
The company "leases" 21 types of animals, fruits, trees and crops from 15 states and Mexico, Peru and Colombia. Customers are guaranteed a share of the bounty, such as a jug of maple syrup, a wool blanket or a jar of honey.
Foreman, a doctor in Pembroke, Mass., first gave a maple tree lease to his wife, then beehive leases to his in-laws. Next year, a lease for a sheep or a cherry tree may be under his Christmas tree.
"Now I give them to associates or basically anybody I want to butter up," he said.
Other products include coffee from Latin America; dates from Thermal, Calif.; wild rice and an invitation to the harvest powwow from the Ojibwe Indian tribe in Cass Lake, Minn.; and chestnuts from Central Lake, Mich. (Although cow renters receive cheese from their animal, the other products are actually a portion of the whole harvest on the farm.)
"To say that all we do is sell foods or give you blankets is missing the point," said Robert MacArthur, a 71-year-old Harvard University business graduate who founded the company in 1979. "We educate, we entertain, we amuse. Try to get that walking up and down the supermarket aisle."
Entertainment doesn't come cheap. A five-pound bag of wheat flour costs $29.95, five pounds of unshelled pecans, $44.95.
Courtney Nelson of Omaha, Neb., received a maple tree lease from her daughter in California last year. "They sent us updates telling us how the tree was doing and the sap was running," Nelson said. "It was fun, and we use the syrup on pancakes and waffles."
The idea for the company came from MacArthur's daughter, who suggested renting maple trees on the family farm in New York's Adirondacks.
"At that time it was impossible to get pure, natural foods, and I wanted to offer something that wasn't just a great product but where you could learn from what you eat," MacArthur said.
Beehives came next, but requests outgrew the farm, so MacArthur made arrangements with other farms for more products. He is looking for still more offerings--perhaps olive trees in Greece.
"If you walk around the barn long enough," he said, "you're sure to step in something."