Family vacations can be expensive: Not only are airfare, gas costs, accommodations and meals pricey, but the cost of keeping the kids entertained can add up to serious cash. Wouldn't it be nice to find a place where there's built-in entertainment that's even educational, without the resort price?
Well, there is -- if you're willing to pack your mud boots and don't mind getting a little grungy. Staying on a farm for your vacation will not only save you money but might be the most memorable trip your family will take. And if you have kids, the educational factor alone of learning where milk and eggs come from is worth a little muck on your boots.
The cost of a farm stay
Like any other type of vacation, the cost of staying on a farm varies from laughably cheap to five-star-hotel expensive. But on average, most farm stays are moderately priced and include a hearty breakfast fit for a farmhand. Participating in farm chores is optional but can be a fun farm stay experience.
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"The (per night) range can go from $25 to pitch a tent on a farmer's land to $120 to $150 for staying at a farmhouse or cabin with breakfast -- or even three meals -- and all activities included," says Scottie Jones, owner of the website Farm Stay U.S., a database of more than 950 U.S.-based farm stays. To make the list, the accommodations must be on a working farm. Jones also runs her own farm, Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Ore.
Not all farm stays are cheap. Some are like resorts or spas and can fetch $1,200 per night, but those are the exceptions to the rule.
Staying on a farm cuts down on vacation spending because there's not a lot to spend money on. "There are a lot of fun activities for families ... and they are usually free," Jones says.
Don't expect frills, and leave your open-toed sandals and white sneakers at home. Farm stays are rarely fancy, says travel writer Reid Bramblett, who publishes ReidsGuides.com, a trip-planning site.
"Farm stays are comfortable but simple ... and you often get incredibly fresh food," he says.
What you get
At Jones' 67-acre farm two hours outside of Portland, Ore., vacationers get a two-bedroom cabin with a full kitchen, washer/dryer, living room, wireless access and a deck to take in farm life.
While Jones doesn't cook for guests, she stocks breakfast food in the cabin and allows guests to pick their own vegetables and berries in her half-acre garden for other meals.
There is no television and no cellphone service. Visitors can gather eggs, help with farm chores, or simply enjoy frolicking with baby lambs and goats. She charges $150 per night for two people, $25 for each additional person and no charge for children younger than 3.
What Jones offers is typical of most farm stays, but there is a wide variety of what each farm stay offers from a converted barn to a cabin, or a room in the farm family's home.
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For example, Liberty Hill Farm offers a complete farm immersion experience on its Rochester, Vt., dairy farm. It charges $98 per adult, $75 for teens, $54 for kids under 12, and it's free for children under 2. The price includes lodging in one of seven guest rooms in the main house, a hearty breakfast and a sit-down dinner around the farmers' dining room table.
Activities include collecting eggs, feeding newborn calves, hanging out with barn kittens, walking through cornfields and floating down the White River in free inner tubes.
Most farm stays are as individualized as the farmers who run them. Depending on the farm, your stay could include horseback riding, wagon rides, cookouts and singing around a campfire. The Palmer Ranch House, a 5,200-acre working ranch in South Dakota, even offers visitors a chance to dig for fossils and artifacts.
The farm experience
What you get when you visit a farm is more than a place to stay, Jones says. "Kids learn that milk and eggs don't come in cartons. Staying at a farm is a way for people to reconnect with where their food comes from."
Part of this reconnecting could mean disconnecting from everyday life. Most farm stays do not offer television. Some farms are so remote there is no cellphone service. But this is part of the charm. "Families find they go into a 1950s Beaver Cleaver mode. They play together, eat together, go for walks," Jones says.
And working on your vacation is not mandatory on farm stays. "The biggest fear (of visitors) is that we're going to make them work. Farm stays are an experiential vacation ... it's as hands-on as you want it to be," says Jones, who notes that some of the heavier farm work is hands-off to visitors because of liability risks.
Before you go
You can search for farm stays at several database sites, with many including detailed information about the farms. Reid also suggests you contact a state's tourism bureau, cooperative extension or land-grant universities for lists of farm stays.
As you look for a farm stay, make sure you think about what kind of farm experience you and your family want before booking. You may fantasize about staying on a dairy farm, but will your family tolerate the manure smells that go along with it?
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Visit the farm's website and read about the experience that the farm has to offer, and call the farmer with questions on what to bring and what to expect.
Reid suggests that parents ask specific questions about activities for kids. "Some farms are basically bed-and-breakfasts that happen to be on a farm," he says. "If you want to be engaged in the farm experience, this might not be the best farm stay for your family."
And if you simply cannot live without your cellphone or a wireless Internet service, ask if those services are available in a nearby town.
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