Farm vacations in North Carolina’s mountains
It used to be you grew up on a farm or were close to someone who owned one. You knew which part of the cow your cuts of meat came from, and you cooked with vegetables freshly plucked from your garden.
Nowadays, the only food some folks, be they adults or kids, may ever see is at the grocery store, packaged on shelves and frozen in bins. The only pasture they may see is on TV, and their only animal a dog or cat.
Enter the farm stay: a great way to get back in touch with nature. The number of North Carolina farms that offer them is increasing, due partly to agritourism efforts to boost income and also raise awareness about locally sourced goods.
Basically, farm stays range from simple, country-style digs to elegant retreats. Each is unique to its site, its working operations and its owners. You might sleep in a farmhouse guest room, cabin, cottage, converted barn, or even a tent near a creek. Generally, guests should not expect high-thread counts and high teas — while farms can be very hospitable, they aren't fancy hotels. Prices per night vary but generally start around $75 and up, with many stays priced to what a bed-and-breakfast stay would cost in the area ($100–$150 or so).
Guests don't have to do chores. But if you wish to, you can sometimes help with gathering eggs, feeding chickens, milking cows and grooming horses. (Sorry, but you probably can't drive the tractor because of insurance rules.)
Once you have pulled a carrot out of the ground or gathered warm eggs, you better understand why food costs so much and may appreciate organic food more. At Jordan Blackley Farm in Candler (about 15 minutes south of Asheville), guests learn about shitake mushrooms, black and red raspberries, and bee-keeping. Co-owner Cindy Jordan, a certified journeyman beekeeper and Haywood EMC member, has a child's bee suit and adult bee suit on hand, and upon request allows guests to look into the hives.
The color and flavor of local honey is determined by its regional nectar source and weather. On a tour, Jordan clarified how different trees blooming at different times of the year can influence the bees' honey. For example, when tulip poplars are blooming (in the spring here), its nectar during that time creates a different honey flavor than when other trees are blooming. Hence the name, tulip poplar honey, a dark, delicious treat.
In the mountains, you often see sourwood honey showcased at farm stands, farmers markets and local shops. The yummy honey, produced mainly in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, comes from native sourwood trees here that bloom from mid-June to late July. Locals call their bell-shaped, sweet-smelling white blooms "angel fingers." The name sourwood comes from the odorous leaves, which taste sour. In a good year, you can simply shake the blooms for tasty drops of nectar.
As far as food on farm vacations, expect tasty vittles. Guests at the Jordan Blackley farm are treated to a jar each of fresh honey and thick jam. Many "haycations" also include breakfast and, depending on the farm, organic eggs, fruit just picked off the vine, homemade sausage and other goodies.
At Briar Rose Farm in Hot Springs (about 40 minutes northwest of Asheville), overnight guests can explore 250 acres, pick summer produce and seasonal berries, tour a greenhouse with hydroponic lettuce, visit with goats and relatively rare Belted Galloway cows, collect eggs from chickens, fish from trout streams, hike to the a mountaintop fire tower and splash in the creek. Co-owner Judie Hansen, a member of French Broad EMC, says guests are sometimes surprised when learning about farm animals. Take, for example, the versatility of goats. "Basically, just one goat can provide a family of four with milk and dairy, fiber for spinning, and also soap, she explains. "Plus, they are friendly, smart and clean." Co-owner Tom Hare enjoys showing interested guests how his sawmill works and will give rides in his newly restored 1940 Ford Coupe (which has a history as a moonshine runner).
Some of the many other mountain farms that offer stays include Tender Mercy Retreat in Waynesville, Bedford Falls Alpaca Farm in Warne and Blueberry Cottage at Mountain Farm in Burnsville.
Some proprietors use the term "farm stays" loosely, and their "farm" is more like a vacation rental that happens to have chickens nearby. If you want to experience a working operation, look for one. A farm's own website should describes rooms, activities and amenities. Hosts who allow chore participation usually mention it in descriptions. Another sign of a farm's commitment to involve and educate guests is stated farm tours, informal or formal, as well as classes and workshops in the farm's particular expertise, be it cheese making, spinning or other relevant operations. If you are unsure as to whether or not a particular farm is right for you, call or e-mail the host, and ask what a typical day for guests is like.
Farms stays across North Carolina
Of course, there are great farm stays all across North Carolina, not just the mountains. For a listing of North Carolina's agritourism accommodations, go to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website at www.visitncfarms.com and click on "Farm Bed & Breakfasts, Country Cabins, and Retreats" A recent check showed 55 listings, although a few appeared to offer only day activities (not overnight stays) and were more like retreats than working farm stays. A source that emphasizes working operations is the website listing portal www.farmstayus.com, designed to connect guests with working farm and ranch stays across the U.S. Specify "North Carolina" and you get more than 40 places. Its Advanced Search also lets you check boxes for "pets" and "children" and other important details.