A farm stay vacation lets you get get down and dirty

Handsome Brook Farm guests Gianna Stoukas, 6, and Handsome Brook Farm guests Gianna Stoukas, 6, and Zoe Salen, 7, play with the sheep. (Aug. 5, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

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I am in a pigpen on Handsome Brook Farm at the western edge of the Catskill Mountains as a 4-month-old, 200-pound swine (of the Tamworth breed) insistently nuzzles my leg, leaving a smeary mess of mud and who knows what else on my jeans. And ... I like it.

This is a farm stay, after all, and I've actually chosen to scale the fence to visit with the pigs, having first flipped the switch that de-electrifies the pen.

"As long as their tails are curly, they're happy," says Bryan Babcock, who owns the farm with his wife, Betsy.

Handsome Brook in Franklin is among dozens of small farms in the tristate area (and beyond) that offer the appeal of a bed-and-breakfast with a down-and-dirty farm experience. Here, depending on the season, you can bottle-feed a 7-week-old black-and-white Holstein calf, muck the stalls of the sheep that freely roam the property or stick your hand under a Golden Comet hen to retrieve a warm egg. You can help out in the 30-by-30-foot vegetable garden, which boasts -- among other healthy stuff -- broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pumpkins, beans, peas, tomatoes, rhubarb, green peppers, strawberries, raspberries and some of the heftiest zucchini you've ever seen. Or you might climb a short hill across the street to pick blueberries, a Handsome Brook mainstay.

Cock-a-doodle doo

"Farm stays offer a peek into a rural lifestyle that disappeared for many when the family farm was sold, often generations ago," says Scottie Jones, founder of Farm Stay U.S., an organization dedicated to connecting travelers with working farms and ranches in the United States. "There is a pace to life on the farm that starts with the early morning wake-up call by the rooster and the sound of the farm equipment and that ends with quiet and the total darkness at night, except for a fantastic view of the stars."

Plenty of couples visit Handsome Brook for its 1830s farmhouse charm, its well-appointed guest rooms (it has three), the tranquil sound of the brook (it really does babble) and Betsy's homemade baked goods and preserves. But a farm stay has FAMILY written all over it.

"My kids loved everything, from sitting around the breakfast table eating fresh farm eggs to paddling in the brook in their bare feet," says Laura Stoukas, an Edison, N.J., resident who visited Handsome Brook in August with her husband and two children, ages 11 and 6. "They learned a lot about the work involved in farm life and the fun and freedom of just hanging out with the animals. So far, it is their favorite vacation."

Again, depending on the season, Handsome Brook Farm has anywhere from seven to 20 sheep, two pigs, one calf (usually a male that has been kicked out of a nearby dairy farm), eight chickens, lots of lambs and two cats (Asterisk and Zak) -- all of which act like beloved house pets eager for attention.

Life lessons

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"It's educational but, at the same time, he's having fun," says Rebecca Gibson of Herndon, Va., as her 4-year-old son, Charles, hand-feeds the sheep a corn-molasses-oats-honey mixture and giggles happily at the tickle of their tongues on his palm.

The Babcocks are committed to sustainable farming. All vegetables and berries are organically grown without pesticides or herbicides. The "pasture-raised" chickens have free access to graze and, in partnership with area farmers, the couple sells about 60,000 eggs weekly to grocers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

The calf, pigs and lambs, too, are given plenty of grassy space to explore. "It is important to us that, while they are food, that they have a great life," Bryan says.

The sheep are sheared each May, and the wool produced (too little to sell independently) is given to a wool pool to market.

There are 20 apple trees (plus two cherry, three pear, two plum and one peach), and the farm's abundant maple trees are tapped in the winter to make syrup. The farm also boasts 1,000 blueberry bushes on 3 acres, with plans to add 74 acres and 15,000 more blueberry bushes.

Currently, local teens are hired to pick the organically grown berries during the growing season (about 4,800 pints, all told), while Betsy packs them nightly in her cozy kitchen.

"These go straight from picking to packing to the grocery store," Bryan says about the Handsome Brook blueberries, which are sold in Price Chopper supermarkets.

Warm hosts

The Babcocks are an affable and educated pair, with infinite energy. In addition to running a farm and a bed-and-breakfast, Bryan, 52, teaches ancient Near Eastern history, along with theology, at nearby Hartwick College. Betsy, 54, recently left a full-time job with an international payroll company to oversee the increased blueberry production.

The two also know quite a lot about hospitality. My room, with sliding doors to the deck overlooking the brook, is soothing and comfortable, with such eclectic tomes as "Black Beauty," "Pursuing Spiritual Authenticity" and "Barnyard in Your Backyard."

I'm served a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs (fresh from the henhouse), pancakes (complemented by the farm's own maple syrup) and large strips of bacon (from whence it came, I prefer not to ask).

Easing the burden

Scottie Jones of Farm Stay U.S. says farm stays are a relatively new trend in the United States, one that began for many farms as a financial necessity.

"I always say we won't starve because we grow our own food," says Jones, who, with her husband, Greg, owns Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Ore. "But it's hard to set aside money for retirement or a kid's school on what most small farms make in profit. Thus, the farm stay."

The number and type of accommodations and amenities vary from farm to farm. But those who open their farmsteads to urban and suburban guests say that what remains constant are the indelible memories each visitor is left with.

"Just being on a farm is good for the soul," Jones says. "And each person that stays on a farm helps support a cultural tradition that is under severe economic threat."

HANDSOME BROOK FARM (4132 E. Handsome Brook Rd., Franklin, N.Y.; 607-829-2587, handsomebrookfarm.com): Open year-round, with three guest rooms available. Cost is $169 a night, plus tax (double occupancy).

MORE To find a farm stay, try farmstayus.com and pafarmstay.com.

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