Try a Farm Stay Vacation

House with flags flying in foreground
Fluttering Flags welcome visitors to Suzanne and Lanita's tidy ranch house; Photograph by Ty Milford
A suburban family enjoys a taste of life on a working farm.
Willow-Witt Ranch in Oregon; Photograph by Ty Milford
Willow-Witt Ranch in Oregon; Photograph by Ty Milford

Green Acres

One thing is certain about life on an Oregon farm: There will be mud. Lots of it. We learned this firsthand during a three-night stay at Willow-Witt Ranch in Ashland, a historic 440-acre working ranch with a variety of accommodations and an appealing list of animals to tend. My family of five lives in Huntington Beach, California, where rain is rare and farms are all but a distant memory. As a passionate cook, I wanted to help my kids understand the labor it takes to raise food from the ground and give them a feel for the simple pleasures of rural life.

Originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

During their three-night stay at Willow-Witt, author Erika Kotite and her family picked vegetables, collected eggs, and tended goats; Photograph by Ty Milford
During their three-night stay at Willow-Witt, author Erika Kotite and her family picked vegetables, collected eggs, and tended goats; Photograph by Ty Milford

Day 1

Snow and cold had only recently departed when we arrived at the ranch, high above the Rogue Valley, on a Sunday afternoon in late June. We were greeted by owners Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt--and a barking symphony by three handsome Maremma sheepdogs. Dana, my then 10-year-old son who has always had energy to spare, was raring to go. "Can we really milk the goats and egg the chickens?" he immediately asked. The answer was a qualified yes.

Dozens of inquisitive Alpine goats, from adult males to fuzzy newborns, inhabit the barns and meadows of Willow-Witt. The 2- to 3-month-old "toddlers" needed regular boosts of goat's milk from a bottle. That was a task we could help with, we were told, though milking of the adult goats would be left to the experts.

At our digs in the farmhouse studio, a cozy space with two attic bedrooms, we quickly put together a "bucket list" of things we wanted to do:

  1. Watch the goats being milked
  2. Feed the baby goats
  3. Gather eggs
  4. Pick ingredients for our meals

The first order of business, though, was stocking the fridge. Suzanne provided a dozen eggs and a chilled jug of goat's milk to get us started. We drove to the nearby center of Ashland for the rest of our provisions, then set out to explore the ranch.

My kids were drawn right away to the goat barns, where I heard them squealing as the real baby kids pressed against them for some head scratching. Meanwhile, I checked out the compact farm store, where guests can select frozen meats and sausages from Willow-Witt stock (noting their purchases on an index card pinned to a corkboard).

Then we all wandered over to the pig pasture. Though unsure at first about the whole farm vacation concept, my daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline, then 16 and 13, already were having fun. They angled for close-up photos of snouts, while Dana used leafy twigs to scratch the feisty critters' backs through the fence. (Pigs are easily frightened, so guests are asked not to pet them. Fine by me; it was grubby in there.)

The farm follows a tight routine, but we never felt restricted. We were told to spend our days exactly as we pleased, doing as many or as few chores as we wished. Some guests relax as they would at a resort; others throw themselves into the work from dawn to dusk.

Originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Egg-gathering proved a test of nerves, as the family learned how to reach under nesting hens and pull out the freshly laid treasures; Photograph by Ty Milford
Egg-gathering proved a test of nerves, as the family learned how to reach under nesting hens and pull out the freshly laid treasures; Photograph by Ty Milford

Day 2

Rain was coming down steadily, but Dana and I rose early so as not to miss the first goat milking. Huddling together outside the small milking parlor, we watched one of Willow-Witt's capable farmhands tend the dozen or so females. Every once in a while we'd lift the lid of their feed barrel for a delicious whiff of molasses and grain.

By afternoon every pair of shoes we had was soaked, so I ferried the girls into town to buy rubber boots. Dana and my husband, Tim, stayed behind to take a hike. Cell phone reception being weak at the ranch, Elizabeth and Caroline were happy for a chance to post their farm photos on Instagram. But we didn't linger, because we didn't want to miss the afternoon's egg gathering.

Collecting eggs felt like a cross between an Easter hunt and a game of steal-the-bacon. The nesting hens stared us down, pecking sometimes as we reached under them. From the farmhands we learned how to move smoothly and confidently and not jerk our hands back in fear. After a while we got the hang of it and showed those hens who's boss.

Originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Farmers market finds; Photograph by Ty Milford
Farmers market finds; Photograph by Ty Milford

Day 3

Every Tuesday more than 80 vendors come together at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland to offer fresh produce, meats, cheeses, breads, prepared foods, and handicrafts. We're frequent visitors to farmers markets at home, but having a personal connection was a new thrill. "There's Willow-Witt!" Dana cried, as he spied their stall. It felt good to belong.

We returned up the mountain with fresh berries, aged goat cheese, and a loaf of sprouted-wheat organic bread. In the gardens, Dana and I had fun picking herbs, onions, and greens for dinner.

Our conversation that final evening revolved around the wonderful foods we had tasted (and bought) at the market and at Willow-Witt, those baby goats tugging hard at the bottle, and how cool it was to experience--if only briefly--the rhythms of ranch life.

A farmer's day is long and hard and filled with mud. We couldn't have asked for a better time.

Originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Fluttering Flags welcome visitors to Suzanne and Lanita's tidy ranch house; Photograph by Ty Milford
Fluttering Flags welcome visitors to Suzanne and Lanita's tidy ranch house; Photograph by Ty Milford

If You Go

An overnight at Willow-Witt Ranch begins at $40 for a campsite, $125 for a furnished tent, $200 for the Farmhouse Studio, and $295 for Meadow House, plus cleaning fees. Meals are not included (541-890-1998; willowwittranch.com). An online database of some 1,000 U.S. farms, ranches, and vineyards offering overnights is available at farmstayus.com. All are working operations, where crops and/or livestock are raised for sale to the public.

Originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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