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Advice: Farm Vacations not for Every Family

Our family had just arrived in the farmhouse kitchen for breakfast when our hostess appeared, a spatula in hand, with specific instructions. “Father sits here,” she waved, motioning my husband to a chair at the head of the table. “He makes the toast.” She plunked down a toaster and a bag of bread. “Mother sits there,” she ordered, pointing to a chair at the other end of the table. “She takes a break until it’s time for cereal and milk.” Finally, she turned to the kids who had slipped into the other three chairs and remained uncharacteristically silent. “Everybody who eats up,” she promised, “gets to ride on the horse.”

Obviously, there was a certain order here attached to family wake-ups even if we were on vacation. My husband, whose normal breakfast routine consisted of ambling about in his bathrobe with a coffee and cigarette looked somewhat askance. But he was not going to argue. On farm vacations, it’s a given that everyone—guests and hosts alike— have to work around the daily routines of feeding the pigs, mucking out the stalls, and milking Bessie and her four-footed friends.

For some families, farms present the ideal vacation setting. Kids are kept busy tagging along with the farm family, watching the milking process, collecting wool from the sheep, feeding the chickens. At one of the farms we visited, a play barn was set aside just for junior guests. The kids loved diving head-first into piles of hay and throwing heaps of the scratchy stuff onto their brothers and sisters heads in the name of fun. Every week, the hosts loaded all the hay onto a wagon for a sunset hay ride around the Ontario county. At another farm, our kids got to help uncrate a truckload of pheasants, a highlight of their summer. Dustin still has a slight war wound from that event. A pheasant landed on his six-year-old nose and nicked it with a claw. These kinds of activities will exhaust even the most hyper of kids. Night’s sleep guaranteed.

Often, there are swimming pools or a river, home-cooked meals based on fresh farm produce, and always animals—barn cats and dogs, a pony to ride, and perhaps a llama or donkey. One farm family looked after a flock of sheep not for the wool or lambs produced but for urban folk who wanted a “real” farm. They figured the money it cost to raise them came back tenfold in farm bookings. Another bonus is that kids who pick at their food in the city suddenly turn into hollow legs, downing enough food in one sitting to. Best of all: the price is right. A week at a farm costs far less than a resort or even the motel down the road. Yet the air is the same, the activities stretch from dawn to dusk, and there’s usually more space than a hotel room in which to expand. The most enjoyment, however, comes with talking with the hosts and their kids. When you’re living cheek by jowl, you really get to know another area of Canada; the kids get to play with those their own age in another environment.

Farm holidays are not for every family, however. Though local organizations constantly check its members, farms are as different as their owners, which in some cases is very different indeed. We once stayed at a farm that specialized in rescuing injured animals. Just behind our sleeping cabin were cages inhabited by owls and a wolf. Instead of a rooster wake-up call, we started the day with screaming peacocks scratching at the tin roof. Thankfully, this farm no longer takes paying guests. Also, if your family likes nightlife action, a farm vacation is probably not for you. At one farm in P.E.I., the after-dinner entertainment consisted of hunting for clams in the river. We’ve been at places where the hosts asked for lights out at 9:30 p.m. (they had to rise at 5 a.m. after all), and left us with a few old copies of Christian Science Monitor and National Geographic.

It pays to do your research before booking. If you’ve got teens, you’ll want to be close to a town where there’s at least some entertainment. Some farms provide all the meals; others give breakfast and have a make-it-yourself policy for lunches or dinners. Some farm families will include you in all the chores; others prefer it if you just relax with your own family and meet up at meals.

Farm vacations, available for some time in every province of Canada, are becoming increasingly popular in Europe. Spain and Italy are just getting into the business. Northern Ireland’s farm and country holidays booklet promises “an open fire, the smell of baking bread, a kettle always on the boil and a friendly welcome into an Irish Home” (call 416-961-8124). Southern Ireland offers 500 farm holiday possibilities (call 416-929-2777). One country with lots of experience in welcoming families to local farms is Austria. A Salzburg farm holiday, where youngsters can help milk the goats and harvest the hay, older kids can rent bicycles or go fishing, can be arranged by the Tourist Board (call 416-967-3381). Many of the chalet farmhouses have swimming pools and all have at least one family member who speaks English. For a list of Ontario farms, call 519-846-9788; for Nova Scotia 902-798-5864; for Saskatchewan, call 306-672-3970; for agricotours in Québec, call 514-252-3138. All other provinces, check with provincial tourism associations.





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