A ROOSTER crowed as the sun peaked over a Catskill crest and crept across a farm nestled in a scenic valley.
Bunnies nibbled clover, the calves mooed for milk and the red deer bleated for me to hurry up with their feed. The combined din of this morning farm montage masked Tom’s footfalls as he stalked me.
Tom sensed my weakness, somehow knew Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and he sought revenge. The ruffling of his pale feathers gave him away and I froze as Tom stood poised to peck me to death.
“Yaaa, get out of here,” yelled Frank “Farmer Frank” Hull, his thunderous clap scaring the gobbler back behind the barn. “You have to establish some authority over him, Jason. Now, go on and get those deer fed and meet me in the barn. These calves are hungry. ”
Farm life is not my thing, obviously, but I sucked it up and pretended, with my wife and three kids, that it was for two days this summer for about $1,000. Yes, I paid a farmer to let me work on his farm. It was worth every penny.
A “farm stay” vacation was my wife’s idea. In the endless give-and-take that is married life, we agreed on a weekend at the Jersey Shore, two days camping and swimming in creeks in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains and finally a trip to Hull-O Farms, a 300-acre picturesque spread in the Northern Catskills town of Durham in Greene County, N.Y.
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Farm stays have been around for a long time, particularly in Europe, proponents say, but they didn’t really catch on in the United States until the late 1990s, when interest in the organic movement and agritourism grew. People worked their way back from the table to the farm to see where their food came from.
“There’s been a resurgence with local food, and people from the city are looking to reconnect with a rural life,” said Scottie Jones, the creator of Farmstayus.com and owner of Leaping Lamb Farm in Oregon.
Farmers, particularly smaller, family-owned operations, were always looking for more sources of revenue, Jones said. She estimates the number of farms and ranches offering vacation packages on her website at a little fewer than 1,000, but she believes there could and should be thousands more here, as there are in France and England.
“If only 1 percent of our farms here in the United States offered lodging, that would be 12,000,” she said.
Locally, there’s a farm stay in the Lehigh Valley and at least one out by the Poconos, and others scattered across Pennsylvania. Barbara Gerlach, owner of Berry Fields Farms in Bradford County, said farm vacations aren’t about “glitz and glamour. ”
“They really renew your soul,” she said.
Farmer Frank, a blunt, barrel-chested man of 68, was born in the 200-year-old farmhouse at Hull-O Farms. Seven generations of his family have worked the land since coming from England. Hull-O Farms was once a bustling dairy farm, milking twice every day, but prices fluctuated, business dwindled and the farm, he lamented, had to adapt or disappear.
“I was king of the hill,” Hull said in a rare moment of rest on the farm. “And I didn’t want to lose the farm. ”
Today, Hull sells beef and pork products, bales hay, runs a corn maze in the fall and also operates a hunting preserve for ring-necked pheasant, whitetail deer and wild turkey. Tom, my nemesis, was not a wild turkey. He just didn’t like me.
In 1994, Hull-O began taking paying guests, city and suburban slickers like me who think eggs and milk come from Wawa, a grown man accustomed to reporting on murders and hurricanes, trembling in a turkey’s black-eyed gaze.
Hull-O Farms operates its farm stay from Memorial Day to Halloween for $140 a night per adult. Kids range from $50 to $80 per night depending on their age, with children younger than 2 staying for free. Jones, of farmstayus.com, says most of the farms getting involved in vacations actually don’t charge enough money for guests, not realizing the bounties they have to offer.
In theory, guests are supposed to rise early at Hull-O Farms and help Farmer Frank and his longtime employee, George Kern, with the daily chores. We milked cows, fed calves, collected eggs and baled hay with varying degrees of success. It’s all voluntary, but Farmer Frank wants the help.
Kern, a New Jersey native who moved to the Catskills with his parents when he was 16, said Hull-O draws tourists from as far as Dubai because guests can actually get their hands dirty, along with their feet, shoes, pants, etc.
“Other farms, they might be hands-on with cows, but you can’t do nothing with the chickens. Or maybe you can do something with the chickens, but not the cows,” he said. “Here, you can do everything. ”
One night, when the little goats accidentally got into the pigpens, my wife vaulted a possibly-electrified fence and began tossing them to safety with no regard for all hooves, horns and tusks in the mix. I advised her from a distance because pigs are way bigger than I’ve ever imagined.
The next day, when Farmer Frank heard about the goat rescue, he called my wife a “powerhouse. ”
“You, not so much, Jason,” he said, kiddingly I’d like to believe.
My wife and kids have softer hearts than myself when it comes to animals, vulnerable to every little kitten that scampered about the barn or the hunting dogs Farmer Frank said we weren’t supposed to spoil with belly rubs. My wife spoke to each animal lovingly, as if it were an infant.
“I’m sorry, honey,” my wife said to one brown calf. “I don’t have anymore milk for you. ”
There were wagons-full of jargon I didn’t understand on the farm and revelations about hog castration I wish I didn’t understand. One afternoon, my oldest son and I tried to keep pace with Farmer Frank as he towed a square baler across a distant field with his tractor. Square balers gather cut grass, somehow bundle it all together with twine, then launch the 45-pound squares in the air, right into an awaiting wagon, all in a matter of seconds.
They are finicky, potentially dangerous and more advanced, it seemed, than that atom smasher in France.
The stay at Hull-O Farms includes full breakfasts and dinners cooked by Farmer Frank’s wife, Sherry “Ms. Sherry” Hull, and her staff. I loaded up on bacon, eggs my children collected and piles of French toast both mornings. My wife only stared at the bacon with a tear in her eye.
Accommodations at Hull-O Farms include three small houses on or near the farm’s main house. Two houses are within walking distance and another, where my family stayed, was about a little less than a mile up the road, halfway up a mountain. Our secluded, first-floor unit didn’t have air conditioning in the middle of a Catskill heat wave, but we were so exhausted by the end of the night it didn’t really matter.
The farm, I knew, would force me to grapple with my fear of large livestock, but I didn’t expect to be dealing with humans so much, beyond Farmer Frank, Sherry and George. Forced interaction with strangers has irked me since kindergarten, and I’m equally as uncomfortable mingling at a cocktail party as I am among a herd of cattle. My wife still wonders how I’m a reporter.
It turns out there was another family occupying those other two houses at Hull-O Farms, the Cosenza clan from Long Island, and they turned out to be the biggest surprise. The family consisted of Bill and Kate Cosenza, their two sons and a daughter, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.
The Cosenzas have been coming to Hull-O Farms for more than a decade now, sometimes twice a year. There were 10 of them this time, some traveling from as far as Maryland, but under perfect conditions they bring up to 20 people, taking up every bed Farmer Frank has to offer.
For the last 15 years or so, my Thanksgivings have been spent in lakeside rental homes in the Poconos with my wife’s family. Dozens of us cram together for four or five days of eating and laughing, usually with a new baby crawling around.
Thanksgiving’s my spiritual retreat, drenched in cranberry sauce and craft beers, so I relate to the Cosenzas, and knew this farm stay was no mere vacation for them. I’d probably retreat to a bedroom to brood like a big baby if strangers popped in on my Thanksgiving, but the Cosenzas were warm and welcoming to my family from the moment we met and cracked me out of my shell halfway through our first dinner.
Bill Cosenza, 77, from Lynbrook, N.Y., was hip to farm stay vacations long before there were websites promoting them. He decided decades ago that summer vacations would be different for his family, and hauled six kids up and down the Eastern Seaboard for years in a station wagon, all the way to Nova Scotia once. Once the family found Hull-O Farms, though, they made it a tradition, and they could probably run the farm at this point.
“This place is the best. Frank’s got the process down to a nub,” Bill Cosenza said, sitting on the porch of the farmhouse.
We had to share our meals, but we spent free time together, laughing and lamenting about life back home, swapping stories about our kids as they chased kittens and cooled off in the nearby Catskill Creek.
The Cosenzas brought plenty of fishing poles and they insisted that we join them after dinner at Farmer Frank’s pond, where the sunsets looked like a scoop of rainbow sherbet. We went through dozens of fat night crawlers with them, catching country bluegills and sunnies unaccustomed to fishing hooks.
On our final night at the farm, we roasted marshmallows by a bonfire with the Cosenzas, all of us lucky enough to see a shooting star streak across the sky. Fireflies flickered by the thousands in the fields, the conversations faded to yawns, and we sat and listened to the crackling wood and crickets before heading off to bed.
Paying for all this didn’t seem so strange to me when it was over.
Each vacation, the moments and memories I try to plan out for my family often become big branches on our tree. These 48 little hours were filled with moments I hadn’t planned, more memories I never expected, and it was the best turkey dinner I’ve had in a long time.