Back to the Land… Almost

By Alexandra Hall | |

IT’S 7 A.M. — AN UNFORGIVABLY LATE START, by farm time — and the sun’s barely eased itself above the rooftop of the Inn at Valley Farms. The property’s two roosters have long since sounded their requisite crows; there are cows to be fed, eggs to be collected, gardens to be weeded, and breakfast to be made. For about six seconds, I mull over all of this from a cushy canopy bed inside my snug red cottage sitting adjacent to the cow barn. And then? I pull the covers over my head…and go back to sleep.

Having that option is, after all, the truest luxury that guests enjoy at a farm stay: Pitch in if you feel so inclined; take a powder if you don’t. Not that there aren’t plenty of other luxuries at the Inn at Valley Farms. That breakfast? It will be a three-course, candlelit affair, whipped up by owner Jackie Caserta out of straight-from-the-hen-house eggs, herbs and vegetables collected minutes beforehand from her garden, and, if you’re lucky, bacon provided by the farm’s pasture-raised pigs. Bedrooms in the farmhouse are beyond gracious, with gleaming antiques and epic views of the soaring New Hampshire mountains.

Yet there’s no mistake about it: This is still a working farm. And for every late-rising schlub like myself, there are plenty of other guests who can’t wait to get their hands dirty.

“We’ve got families with kids who want to be close to the animals and play more than work,” says Caserta, “but we’ve also got bankers who come here once a year by themselves, just to get closer to the land, throw themselves into the work, and learn more about farming and where their food comes from.” In fact, in the past several years, there have been more and more grownups making their way to farm stays — locavores who want to eat food raised yards from the table, and who want to learn more about Caserta’s sustainable farming methods, which she refers to as “beyond organic.” And then there are people like me, who come to do a little of all of the above — and to sleep.

I ARRIVE AT THE INN with my two preschoolers and husband in tow. The little hillside cluster of red and sky-blue buildings topple down to a greenhouse — used for chickens in the winter, I find out later. My family and I are longtime urbanites — Boston’s been my home for more than 20 years — but I was an early fan of the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table movement. You’d have to seriously bribe me to wear overalls, and I don the highest heels possible at all times. But when my kids were born six years ago, I swapped my stilettos for sneakers and started visiting local farms to research their CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs.

Though never a health nut, I’d read plenty over the years about sustainable farming and the damage that hormone injections can do to both animals and the people who eat them. We ponied up twice as much dough as we would have at a conventional supermarket for hormone-free meats and organic veggies, because we decided it was worth it to feed our kids healthy, sustainably raised, cruelty-free foods. And then I went and pushed my personal penchant for farm fare into the professional realm by penning and publishing a cookbook with Cambridge chef and local food pioneer Peter Davis (Fresh & Honest: Food from the Farms of New England and the Kitchen of Henrietta’s Table). It was official: I was hooked.

Even so, for someone who shuns Birkenstocks and abhors bugs, there’s a pretty wide gulf between buying food from a farm to cook in my nowhere-near-rustic home, and feeding pigs and chickens and weeding a garden. Would I really enjoy walking the walk as opposed to just talking the talk, if it meant spending a weekend on a full-fledged farm?

Certainly, plenty of other people are doing just that these days. If ecotourism and agritourism have indeed taken the international travel industry by storm, then New England is one of the most solid regional conquests — in large part thanks to the rise of the farm stay. And the phenomenon has developed out of not just the public’s growing interest in green travel, but also out of simple pragmatism. Over the past decade, independent farms across the country have seen profits decline thanks to decreases in food prices and increased expenses, and they’ve struggled to find additional sources of income. A handful around the region started opening themselves up as low-cost bed-and-breakfasts, where guests could pay even less by lending a hand with chores. In the past few years they’ve found real revenue as the public’s interest in the slow-food movement has gained momentum (thanks in no small part to books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and movies such as Food, Inc.). Guests have become interested in getting genuinely involved with farm life — without necessarily sacrificing any comfort or luxury in the process.

This is, I suppose, what I am thinking about by mid-morning, when I finally start the day by bringing my kids, Zach and Cleo, to collect eggs with Caserta. Lulu, the farm’s affable goldendoodle puppy, is there being entertained by one of the farm’s two beautiful, endlessly strutting roosters; Zach and Cleo, meanwhile, are being endlessly entertained by Lulu. Caserta shoos away an aggressive rooster, and tells us it’s time to collect some eggs. Zach steps up a little too emphatically. “Very carefully,” warns Caserta. “You don’t want to break any while you’re collecting them.” Meanwhile, Zach’s a little confused. “Are they Easter eggs?” he asks, noticing that these are hardly your dime-a-dozen brown eggs, but instead a mix seemingly created in Dr. Seuss’s imagination; some of them are green, some blue, some brown, and some white. Caserta laughs. “The Americana chickens lay green eggs,” she says, “whereas Bard Rock is a good layer of brown. They all taste the same, but are very different looking.” I pick out a handful of sterling-blue eggs, and find a couple of creamy-hued specimens to boot. They strike me as utterly perfect, jewel-like creations that I’m incredibly lucky to be holding…until a squawking chicken suddenly claws its way across my foot out of nowhere, reminding me of the awkward creature that created said jewel.

We’re in the greenhouse, where the chickens are moved during cold weather. Here, they’re kept as warm as they would be in a typically dark hen house, but still get direct access to the sun. According to Caserta, that means they get approximately seven times more vitamin D and, conveniently, lay noticeably more eggs. As a bonus, the fresh air keeps the greenhouse smelling nicely of cedar shavings — much unlike the stinky egg houses of factory farms.

That kind of ingenuity powers every bit of the Inn at Valley Farms’ 105 acres. Caserta’s “beyond organic” philosophy means that all the animals are out on the pasture as much as possible, and are rotated between pastures regularly. As we walk back through the chicken greenhouse, she describes the farm’s pride and joy — a contraption known as the “eggmobile.” It’s a mobile trailer that, in summer months when the chickens are out of their warm greenhouse, follows them around as they range freely in their pastures, and gives them a home in which to lay their eggs.

That strikes me as remarkably cute, until Caserta explains the reason for it: The eggmobile, apparently, is good for transporting the flock not just to new pastures to explore, but also specifically to areas the cows have grazed at precisely three days beforehand. It seems that’s the magic time frame when the fly larvae show up in the cows’, er, gifts. “I know it seems a little gross, but that’s the best and most natural, healthiest protein they could be eating,” says Caserta, not unproudly. “It’s about making the natural systems work for themselves.”

AS I LEARN NEXT, that philosophy is doubly true for the cows, which never eat grain — only grass. “A cow is a ruminant,” Caserta explains as we walk past the herd. “They’re meant to eat grasses. If they’re eating so many carbohydrates, they grow so fast that their bodies and bones can’t keep up with their growth.” That leads to a lot of sick cows, she says, which most farmers treat with antibiotics, a practice Caserta avoids. “People are so concerned about using antibiotics themselves, but if it’s in our food, what’s the difference?” Her feeding regimen has raised a lot of eyebrows among her neighbors in New Hampshire farm country, where grain is gospel. “A lot of people around here think we’re crazy for giving the cows hay and grass instead of grain,” says Caserta. “Most farmers just want them to grow bigger, faster. But it’s been six years now and we haven’t lost a cow, without having to give them antibiotics.”

That brings me back to the copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I had spotted under a lamp in my cottage’s living room after check-in — and whose author, Michael Pollan, is one of the country’s most well-known proponents of sustainable, cruelty- and chemical-free farming. His legions of followers argue that giving animals foods they would naturally eat is not only more humane, but it also means you get a healthier animal. “It results in a cow or chicken or pig with much lower cholesterol, lower fat, that’s much higher in vitamin content,” says Caserta (who also stocks DVDs of the slow-food documentaries Food, Inc. and Fresh for viewing by guests). “Plus, much better flavor.”

Back in my low-ceilinged cottage the next morning, I flip through Pollan’s opus, my head filled with flashbacks from the previous day. Surrounded by deep-red walls, plaid curtains, and a veritable art gallery of animals (in particular, a chicken theme pervades the décor), I half listen to the voices of my kids outside the windows as they storm — and possibly destroy — the abutting playground and its surrounding pasture. That spot is overlooked by Alyson’s Orchard, the farm next door where guests of the inn can fill bags with more than 50 varieties of crisp apples and rare, flavorful peaches, then bring them back to their cottages to bake into fruit crisps and pies. The sweets often follow steaks or chickens they’ve bought directly from the inn and grilled up alongside unforgettable salads of heirloom tomatoes, arugula, kale, and bright-flavored herbs pillaged from the gardens.

“This is all truly local,” says Caserta. “As in, right in your backyard. These are things people sometimes have never heard of doing, let alone tried. It’s an educational and emotional experience.” No question. And as I lie in bed, with all due respect to Caserta’s lavish breakfasts, I remember the immediacy of that bounty. There are still-warm eggs to be plucked from the greenhouse, milk from the dairy barn that the family has delivered to my doorstep, and farmhouse bacon, all waiting for me to fetch it and, in my cottage’s kitchen, do its freshness justice in a way my family won’t soon forget. I throw off the covers and heed that call.

The Inn at Valley Farms, 633 Wentworth Rd., Walpole, NH, 603-756-2855, innatvalleyfarms.com.

Photographs by Robert Knight (bedroom, eggs); Getty Images (rooster). 

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/05/back-to-the-land-almost/