Depending on where you’re coming from, the best thing about life on a farm is the fresh eggs. Or rich, cold, cream-topped raw milk. Or sunsets that slip down between rows of corn, beet greens and spring onions hugging earth in tidy rows as far as your eye can see.
If you’re me, the best thing about farm life is hearing every word or whisper your child says. It’s having her, dressed in overall rompers and little else, come and wrap her arms around your neck while you crouch on a worn wooden floor in a tiny bunkroom in the back of a tent. You drop whatever unimportant thing you were doing, and reciprocate, arms around her until you are locked in a rocking, humming state of pure joy. You never once think about grabbing for your phone to take a picture, check a text, or send an email. You don’t wonder what anyone else in the world is doing because the whole world is right in front of you.
It’s the kind of moment I imagine happened between parents and children much more often before the world was so consumed with information or electronics (whichever you dislike more). It was exactly the kind of moment I was hoping for when, after postponing our summer trip to Hungary, we booked a last minute stay at Kinnikinnick Farm, a tented Feather Down Farm stay in Northern Illinois, just 25 minutes from my childhood home.
My obsession with farm life started early, spending summers nursing runt piglets with baby bottles and letting newborn calves suck my thumb on my grandpa’s farm in Central, Iowa. It was fed by 6th grade simulations of pioneer life (making bread and soup on an old cook stove rocked my world), sleep-away Farm Camp stays in Wisconsin, and a compulsion for growing and sourcing good food. So when I first read about Feather DownFarms Days, I went straight from “wouldn’t it be fun to stay on one,” to my more usual excessive tendency: “wouldn’t it be fun to run one?”
If you asked my grandparents, who raised their collective nine kids on family farms in the Midwest, or David and Susan Cleverdon, our hosts at Kinnikinnick Farm, they’d probably say that the kinds of pure joy moments I had with Greta, András and my nieces—who joined us on the farm our second night—are, in real farm life, like in my own real life, sandwiched between distractions and responsibilities. My ability to savor them may have more to do with being on vacation than with being on a farm. I'd say it's both. Which is precisely a farm vacation is such a genius modern family escape.
Let me back up a second. It must be said, that camping out on a Feather Down Farm isn’t exactly roughing it. True, there’s no electricity or running water in the tent (ours had a water pump for washing produce and dishes, but toilets and showers are communal), and you do all your prepping and cooking for your stay yourself on a wood cook stove—but the Dutch-designed tents (think safari style) are luxurious by most standards. Down comforters, feather pillows and pre-stocked crates of dishes, wood and candles are little luxuries that give romance to the lantern-lit evenings and griddle cake breakfasts. And in my book there’s almost no greater luxury than a 5 step walk to the farm’s honesty shop, stocked with eggs, dairy, meat and vegetables grown on this or a neighboring farm—the world’s freshest foods. In fact, the whole Feather Down experience is the “playing house” version of farming—a safe, tiny experiment with living in the good old days that lasts only as long as you need it to.
When we chipped in with chores like feeding pigs and chickens or collecting eggs, these responsibilities were only novelty (to wit: after breakfast on her first morning there, my 11-year old niece Grace, asked with positive excitement, “can I go do chores now?”). When farmer David pulled around with his tractor to collect the kids for chores—mercifully, several hours after the cock’s early-morning-crow—he was undoubtedly doing more to enlighten and entertain our kids than they were doing to help him actually manage the farm. And, when we took out a goat for a stroll the small orchard, letting him munch from the lush leaves of the apple trees, we didn’t have to also think about feeding, watering and grooming him for years to come.
Real farming is hard work. With each and every crop failure, or hailstorm, or blight in our small family garden in upstate, NY or on our land in Hungary, I’m reminded that though we can just go to the farmer’s market or grocery store to recover our losses, the farmers we otherwise depend on, cannot. But with that incredibly hard work comes a deep meaning, too. Which is why I will probably never tire of playing farmer.
In a quiet moment on our second day on the farm, Greta, Kate and Grace tucked into me and András as we stood in a barn watching a mother goat birth her first twins. We were awestruck—watching the mother struggle and go-it alone, as most animals do in nature. We learned about the urgency of her instinct to lick the first baby’s face and nose clean so he could breath before she set to work birthing the second, how the baby walks within ten minutes of being born, and why she needed to get him to nurse in the first 24 hours. For us it was an education. For the farmer, who we caught wiping away tears when the second kid arrived safely, this is a daily triumph. Every life counts drastically—in the survival of the farm, and in the cadence of the family life on it.
STAY: Feather Down Farm Days