Taking the Kids and Staying on a Farm

Eileen Ogintz, Taking the Kids, July 26, 2012

What's with the nonstop chatter?

No, it's not teens gabbing and texting their way through your family vacation. We're talking chickens - 250 white-and-black striped hens to be exact - whose eggmobile is parked just behind one of the guesthouses at the Inn at Valley Farms (www.innatvalleyfarms.com) in Walpole, N.H., where we spent the weekend recently.

For the uninitiated, the eggmobile, a mobile henhouse, is based on the one designed and built by Virginia farmer Joel Salatin and described in Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma." The chickens lay their eggs inside, but spend much of their time outside on the grass. The eggmobile is on wheels so it can be moved to fresh grass every day, following the trail of grazing cows.

If you or your kids don't know that eggs come from a chicken or that beef comes from a cow, you need to visit a farm like this where farmers - in this case Jackie Casserta, her brother Chris and his wife Caitlin - generously give their time to teach you about sustainable agriculture on this 105-acre farm in a beautiful area of southwest New Hampshire.

Are there really green eggs? Yes, right on this farm. There are 150 different varieties of chickens and their egg color depends on their breed. One isn't necessarily more nutritious than another.

"It's not just kids who are so disconnected about where their food comes from," says Jackie Casserta, who oversees the inn while her brother and sister-in-law run the farm, helping us pick veggies for dinner from the farm's big garden. "The idea is that here you can feel, see, touch and consume it - all in one place. If you can get one person who feeds their family better from this experience, it will make the world a better place."

Besides, it's fun.

Enesi Domi, 13, certainly thought so. The Bronx teen was visiting us under the auspices of the Fresh Air Fund (www.freshair.org), the wonderful program through which inner-city kids have been visiting families up and down the East Coast for more than a century.

He'd never visited a farmer's market - such as the huge weekly gathering we stopped by in Brattleboro, Vt., on the drive to Walpole -- much less a farm before we brought him to spend the weekend at Valley Farms.

No video games and only spotty Wi-Fi here, but he was all smiles gathering eggs amid the clucking hens, letting piglets use his leg for a scratching post, petting the cashmere goats and picking lettuce and garlic from the garden for dinner. He also helped us cook one of the farm's free-range chickens. We stir-fried chard and made a salad from lettuce, edible flowers and tomatoes. Enesi had never tasted a flower before, much less seen garlic that hadn't come in a jar.

Dessert was ice cream from the local Walpole Creamery - the milk coming from a farm just down the road - and chocolate from Burdick's Cafe, which uses the Inn at Valley Farm's eggs - perhaps some of the ones Enesi gathered would end up in their delectable pastries. We made s'mores at the fire pit just outside our farmhouse, appropriately named Sunnyside.

The Cassertas, unlike many of the farmers I met while working as a reporter in Iowa, never started out to raise chickens, cows and pigs, though they grew up here - Jackie worked for a state agency, Chris in finance and his wife taught French.

Their parents bought the property when they got word that developers were eying the dilapidated dairy farm, and the rest, as they say, is history, with the farm growing every year. Finally, after six years and a lot of hard work, the farm began to show a profit. "This certainly wasn't in my life plan," laughed Caitlin Casserta, the mom of two young sons. But she couldn't be happier.

The website www.farmstayus.com lists some 950 farms, ranches and vineyards where you can visit and stay, sometimes paying under $100 a night for the privilege. (Rates here start at $195.) Even a stop at a farmer's market can encourage kids to try new foods and appreciate where their food comes from, first lady Michelle Obama said in a recent interview with TakingtheKids. (Find a farmer's market to visit at www.localharvest.org.)

The Inn at Valley Farms, though, offers a much richer experience whether you come in summer or another time of year. Not only does it offer a variety of animals and the chance to learn about sustainable farming, but it is idyllically kid-friendly, especially if you choose one of the cottages with a swing set and sandbox just outside, a kitchen to cook what you picked from the garden and the big brightly-painted playhouse next door where the kids can put on shows with farm animal puppets and learn a little about chickens, too.

"This is really great for kids growing up in the city who are cut off from the natural world," said Lisa Sack, visiting with her family from Brooklyn while her son attended a music camp nearby. "It's one thing to read about farms but to see it and walk through the fields and see the cows and chickens is a lot different."

"The piglets were pretty cool," agreed 13-year-old Gemma Sack.

If you're worried your kids will get bored - or you will - don't be. One morning, we went across the road to pick blueberries and raspberries at Alyson's 500-acre Orchard http://www.alysonsorchard.com/alyson-orchards/).

There's hiking and biking - even nearby Mt. Monadnock to climb, dairy farms and cheese makers to visit, and nearby farmer's markets like the large one in Brattleboro, Vt., with some 50 vendors. There are nearby swimming holes to explore in summer and places to snowshoe and cross-country ski in winter.

When we left, we packed our cooler with meat, chickens and eggs from the farm store.

"Come back soon," Jackie Casserta said, hugging us goodbye.

Enesi can't wait.

(It's not too late to plan a summer getaway. Check out the TakingtheKIds 51 Great Ideas For Your Summer Vacation. (http://www.takingthekids.com/travel-topics/summer-guide-to-fun) and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)