Farm stays — vacation getaways on working farms — are popping up across the Southwest. Jayme Moye rolls up her sleeves at Colorado’s Avalanche Farm & Dairy and finds agrarian bliss
Photography by Ashley Davis Tilly
In the hamlet of Paonia, Colorado, an oasis of small family farms, orchards and dairies, I turn at the sign marking Avalanche Farm & Dairy, home to nearly 600 goats, 150 chickens, three llamas, two dogs and, for the next three days, my city-dwelling family of four. I drive past the farmer’s two-story residence, onto a dirt road that traverses the goat pasture, and presumably leads to our lodge — which owner Wendy Mitchell had described to me on the phone as “a renovated shotgun cabin.” When the rustic wood structure comes into view, set against an imposing backdrop of 11,402-foot Mount Lamborn, I realize I have no idea what to expect.
Back when we’d planned the trip, my kids, ages 12 and 14, were jazzed to sleep on a farm. “How close to the animals will we be? Can we pet them?” I was a bit more hesitant. My limited farm experience — visiting Ohio’s Amish country and staying at a dude ranch in Colorado — hadn’t exactly struck me as serene. Sure, the land is pretty (and the animals are cute), but raising livestock seems like hard work — hard, dirty, smelly work. I wasn’t sure how well the setting would jibe with summer vacation.
Farm stays originated in Europe, in the early 1980s, as a way for farmers to capitalize on the agritourism movement, which was just starting to gain momentum. Italy was the earliest adopter, setting up the first national agritourism board. Today, the country boasts 20,000 individual farm stays, followed by 7,200 in England, and 5,000 in France.
In the U.S., Vermont was the first state to promote the concept, in the mid-1990s, as part of a local government initiative to keep small farms alive by diversifying farm income. But the trend really didn’t catch on until recently, catalyzed by the popularity of farmers markets and the locavore food movement. “In the last five years, we’ve seen lots of growth,” says Scottie Jones, executive director of the U.S. Farm Stay Association and founder of the website Farm Stay U.S. (farmstayus.com). “We’re likely up over 1,000 farm stays at this point.”
Colorado leads the Four Corners states, including Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, with 35 registered farm stays. Driving through the North Fork Valley to Paonia, it wasn’t hard to see why. The verdant region is stunning — think Sonoma Valley with snowcapped mountain peaks and red rock mesas. More than 75 percent of Colorado’s apples come from this valley, as well as 71 percent of its cherries. The state’s second-largest peach harvest happens here, and its second-largest grape harvest.
It all looked idyllic through my car windshield. But what’s it like to actually live on a farm? I park my car in front of Avalanche Farm & Dairy’s guest cabin, and take a deep breath. The kids race to the hand-hewn wooden door (it’s open) and press inside.
Stepping through the entry behind them, I exhale. The cabin’s interior is rustic, but welcoming, with wood-paneled walls, a vaulted ceiling, a wood-burning stove, plush leather furniture and a modern kitchen. The kids climb the ladder to the attic loft, and claim it as their own. Dad and I take the small, yet tasteful master bedroom, complete with bright white linens, reading lamps and a view of the cherry-red barn in the distance.
We get settled in just in time to make the 5 p.m. milking session. The does — their hair ranging from pure white to a mix of brown and black — are out in the pasture with dozens of 3-month-old “kids.” We walk over as two farmhands open the pasture gate and begin ushering the goats through. It’s like a massive migration as the animals parade along the quarter-mile path to the milking stable. “They just walk there on their own?” I ask the nearest farmhand, a young man in his early 20s. “They do,” he says. “The trick is not letting any of the little ones out with ’em.”
We follow the does to the milking stable, where farmhands guide small groups of animals inside to individual stalls and connect bulging udders to hoses. At the flip of the switch, mechanized milking begins. We learn that the dairy sustains the Avalanche Cheese Co., which supplies pasteurized fresh cheeses and aged, raw milk cheeses to some of Aspen’s toniest restaurants, including Meat & Cheese.
My kids are more interested in the “babies” that are still in the pasture, so we walk back. “Can we touch them?” Felix, my youngest, asks. “If they let you,” says the farmhand.
We step inside the gate and check out the large red barn. A few goats are inside napping, but the majority are outside keeping tabs on the milking procession. As it turns out, Felix needn’t have worried about interacting with goats. Some keep their distance, but most walk right up and nibble anything they can get their teeth on, from shirttails to ponytails. Surprisingly, the young ones enjoy being knuckled on the tops of their heads, like dogs.
After an hour of playtime, we start noticing chickens everywhere. “Wow, that’s really free-range,” I say to a farmhand. “Yep,” he says with a grin. “They’re starting to make their way back to the henhouse for the evening.”
We follow suit and get cleaned up for dinner, at nearby Flying Fork, lauded for its homemade pastas and Neapolitan-style pizzas. At the restaurant, we get the chance to chat with owner/chef Kelly Steinmetz, who tells us he came to the North Fork Valley after working at restaurants in Aspen Snowmass. “It’s heaven here,” he says.
Dinner conversation with the family quickly turns to our plans for the next day. We decide we want to help collect eggs the next morning (Wendy had said to expect a few dozen in the henhouse each day). The couple at the table beside us overhears and raves about Avalanche cheese. The Mrs. recommends we do lunch at Delicious Orchards Cafe, located in the neighboring hamlet of Hotchkiss. “Everything is from their garden,” she says, “and they have on-site U-pick for fruits and vegetables.” “Get the tamales,” adds the Mr.
I take the opportunity to ask them about their favorite wineries in the valley. Our server stops and joins the conversation. “Azura Winery,” he says. “The owners are artists who sailed around the world. You can buy a glass of wine and a cheese-and-charcuterie plate, and enjoy it outside in their garden overlooking the entire valley.”
I realize how happy and relaxed I feel, and how much I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip. And perhaps that’s the beauty of farm stays, the way they embed you with the local agricultural community and all its bounty.