Take a haycation on a North Bay farm
The summer sun sets slowly, gilding the blond grasses covering Nicasio's rolling hills. I am sitting on the front porch of the Bunkhouse at Cow Track Ranch, a mile into the hills beyond Nicasio, rocking in a rickety yet comfortable wooden rocking chair and looking out at a herd of 160 black Angus beef cattle. They are milling and mooing outside their barn, anticipating the evening feed.
I'm only 20 minutes from downtown San Rafael and yet I'm in the heart of the country, reveling in a pastoral scene so timeless it's like being inside a Grant Wood painting. The only thing missing from this picture is a stalk of wheat to chew on.
Traditionally, they're known as farm stays.
"These are popular in most European countries and have been for years, where they call it agritourism," said Ellen Rilla, director of the University of California's agriculture and natural resources cooperative extension in Novato. "Farm stays in this country are growing in popularity for a couple of reasons. People feel disconnected from where their food comes from and they want to be reconnected. They want to know the farmer and the rancher.
Taking the family and the children to experience gathering eggs, being in a barn, seeing how cows are milked, is also very important," she continued.
While farm stay opportunities are slowly growing in the United States, Rilla says a drawback to their rapid proliferation is this country's far more stringent health codes and insurance requirements.
"Fewer farm operators have the personality to want to open their home to overnight guests. But a lot of them are interested, because the income they can make from this can really make a difference to being able to maintain your farm," Rilla explained. "Plus, you're educating the consumer."
For Liz and Bruce Daniels, who own Cow Track Ranch, having visitors is not only an opportunity to meet new people and bring in some extra income. Liz says she loves educating folks who come to stay.
"If they're interested, we take them on a tour of our vegetable garden. I tell them about our production and where I sell my produce. They can find out about cattle ranching, and see the cattle up close," Daniels outlined. "Most people have no idea this kind of lifestyle still exists in Marin."
Mike and Sally Gale, the fifth generation to run Chileno Valley Ranch near the Marin/Sonoma county line, used to run a year-round bed and breakfast on their property. It was too much work to do full time and also run the ranch, said Sally Gale, but they still open rooms for participants in landscape art workshops four times a year and to wedding parties. Guests get to wander the West Marin hills, see the cattle, pick organic apples from the Gales' orchard and experience the ambience of a working ranch.
"I serve them organic, locally grown food. They can ask about the farm, anything they want," she said. "Most people don't have any experience with farms and ranches. They look at what we're doing and we talk about it, such as fencing off and planting native plants, creek restoration, repairing gullies. We have a lot of wildlife out here and we've increased the number and type of native birds through these sustainable practices. I'm finding that these days, people are also really interested in how we steward the land. "
"People often get a good education as to how grapes are grown and what dairy cows do. They're amazed at how much work is involved in farming," she said. "Oftentimes, If I take them through our dairy, they say, 'Oh my goodness, I didn't think you had to do all this.'"
While guests seem to harvest the bulk of the fun and the learning, the farmers glean their own education right back.
"I have met so many people from other ways of life that as a farmer you'd never be able to meet," she said. "I've had a stem cell researcher form Washington D.C., people from Australia, Hong Kong, Germany. It's fascinating."
"People are looking for authenticity in their vacations today," said Alexa Wood, who with her mother and daughter runs Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, a 45-minute drive north from Central Marin.
"I think people enjoy coming here because we didn't pick something we wanted to be, there's no theme. We just are what we are and have been since the 1930s: a working family ranch and a bed and breakfast for 35 years," Wood said.
Charles Higgins is executive director of Slide Ranch in Muir Beach, the only working ranch in a national park on the Pacific Ocean and that welcomes families for its educational programs. He says he hopes more farmers will add a farm stay component in order to survive.
"There's a natural hospitality that comes from being a farmer that's an ancient tradition," he said. "Anyone who has ever worked on a farm realizes that it's a lot of work. You tend to welcome visitors who want come and help you or learn in any way."
STAYING IN MARIN
This former dairy ranch is on the Marin side of the Marin/Sonoma county border (despite the mailing address) and has been in owner Sally Gale's family since 1862. Gale and her husband, Mike, run it as a working grass-fed beef cattle ranch; they also raise sheep and chickens and grow organic apples and tomatoes. The Gales open their ranch four times a year for landscape art workshops with expert painters as teachers and the opportunity for participants to paint outdoors surrounded by ranch lands. The ranch is available for weddings and can take up to 10 guests. Participants at art workshops and weddings are served organic breakfasts and lunches based on food grown on the ranch. Fees for art workshops (includes accommodations) range from $450 to $1,195 per day.
Cow Track Ranch
5730 Nicasio Valley Road, Nicasio, 662-2321, www.cowtrack.net
Point Reyes Vineyard Inn
12700 Highway One, Point Reyes Station, 663-1011 or 800-516-1011, www.ptreyesvineyardinn.com
Sharon and Steve Doughty grow 12 acres of grapes and also run dairy cattle on their 780 acre ranch a stone's throw from Tomales Bay. Their Mediterranean-style inn, the Villa Mendosa, contains three bedrooms overlooking ponds and wetlands plus a common room with a wood-burning fireplace. Breakfasts include organic eggs, coffees, juices, local pastries and cheeses. Cost: $125 to $260 per night
2025 Shoreline Highway, Muir Beach, 381-6155, www.slideranch.org
"Our location is unique in that we are a nonprofit farm within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, right on the Pacific Ocean," says Slide's executive director Charles Higgins. The ranch gets more than 8,000 visitors each year, mostly schoolchildren who come for educational day trips. Several times a year, the ranch opens to families for overnight educational camping trips on the ranch that's home to chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats and a large organic garden. Participants at these can help milk a goat, feed chickens, tend the garden, go on guided nature works and cook together in the geodesic dome housing the kitchen and communal dining room. Slide Ranch is available for weddings, and groups of people can rent out the campsite for $700. Upcoming family overnights are Sept. 13, 20 and 27. Cost for overnights: $75 per person.
11775 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, 707-996-6501, www.beltaneranch.com
Guests can pick raspberries in the front yard, stroll through vineyards, orchards, an olive grove and forage for fresh produce from the organic vegetable gardens. The Wood family have run Beltane Ranch - which also features turkeys, chickens, sheep and cattle - as a bed and breakfast since the 1930s. The two-story guest house contains six guest rooms and features two pillared porches that run the length of each floor. Full breakfasts might include peaches and raspberries, a zucchini and goat cheese omelet, roasted potatoes from the garden, toasted corn bread and home-smoked pork loin. Cost: $150 to $220 per night.
Full House Farm
1000 Sexton Road, Sebastopol, 707-829-1561 or 888-596-6006, www.fhfarm.com
Christine Cole and her husband, David Ramsey, run sheep, rabbits, chickens and plenty of horses, which Cole also works with in workshops that teach leadership and communication skills to children and adults. Guests are invited to pick their own produce from a full organic garden with tomatoes, squash, corn, string beans, lettuce, basil and potatoes and then cook their own meal in the kitchen. To stay there, you rent a three-bedroom, two-bath home on the property. Cost: $195 to $245 per night.
Chanslor Guest Ranch & Stables
2660 N. Highway 1, Bodega Bay, 707 875-2721, www.chanslorranch.com
Chanslor has been a guest ranch for 50 years. It's just off the shores of Bodega Bay and features beef cattle, a nonprofit wildlife preserve with 200 acres of wetlands with nature trails. Goats are used for weed control, and horses are an integral part of the ranch. "It's attractive for people who want to go horseback riding because we offer rides on the beach," says George Gross, president of Chanslor Ranch LLC. Accommodations are two full homes used as vacation rentals. Breakfast is not included; each home includes a full kitchen, and guests are encouraged to cook their own food. Guests must rent an entire home. Cost: $450 to $650 per night as of Aug. 15.
Leslie Harlib can be reached at email@example.com