The idea of teaching our kids chores seems preposterous when we haven't even conquered tying shoes, but if the task involves a bleating sheep or a wandering chicken, my one- and three-year-old girls are in. My husband and I, urbanites by stock, take to the road with our family to two farm stays and prepare, as best we can, to officially rough it.
With 75 farm stay options in Pennsylvania -- more than almost any other state -- city dwellers or those looking for a rustic vacation, don’t have to look hard to find a place to get their hands dirty.
Weatherbury Farm in Avella, just 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh, is first on the docket. To start things properly, we report for breakfast at the reassuringly normal hour of 8:30 a.m. A copper steamer holds the morning's banana pancakes on a red breakfront, a casserole offers eggs and potatoes, while a caddy of self-serve canisters holds cereal.
An hour later, Farmer Dale announces that chores start in five minutes, our cue to get the kids' boots on and line up at the door. Each of our girls is dispensed a baby bottle full of special formula. The task? Breakfast delivery service for goats.
The goats cram their heads through the whitewashed fence like they've never eaten before. Hansel and Gretel, baby goats with little horn buds, suckle voraciously, then practice jumping off the hay rolls and nibbling at our shoelaces.
Now it's time for the sheep. Our youngest daughter cups her hands so that we can fill them with feed, then giggles at the dozens of slurping, pink sheep tongues. Meanwhile, Farmer Dale has commissioned my husband, Steve, to pitchfork a giant roll of hay loose so that the girls and I can grab handfuls to offer the bigger goats.
We even get to pluck still-warm eggs – tinted the palest blue, pink and green by the famed Aracauna hens – from the chicken coop for tomorrow's breakfast.
A few weekends later, we're looking forward to that same slow pace when we arrive at Country Log House Farm in Mt. Joy. Around 7:30 the next morning, wonderful aromas not normally found at our house begin to waft underneath our door. By 8 a.m., farmer Jim Brubaker and neighbor Irma surround us and the other guests with a hearty country breakfast in the downstairs dining room. There's a decadent sausage quiche, chocolate chip pancakes (at least four downed by our girls, which is definitely a breakfast consumption record), blueberry baked oatmeal and fresh fruit. Steve and I agree that we're all in need of immediate physical labor.
Luckily, Jim has a big, easy smile that inspires us to join him for chores after the meal is cleared. In addition to feeding sheep and gathering eggs as we did at Weatherbury, our girls and the other children here this weekend (boys and girls ranging in age from 3 to 12) get to milk a goat named Chocolate. After a couple of tries, our older is squirting milk like a pro (though perhaps more on her boots than in the pail), while our little one is toddling after the little barn cat, which seems to be accustomed to having its tail pulled.
Later, everyone climbs aboard a hay wagon pulled by Jim's ancient red tractor. We cross through fields of rye grass over to his brother's dairy farm where 500 cows are holding steady for their second milking of the day. As we ride, I think about the indelible effect the farm stays have had on our family: The girls have nearly mastered agriculture, after all: manners have been sharpened; and Steve and I have decided to erase a few commitments on our calendar in pursuit of more lazy Saturdays.