by Jane Primerano
On a long farm lane in the shadow of the Green Mountain National Park, a couple of city kids enjoyed the pleasure of a tire swing and kittens in the hayloft.
Their mother, Norah, said the kids were given a choice between the farm and the beach for a late summer mini-vacation and picked the farm.
For the kids — Brennan and Mariah McVeigh of New York City — Liberty Hill Farm is the vacation of choice.
“Cows, kittens, people, food,” Brennan, 12, and Mariah, 8, listed as what they like about the farm they have been visiting every year since Mariah was a baby.
“I do make great pancakes,” Beth Kennett said.
She and her husband, Bob, have operated this dairy farm in Rochester, VT, since 1979 and started taking guests in February 1984, for ski season. They are near Killington and Sugarbush, the two largest ski resorts in the East.
“There was a downturn in the economy,” she pointed out, “and we needed to diversify.”
With boys who were then 6 and 7, and the fact that Beth was ‘Bob’s hired man,’ they used the assets they had — extra bedrooms. Their first guests were a family from New Jersey with five kids who still come.
Their 1780 farm was started by John Emerson, grandson of Dr. Charles Wesley Emerson, founder of Emerson College. Part of the barn dates to 1787, but the house was built in 1825. “We don’t know what happened to the first house on the farm,” Kennett said.
Although they converted the large woodshed into two bedrooms, they didn’t change the structure of the house at all. The bedrooms over the woodshed were for hired hands. Now they are for guests, with a big room for lots of children.
In spite of the proximity to ski resorts, which includes the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, a Mecca for cross country skiing, summer is actually the busiest time followed by the fall foliage season with winter third.
The length of visitors’ stays is not as long as it was when people tended to have longer vacations, although that doesn’t apply to visitors from Europe, who still have a month vacation each year.
Interest in farm stays is global, Kennett said. Some European countries, notably Poland, have a long list of farms with bed and breakfasts. “In the past, agritourism meant going to New Zealand or Ireland. The model was sheep farms,” she said. “In Italy, agriturismo is vineyard visits.” So in Vermont, people are looking for Cabot cheese and maple syrup. Which they get at Liberty Hill, along with a base from which to explore the area, hike in the state park, go tubing on the river or check out the small towns along the rural highways.
In 1998, Kennett accompanied Sen. Patrick Leahy on a mission to Ireland where they saw agritourism as economic development for rural areas, not just for the farmer, but for the entire area.
She has spoken on what agritourism means in Canada and West Virginia. The economic benefits are joined by the educational benefits to the tourists. They learn what goes into raising crops and caring for animals.
“It certainly has been salvation for us,” she said of the bed and breakfast. “It’s the way we can stay in business. The topography doesn’t lend itself to 500 cows.” “The cows pay for the cows, guests and pancakes cover living expenses,” she added.
The Kennetts are among the Vermont farmers who supply milk to Cabot Creamery. They milk 100 registered Holsteins. Both of their sons live on the farm with their families. Tom grows 300 acres of field crops. He and wife, Jennifer, have four children, twins Tucker and Calvin, 9, Amelia, 5 and Wyatt, 3. David raises Holstein bull calves for breeding. He and Asha have a daughter, Ella, 4 months.
The boys are partners on the farm. Beth and Bob created an LLC years ago so their sons would establish equity and feel they had a legal and financial stake in the farm.
Many of the young people who visit the farm say they want to go into farming. “It’s not the kindergarten set, it’s high school and college students. It’s fascinating to be cool with the college set,” she said.
Conversations at the dinner table range “from basic biology to the effect of internet trade,” Kennett said.
The two-way discussions with her guests have been educational for Kennett as well. “You’ve got to have the facts and figures because they want to know.”
by Jane Primerano