The best vacations for Annie Besser reward her family with plenty of time in nature. And because her kids are “real animal lovers,” a farm stay at Willow-Witt Ranch emerged last summer as an enticing getaway for these Los Angeles residents.
“This is not a farm for looks,” says Besser. “This is a real farm.”
Nestled in the Cascade foothills about 20 miles outside of Ashland, Willow-Witt is a certified organic producer of pastured pork and goat, as well as eggs and goat milk. Its products are served at a handful of Rogue Valley restaurants and sold at local farmers markets.
Willow-Witt farm stay guests are treated to the ranch’s fresh eggs, milk and butter and also can pick garden vegetables for preparing their own meals. Copious cooking utensils, equipment and dry goods are just the beginning of Willow-Witt’s hospitality, says Besser, who says the beds are the most comfortable she’s ever slept in, and the overall aesthetic is picture-perfect. Her 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter commented that hosts Lanita Witt and Suzanne Willow “were so nice.”
“They’re very intentional,” says Besser, 50, of the farming ethic that champions conservation and strikes just the right balance between recreation, such as hiking, and educating guests about the native ecology and indigenous people’s history on the land. Serene and secluded, the 445-acre expanse afforded Besser’s children their first-ever outdoor explorations without an adult close at hand. “That gave them an incredible sense of freedom,” says Besser. “It’s a really special place.”
So special that Besser’s family planned to return in April to commune again with Willow-Witt’s goats and hopefully greet the spring’s newborn kids. Besser admits to initially being wary of the goats but soon grew to love them.“They were lovely.”
Goats also are a major draw for farm stay guests at Pholia Farm near Rogue River. Nigerian dwarf goats furnished the rich milk for the farm’s award-winning cheeses, bought up by big-city cheese shops just a few years after Vern and Gianaclis Caldwell established their off-the-grid dairy and creamery.
Once the farm’s focus shifted about a decade ago from crafting fine cheeses to Gianaclis Caldwell’s product development and teaching and writing about cheesemaking and dairy management, the Caldwells had time to manage farm stay accommodations. Handy to Interstate 5, the farm’s 31-foot 1971 Airstream and rustic “bunk house” attract visitors interested in owning a vintage travel trailer, living off the grid and simply experiencing rural settings where they can see starry skies before hitting the hay.
“Just being in nature has its own health benefit,” says Gianaclis Caldwell.
Although most guests are stopping for a single night en route to Crater Lake or other destinations, a surprising number are Southern Oregon residents, “people who are practically your neighbors,” says Caldwell. Pholia books its farm stays on Airbnb, suggested almost a decade ago by a farm intern, says Caldwell, who also recommends the U.S. Farm Stay Association’s website — farmstayus.com — for searching farm stay accommodations by city and state.
Guests’ idea of farm life is one way to search Farm Stay USA with such queries as “milk a cow,” “ride a horse,” “collect eggs,” “help with chores,” “harvest food” and “take a class.” The type and number of activities available are just one way that farm stays vary widely, along with their amenities and prices.
“More people are looking for the disconnect from internet and cellphones,” says Witt, whose ranch has a much sought-after campground without electricity or Wi-Fi, where cellphone reception is spotty.
To fill their technology-free hours, Willow-Witt guests are invited to take a farm tour, help feed the animals, gather eggs and observe the goats’ milking. Visitors often include “vegetarians who have never pulled a carrot out of the ground,” says Witt, adding that almost everyone is surprised that eggs emerge warm from a hen. “Kids call it ‘picking eggs.’”
Pholia’s daily goat walk is a popular pastime with visitors who soon shed any notions about livestock herding techniques, says Caldwell. “The goats just follow you,” she says, adding that guests can sample fresh milk straight from the goats but otherwise don’t get many hands-on lessons in husbandry. “Their helping is quite limited,” she says. “It’s mostly having them interact.”
Guests are surprised, however, at how much they learn about food, says Caldwell, specifically the consumer cost of supporting humane animal care and that humanely produced meats and cheeses actually are underpriced. Observing her operation, many visitors are dissuaded, says Caldwell, from the “romanticism” of overseeing a small farm.
“You get the best workout having a farm,” she laughs. “A goat gym!”