OROVILLE – Ellen and Buttercup, two petite Lessor Jersey cows with liquid brown eyes, have accepted their fate: A few times a week, they will be milked by multiple sets of inexperienced but delighted hands.
On a recent spring day, it's four young girls, all toting scuffed metal pails and dancing excitedly around the wooden paddock gate, who are up for the task. Farm guide Kelsey Maben snaps a lead on Ellen's halter and walks her from the grassy green pasture and into the miniature mob eager to pat her soft, fawn-colored coat.
As Ellen sticks her head into a waiting bucket of grain, two preschoolers grab onto her teats and giggle with equal parts awe and joy as milk squirts out, hitting the pail with a satisfying ping.
Nearby, parents cluster, as proud of their children's handiwork as they are of themselves for motivating to get out of the city for a few days and into this rural enclave where there's barely cell service, never mind television. For one small moment, they have delivered to their kids that most American of dreams: the bucolic freedom of the ideal childhood, packed with friendly farm animals and fields of flowers.
That's the lure of Feather Down Farms, a hands-on, semi-luxurious agritourism experience for families looking to connect with their food and disconnect from the grind of overly scheduled recreation. At its Oroville outpost, which opened in April, kids can run free among the Red Star chickens or catch salamanders in the nearby creek, and there's always an organic crop to pick and eat.
"You could actually milk a cow with your hands," said Mill Valley resident Marcia Valkenhoff, who visited the farm with her husband, Thijs, and their kids Pep, 8, Smilla, 6, and Philippa, 4. "All the kids got a go at it. It was fun for them to see where the milk came from. They loved it."
Farmers have always tried to supplement their incomes with extras such as roadside stands, pumpkin patches and hay rides. But the growth of the farm-to-fork movement has made agriculture cool, interesting and in vogue. Consumers who frequent farmers markets and subscribe to weekly deliveries of produce boxes want to know not just where their food came from, but who grew it and how. So it was only a matter of time before the farming experience itself became a product.
Feather Down is based in the Netherlands, where it runs a network of 26 farm-stay programs as well as dozens more in other European countries. The company partners with select farms and supplies them with infrastructure – including custom-designed two-bedroom tents (which can easily sleep six) with indoor compostable toilets and wood-burning stoves – as well as marketing and booking services.
The local farms, in this case the 2,000-acre Chaffin Family Orchards, handles the guest experience. Profit is split 70/30, with Chaffin taking the smaller cut, as well as proceeds from extras such as bike rentals and fishing excursions. With accommodations starting at $525 for the two-night minimum, it's a potentially lucrative revenue stream, aimed at urban and suburban families with disposable incomes.
"Farming is a challenge," said Chris Kerston, a 28- year-old partner in Chaffin Family Orchards. "It's an extremely volatile business, so adding something like Feather Down Farms adds another revenue stream and it diversifies us."
Chaffin is Feather Down's first foray into the Golden State, although the company has previously worked with two East Coast farms. The Oroville farm has been in the same family for five generations and grows more than 40 orchard crops, including apricots, peaches, citrus, pomegranates, figs and olives, as well as raising grass-fed beef, chicken and sheep.
"One crop rolls into the next," Kerston said. "We are always picking something."
Chaffin employs seven full-time staffers and a few part-timers and interns. The farm has long been eco-friendly. By harnessing solar power and other efficiencies, it uses 85 percent less fuel than it did 10 years ago. It is also pesticide-free, with the animals used as maintenance workers. Chickens eat invasive bugs, goats consume weeds. Everything the farm produces is sold directly to the consumer.
Guests at the farm stay in one of four well-appointed brown canvas tents nestled in the middle of the largest old-growth planting of Mission olives in North America.
Olive drupes cover the ground, and the trees, with their thin grey-green leaves and gnarled trunks that spindle in multiple directions just a few feet above the ground, make irresistible jungle gyms for kids.
In May, the trees bloom for three weeks with tiny white flowers that look like baby's breath. The olives are harvested the weekend after Thanksgiving through the start of the year, with the bulk of the picking in January when they have a "mild, soft, buttery" flavor, according to Kerston.
In a clearing in the orchard, eight bales of straw ring a fire pit made of a rusted half of a barrel drum. On a recent weekend, a 3-year-old leaps from one bale to the next, running in a never-ending loop. She's soon chased along by another youngster, while two older girls hang in the trees nearby. Later in the evening, guests will gather here and roast marshmallows.
There are no hovering parents. This secluded getaway is a place where kids "can roam freely," said Roseville resident Kris Brown, who visited with her husband, Steve, and their four kids, Maddie, 13, Ethan, 11, Abby, 9 and Alec, 7.
Brown said that at their Roseville house, she worries about letting the kids go too far without supervision. "That's tricky in our neighborhood, but at the farm, I had no fears," she said.
Valkenhoff said she felt that same sense or serenity because of the protected setting, free of hazards such as traffic. "They were just climbing trees, playing soccer, playing hide-and-go-seek," she said of her children. "I just let go."
Brown's kids especially enjoyed having access to the chicken coop where tykes collect eggs once a day, filling wicker baskets while hens dodge scampering feet. "The kids were impressed with seeing the chickens laying the eggs, and then eating them," she said.
Guest make their own meals at Feather Down. Inside the large four-room tents, a wood-burning stove holds center court, with a box of olive wood and kindling by its side. The stove is for both heating and cooking. The cabin also contains a sink with running water, a cold box for food storage, and pots, pans and utensils.
Candles and oil lamps provide the tent's only light, as there is no electricity.
Bunk beds take up one bedroom, and a queen bed with, of course, a down comforter, fills the other. The sweet spot is a cupboard bed with wooden doors on two sides, a well-planned secret hideout for the little ones.
This is no luxury-resort experience. While Brown dubs it "glamping" and said the Yosemite tent cabins her family has stayed at "are dumps compared to these," there is also a purposeful European sense of austerity.
Daniel van der Starre, Feather Down's U.S. manager, said that the company doesn't want a "plastic fantastic" experience. "It is a spartan thing to some people," he said.
"It is raw. If you make it too luxurious, the contrast to the farm is too much," he adds, saying that the idea of making the stay a bit challenging is part of the concept.
Across a dirt road from the olive orchard is a rehabbed Quonset hut that houses the Honesty Shop, where visitors take what they need and record purchases on a clipboard to settle up later. It's an odd mix of basic (toilet paper), local (olive oil) and esoteric (jars of organic Indian ghee). A separate building houses showers for guests.
What you won't find at Feather Down is strict structure. There are no detailed itineraries to follow, and the experience is as busy or as mellow as guests want to make it. While many adults appear discombobulated by the idleness (wandering through the dense trees, cellphone in hand, looking for reception), kids seem to adapt quicker.
"They had plenty to do," Brown said of her brood. "It was just nice being outdoors and leaving all the technology behind."
At least once during the stay, visitors can load onto the farm's five-bench converted school bus, painted light blue with a fruit theme, and trundle up a bumpy lane to a man-made lake on the top of nearby Table Mountain, part of which is owned by the farm.
The lake was built in the 1930s for irrigation. Guests can hike to a stream and a set of caves through vast fields of grazing cows and wildflowers in spring – silvertip lupine, butter-and-eggs, clover and more.
Kids delight in catching frogs in the stream, hopping over rocks and precipices that may leave parents a bit breathless with visions of tumbles. Many choose to take a leisurely swim in the lake, which Kerston said stays warm even at night in the summer.
There's also a visit to Kerston's house, a 100-year-old structure built by the farm's first family owner, Del Chaffin, who purchased the operation from UC Berkeley during the Depression.
There, Kerston's 5-year-old son, Danny, is raising ducklings and chicks on the porch and Berkshire hogs in pen just across the driveway. Little guests are invited to feed them, trudging into the fenced enclosure, where two 4-month-old pigs – Pumbaa and Diego – grunt in delight when they see the buckets of slops.
But pets these are not. "When they get fat and big, the pigs are food," Danny explains to his guests.
That's raw, all right. But it's real. Valkenhoff said the independence and active participation of the visit reminded her of the autonomy kids are afforded in the Netherlands, where she is from and where she first heard about Feather Down. "It's a very natural way to spend your time," she said. "There is a lot of freedom."
That authenticity, Kerston said, is what he hopes will make Feather Down a success for both the farm and for visitors.
"People have limits of what they will pay for food and that doesn't always pay for a sustainable system," he said. "When people are making memories, those same limits don't exist."
AGRITOURISM IN CALIFORNIA
Feather Down Farms is part of a growing agritourism industry in California and across the country.
In 2007, the most recent year that data is available, the USDA reported that 685 California farms made a total of $35 million in revenue related to agritourism (the USDA farm census is collected every five years; results for 2012 have yet to be released).
In California, where almost 70 percent of farm operations are small outfits making less than $250,000 in annual revenue, many see a need to diversify and find new ways of ensuring economic stability. This is especially true for organic growers, whose operations may cost more to run.
"It's risk management," says Shermain Hardesty, an economist with the University of California Small Farm Program. "You want to have different channels to market your product if something goes wrong."
– Anita Chabria