If Old MacD. Opened a B&B. . .

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2003

My goal during this visit is to keep careful track of my fingers. Farms, I happen to know, are Bermuda Triangles for fingers. Years ago, the Saturday sidewalks in my rural hometown were crowded with nine-fingered farmers, most of them victims of something called a corn detasseler, which I pictured as a sort of manicurist's guillotine.

Not me, boy. Come with 10, leave with 10 -- that's my motto for a weekend at Hedgebrook Farm, a new working-farm inn near Winchester, Va. That, and watch where I step.

That Hedgebrook is a real farm is obvious as soon as we pull up the gravel road -- not too Ralph Lauren, not too Fisher-Price. It's a fully operational jumble of outbuildings, pens and sheds clustered at the top of a north-south ridge on the edge of the Shenandoah Valley. Great folds of quilted pastureland flow down to the east and west, stitched here and there by fences, tree breaks and creeks. Before we even stop the car, the two girls in the back seat are shouting a barnyard census: Cows! Goats! Pigs! Horses! Peacocks! Chick. . . .


Yep, half a dozen peacocks parade along the lane, some with their outrageously fabulous plumage fully deployed. Another is perched in the rafters of an open-air equipment shed, its mighty tail hanging down like Spanish moss. We can also see a pair of llamas in the field. And a hand-painted sign on a shed points the way to the "water buffalo." If this is Old MacDonald, it must be the extended dance mix.

I get out with all due caution, hands in my pockets, eyes on the lookout for corn detasselers. But the kids, Isabel, 6, and Tyrie, 4, bolt for the nearest wire fence at a gallop, still gleefully shrieking out the cast list from "Charlotte's Web."

The animals respond in kind. Goats and pigs come trotting up with hopeful airs, as do the sheep and cattle of adjoining fields. Within 90 seconds of setting foot on the farm, the girls are face-to-face with a grunting, bleating plenary session of assembled livestock. The critters just want some food, of course, but that doesn't matter to the kids. Here are all the stars of their bedtime reading, thrusting wet quivering snouts through the wire, snuffling and drooling all over the toes of two giddy suburbanites who have rarely seen any part of a cow that wasn't flanked by a sesame seed bun.

The rapture lasts about 10 minutes, until the animals realize it's all a bust, handout wise. The goats, never models of discrimination, hang around to chew the grass and clover the girls shovel through the fence. But the others, led by the proud pigs, turn away for, well, greener pastures. We peel the girls away from the goats -- I quickly count their fingers -- and turn to explore our own digs for the night.

On the edge of the barley field sits the farm's Herds Inn, a guesthouse that would fit just as well among the aspens of Lake Tahoe as it does above a Blue Ridge apple orchard. It's a two-story cabin, in log-luxe style, built from the timbers of two 19th-century tobacco barns. The inside is all reclaimed cypress and custom woodwork, with a mighty fieldstone fireplace, smart stained glass, high-count linens and a huge eat-in kitchen. The front porch boasts a stunning peaceable-kingdom view of the pastures (the goats are within an apple toss and donkeys bray and kick just one field over). Out back are the peacock parade grounds and the farm proper.

The cabin is full of sheepskins, auction-bought antiques and family memorabilia. There's a microwave, a VCR and air-conditioning, but no phone -- not even one at the top of a telephone pole.

It took eight years to build this showplace (we were surprised to discover that we were the first paying guests) and is the grand ambition of Kitty Hockman-Nicholas, known around Winchester as Miss Kitty, the single mother who has run the dairy farm for 25 years. In between her inviolate routine of twice-a-day milkings, she and her two grown daughters raised high the guesthouse to help make extra money. For years, they've been hosting school groups and corn mazes and pick-your-own-apples seasons. Now they're going after the overnighters.

"Kids just don't know where to look first when they get here," says Miss Kitty. "They're wide-eyed."

It's amazing. Long after the Industrial Revolution drove our ancestors into the cities and multinationals hijacked our food supply, the family farmyard still dominates our cultural imagination. Thanks to picture books, See 'n Say and "This Old Man," babies can say moo as soon as they can say mama.

Even kids who live on farms can't seem to get enough of farm animals. When some neighbors drop by to visit Miss Kitty, their 3-year-old is pleading "I want to see the cows!" as soon as she climbs out of the truck. "Well, baby, they're just the same as our cows," the father reasons futilely. "They are just exactly the same as ours."

We spend the rest of the day on a feed-and-seed walkabout. It takes an hour to fully appreciate the pigs alone, including one immensely fat black sow who rotates among farmyard dozing spots. The ducks and turkeys and peacocks strut up and down the lane, ignoring one another. They even ignore the screaming girls as they chase a black bunny around the yard.

We jump off of hay bails, clamor over hay wagons and stomp through water troughs. The kids name every baby goat and sit in the grass by the chicken coop, listening to the nervous murmurs of the hens. We walk through the apple orchard, balance on split rails and chew long stems of grass. I feel at home.

Did I mention that I grew up on a farm? I may still have all my fingers and look like every other pale Metro jockey, but I'm not. For three years, I lived on my grandfather's farm in south Georgia. I drove a Ford truck at age 13 (into an oak tree), a ratty old Jeep at 11 (into an irrigation pond) and a golf cart at age 10 (into a washing machine. Don't ask).

And for this ol' farmboy, the best part of any farm is the shed -- Hedgebrook has about six of them. A good farm shed is like agrarian aromatherapy, a heady brume of diesel and hay and leather and animal pee and grain dust. They're cluttered with bent metal, plastic tubs, rotten iron and ancient wood. Of course, the genius of farmers is to see raw material where others see debris. In my view of Genesis, God is a farmer, puttering around in his shed, assembling Heaven and Earth from old tractor parts while he waits on his crop subsidy check.

The next morning, we rise at 7 and take a dew-wet walk across the yard to see the morning milking. Miss Kitty is away at a wedding, so Ray Champman, a temporary hand, leads the big Jerseys into the 1940s milking shed. They file in, bawling and ready for their scoop of grain. One by one, he bathes their swollen udders in antiseptic and fits on the nozzles, which clamp down with a sound like your hand on a vacuum cleaner hose. Immediately, milk begins dancing through the spotless glass tube that runs beneath the ceiling, all the way to a workroom next door. The milk gathers in a big glass bulb, warm to the touch, before it's dumped into a huge steel cooling tank. A co-op tanker comes to collect it every 48 hours.

It's a fascinating process, especially for a family of confirmed cereal addicts. Our thoughts on breakfast, we walk back to the house for the farm specialty -- a dozen fresh laid-yesterday eggs and a pound of bacon that we can cook whenever we're ready, fresh bread, fresh butter, jam, orange juice and coffee. Miss Kitty calls it "breakfast in a bag" and charges $22 for it ($30 for groups of five or more).

On our way, Isabel points to a rusty contraption dissolving in tall grass, part of the mechanical sculpture garden that is part of most farms. "What's that?" she asks.

Sigh. I have no idea. Only the Smithsonian holds more opportunities for a father to mislead his children than a farm. But at least in a museum you have a chance to sneak a look at the display caption before you fake an explanation of how early hominids sewed their clothes. It never occurs to me to say "I don't know."

"It's a corn detasseler," I say finally. "Keep your fingers away from it."

The Herds Inn at Hedgebrook Farm is about two miles south of Winchester, Va., about 90 minutes from Washington. The stylish log guesthouse reminded me of Vail or Beaver Creek in Colorada, and so did its prices. The house is rented on a complicated pricing formula, by the week or weekends with a two-night minimum. Rates: $280 for two people for two weekend nights, $400 for three or four for two weekend nights, $500 for five or six, and $600 for seven or eight. Weekly rentals start at $600 for the house, plus $75 per person. Children 2 and under are free. Info: 866-783-2681, www.hedgebrook.com.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company