Wrtitten by Rachel Carter
Published in Small Farm Quarterly
Tucked delightfully in the foothills of the Green Mountains along scenic Rte. 100 in Rochester, Vermont, sitsLiberty Hill Farm—a working dairy farm defined by the 1890’s red barn with cupola—one of the most photographed in all of Vermont. Beth and Bob Kennett milk approximately 270 Robeth Holsteins as members of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative and have been providing farm vacations since 1984.
The Kennett’s bought the farm in 1979 and like many farmers, were seeking ways to diversify income to help the farm survive during dairy industry economic downturns. In February 1984, a nearby inn asked if Liberty Hill would be interested in hosting overflow guests and a few months later, a nearby summer camp inquired if Liberty Hill could be shared as an option for parents to stay during orientation and parent weekends. The Kennett’s never looked back.
While many in Vermont view Liberty Hill Farm as one of the leading pioneers in farm stay experiences, it wasn’t until recent years that the agricultural community began to recognize agritourism as both a viable educational and economic opportunity for Vermont farms.
“We were met with challenges proving to others farmers. I think they feared the ‘Disneyfying’ of farms and didn’t see farm vacations as an opportunity to actually educate and share values on life and agriculture,” Beth Kennett reflects while sipping tea following a sumptuous supper of produce and meat from hers and neighboring farms.
A farm stay at Liberty Hill includes comfortable accommodations in the rambling white farmhouse, family style dinner and breakfast, and a host of farm chores and activities. Guests can visit with Bob and the Kennett’s son, David, as they milk the cows and Kennett’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter invite guests to feed the calves every morning after breakfast. Rubber boots are available for all if you forget yours at home.
Beth Kennett is tickled at how many people come to fill their bucket list—one item high on that list for folks is to play with the barn kitties. Kennett also notes grandcations (vacations with grandparents and grandchildren) are becoming increasingly popular and a working farm is a favorite destination. Grandparents can relax and engage in quality time in an educational environment with their grandchildren without carting them to and fro. Kids can run free, get dirty, and learn about where their food comes from.
“Authenticity has to be hugely paramount,” Kennett notes pointedly. “It is crucial to how we represent agritourism in Vermont and maintain the integrity of an agricultural and educational experience.”
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Beth Kennett enjoyed building relationships with guests, who became repeat customers, and then friends. Sharing with guests the experience of life on the farm and tasting the fruits of that labor was always something Kennett knew was of educational value. But it wasn’t until a tourism trade association trip Kennett made with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in 1998 to Ireland that helped her start to understand the broader economic impact opportunities for agritourism.
Kennett, Senator Leahy, and Vermont tourism counterparts gleaned multiple opportunities applicable to Vermont. More than just “beds and pancakes” as Kennett puts it, a cohesive suite of economic contributions were presenting themselves to benefit Vermont communities all centered around agriculture—from farm stays and meals to tours and product sales.
“Come visit Vermont and buy Vermont products” was a message Kennett brought back from Ireland. “I also came back to Liberty Hill with a real sense of value in providing in depth answers to my guests and not just as their host, but a face of Vermont agriculture and a dairy farmer.”
With her newfound purpose representing farmer authenticity and helping to boost Vermont agritourism, Kennett helped start Vermont Farms! (thanks to a grant from then Representative Bernie Sanders)—an association for farms open to the public, including farm stays, motor coach destinations, and pick your own locations.
Agritourism has grown successfully in Vermont and remains true to the authenticity that surrounds the Vermont brand. The work of Vermont Farms! has morphed into various organizations and initiatives. Farm-based education is a core focus of Shelburne Farms with a statewide reach through farm to school programming. The Northeast Organic Farming Association in Vermont (NOFA VT) promotes several agricultural literacy events and programs connecting consumers to the source of their food. Businesses like Vermont Farm Tours partners with farms and food producers to offer genuine farm tour experiences and web marketers like Localvore Today offer discounts for farm products and marketing exposure to farms. TheDigInVT.com website provides a full inventory of farm experiences and food trails across the state. All of these organizations along with farms, food producers, and government including the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets all collaborate as a part of implementing Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan to keep both the educational and economic impacts of agritourism prominent in Vermont’s work to relocalize food production and distribution.
It may not have been until recent years—as the local food movement really began to show its prominence in economic development—that others in the agricultural community began to look at agritourism as a viable farm diversification operation. There is no question to Kennett now that farmers are starting to see the benefits—both for their bottom line and the future of agriculture.
The challenges of the dairy industry continue to be a struggle for Vermont farms, but the dairy industry is also the backbone to Vermont’s farming heritage and a core economic driver in Vermont agriculture. “We have our farm family of three generations to share the farming way of life and connect people to the life and experiences on a dairy farm,” Kennett states proudly. She then shares a favorite story of how guests increase their awareness of the work involved to produce food and how that leads to lifelong connections…
“Years ago, a group of Boy Scouts and police leaders from Staten Island came up for an educational field trip. We gave them the project of picking rocks off of a new field. The boys thought that rocks had never been taken off the field and they received a huge New England geology and farming history lesson. The officers said those boys would never eat an ice cream cone again without thinking about the rocks—and it was an invaluable lesson. One of the Scouts came back this summer and stayed and wife, who still had the love note he mailed her after a day picking rocks on a farm in Vermont.”
And with that, Kennett put down her tea cup and before retiring for the evening, headed into the kitchen to make the final preparations for the next day’s breakfast—hopefully pancakes.