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Farm stays — food for thought

ALSEA — Paco is a miniature Sicilian donkey — one of many endearing souls guests encounter when staying overnight at Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea.

"Farm stays," as they're called, are popping up at a growing number of farms, ranches and vineyards in Washington and Oregon. They give city folk a chance to escape urban life, learn something about where their food comes from, and commune with barnyard animals: sheep, cows, horses, chickens, pigs — and the occasional lovable donkey.

My family's introduction to farm stays came at Leaping Lamb, a small, family business run by Scottie and Greg Jones just west of Corvallis. It spans 69 scenic acres of pasture and woodlands between the Willamette Valley and the Pacific Ocean, an area sprinkled with family-run livestock and hazelnut farms.

The Joneses took up farming in their late 40s, about a decade ago, when a "midlife crisis" (in Scottie's words) led them from Tempe, Ariz., to the Pacific Northwest. They bought a 19th-century homestead and set about raising sheep and turkeys, but within a couple of years, it became clear that livestock alone would not keep the venture afloat.

So Scottie — who knew that farm stays were common in Europe, and had slept in barns herself on bicycle trips in England and France — decided to try her hand at the hospitality industry.

Now, tourists come to Leaping Lamb from all over the world, as far away as Hong Kong, subsidizing the farming operation.

Guests, limited to one family or group at a time, stay in a two-bedroom cottage with a view of the farmhouse, a vegetable garden, orchard and free-range chicken and turkey pen.

The Joneses built the cottage from a kit; it's modest in size but comfortable with a full kitchen and bath, TV and Wi-Fi. Upon arrival, Scottie leads a personal tour of the farm. That's when you meet Paco, the donkey; Peadiddy (a wary peacock); Dutch Boy (a vain turkey); Deedee (a friendly ewe); and a quarter horse who was purchased as Obi-Wan, but promptly renamed Tater.

"We only name the animals we aren't going to eat," Scottie points out, reminding guests that this is not a petting zoo, and the business of farms is raising food.

"If you eat meat, if you eat eggs, this is how they're produced," she says.

The tour of buildings and grounds complete, guests are free to do what they wish.

Most visitors stay two or three days and choose to help out around the farm.

"People sort of self-select to come here," Scottie says. They typically want to know how a farm works — or want their kids to learn. About 80 percent of Leaping Lamb's guests come with children.

Our recent stay coincided with the onset of fall — harvest time — so there was plenty to keep us occupied. We fed sheep and fowl, collected eggs from a coop and sampled fruits of the garden and the orchard — plums, mulberries, apples, grapes and tomatoes.

We also took a long walk through dense woods surrounding the fields, spying tiny rough-skinned newts and a lazy, well-fed garter snake. We followed a trail of bleating sheep out to pasture, and crossed a burbling stream on the mossy back of a fallen tree.

After a few hours on the farm, time seemed to slow down to animal time. It was bedtime when the sky grew dark; morning when the cock crowed.

Farm stays are one offshoot of agritourism.

When you shop at a farmers market, visit a pumpkin patch, pick berries at a roadside U-pick or tour a winery — that's agritourism. The industry has taken off in the past decade for a lot of reasons: Among them, a growing interest in local, organic food; a renewed admiration for self-sufficiency; and a recession-era tendency to spend tourist dollars closer to home.

But when the Joneses launched their farm stay, there was very little information available — either for farmers who wanted to offer one, or tourists who wanted to book one. So Scottie secured two U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to launch www.farmstayUS.com, a website that connects small farmers and ranchers nationwide who offer stays with travelers seeking them.

Now, if you're looking for a farm stay, you can search by location, cost, size or type (farm, ranch or vineyard). In the Northwest, the range of experiences offered is vast: From $20 tent-camping on an alpaca ranch near Granite Falls (www.pacapride.com), to deluxe accommodations in a $395-a-night estate on a vineyard near McMinnville (www.stollerfamilyestate.com)

At some, communal meals are included; at others, you cook for yourself. Some allow and encourage children; others don't. The one commonality: They're all working farms or ranches — not just bed-and-breakfasts with bucolic views.

"We're sending people back home who are now more likely to pay farmers-market prices, because they see the amount of work it takes to get the produce to the market from the ground," says Scottie Jones. "We're getting people more comfortable with farming and nature."

When we arrived at Leaping Lamb, we weren't sure if Paco was a donkey or some kind of miniature mule. Now that we've looked him in his liquid brown eyes, we'll never forget him.

As Scottie writes on her website, "Many people might like to have a farm experience without buying the farm (literally). Just being on a farm is good for the soul."

Leaping Lamb Farm is a 69-acre family farm run by Scottie and Greg Jones in Alsea. Farm stays in places such as this give city folks a chance to learn something about the sources of food, try out farm chores and commune with barnyard animals. - AP photo