The Evolution of a Farm Stay B&B

7/14/2012 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

MOUNT JOY, Pa. — How do you find time to travel, or visit with people, when you are managing the nonstop demands of a dairy farm? This was the dilemma in 1959 for a young Eileen Benner, who had just moved with her husband, Galen, to farm in Mt. Joy, Pa., down the road from where she grew up. Initially, Galen had farmed steers and the couple grew tomatoes on the 130-acre farm. Eileen’s two brothers also farmed nearby. But by 1965, Galen had switched to dairy farming with about 50 cows. Eileen had helped with the farming up until the dairy started, at which time she decided to focus on the house and raising children.

“If I learned to milk (cows), I knew I’d be doing that forever,” she said in an interview recently. “It takes a special women to be a farmer’s wife.” And, she said, “Galen was married’ to the cows and we could never get out.”

So, she came up with another idea to fulfill the couple’s needs for socializing.

Her solution? Bring people to them. “We could never get out,” Eileen said, “so I brought the people in!”

And so the Rocky Acre Farm Bed-and-Breakfast “farm stay” was begun.

“We had this big house ... we didn’t use half of it,” Eileen said. Her sister ran an antiques shop close by, and out-of-towners visiting the shop would often ask: “Why don’t you put us up (for the night)?”

“When we started, we served an evening meal and called it a farm vacation,’” Eileen said. “There was no term like bed-and-breakfast’ back then.”

Ever since, the Benners have been operating the B&B at their dairy farm, one of the longest-running farm stay vacations in the area, with the guests spending much of their day on the farm enjoying a rural lifestyle. Some of their guests have been returning yearly to the farm’s B&B for decades, sometimes two or even three times a year — once in the summer, then in the fall and also at New Year’s.

“There are some that have three or four generations of families that come back year after year,” Eileen said.

One family has been coming to Rocky Acre Farm for 42 years.

“It’s a mission, too,” she said. “I feel it’s a mission. Some have found the Lord through coming here.”

Over the years, their 200-year-old, elegant stone farmhouse has undergone many transitions to stay up-to-date. In 1990, their son, Arlin, and his wife, Deborah, took over the dairy farming from Galen and now own Yippee Farms. Their daughter, Holly, who lives around the corner with her family, has helped manage and market the unique B&B for the past 15 years. Several part-time employees also help with cleaning and kitchen work, among other tasks.

Eileen enjoys the constant interaction with guests in their home. If needed, she can get away to her own space in the farmhouse. But having guests around is such a longstanding part of the farm that the extrovert said she has never considered closing the B&B.

“We kept putting everything back into the B&B,” Eileen said.

When her children were young, in the 1970s, Eileen brought in an Amish boy to help out during the week. Galen’s sister, Ruth, also lived at the farmhouse and helped for a number of years. By the time Eileen was having her fifth child, she decided to arrange with several different neighbors to rotate the job of serving evening meals for the Benners’ overnight guests.

The guests enjoyed it, she said. “I didn’t think you could not <$>serve a meal,” Eileen said, laughing.

By opening their large farmhouse to guests, Eileen made many long-lasting friendships. All of Eileen and Galen’s six children — four boys and two girls — grew up helping out with the B&B, as well as playing with guests’ children, who were essentially playmates right on the farm. Sometimes the Benners and their children really hit it off with guests and became close. Those families would take their children back to visit the farm each year so they could stay with her kids for a week.

One boy from New York stayed all summer, even working in the dairy.

“When I see kids nowadays fighting. ... (At our farm) kids did chores,” Eileen said. “Our kids were busy!”

People come from all over the world, Holly said. Earlier this year, a couple from Singapore stayed at the farm for two days during their honeymoon. The B&B’s reservations are typically full from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when children are out of school, Holly said.

The B&B is now closed each year for 2-1/2 months, from January to mid-March, at which time Eileen and Galen head to Florida for a break. She enjoys herself away from the farm too, she said. During the closed period, Holly supervises any needed renovations.

The Benner farmhouse has some unique architecture and history.

“I always said the good Lord was there when the house was built — the house was built in three stages,” Eileen said about the fact that the large house has several stairways to the second floor and third floor.

She also learned from a former elderly resident of the farmhouse that the farm had been used as a part of the Underground Railroad. The woman even showed Eileen where the slaves had been hidden at the farm.

Eileen enjoys connecting with the guests and keeps her eye out for them. But round-the-clock hosting has its challenges as well.

She told a story of how once two older ladies staying at the B&B went to Park City (nearby shopping mall) and got lost. They ended up driving back to their own home, but not before Eileen had started the search for them.

“I always counted the cars before I went to bed ... like a mother hen,” Eileen said.

Holly has also noticed changes over the years.

“We spend more and more time keeping people happy,” she said. “Nowadays, people are used to expressing immediate disatisfaction — like if they go to Walmart, they can take things back.”

A lot of people comment on how dark it is at nighttime on the rural roads, said the innkeepers.

Families want to have a farm stay vacation for many reasons, not the least of which is the wholesome surroundings for their children. A recent Rocky Acre Farm guest, Richard Rathey, said, “We love the Amish and Mennonite atmosphere. We can reasonably drive here and it kind of feels like home.”

The Ratheys said they had done a ranch stay out west previously and enjoyed it, and though they do not live on a farm, his kids are very active in 4-H and FFA in their Granby, Conn., community. Staying at a farm is “a very natural thing to do,” he said. “And, we consider it reasonably priced.”

Many guests stay at the farm throughout the day during their visit. There are no televisions in most of the rooms. Galen plans many outdoor activities, from mini-tractor rides, hayrides and pony rides to farm activities like milking a cow, feeding a calf or collect the chickens’ eggs. There is a goat to play with, kayaks to paddle, porch gliders to sit and relax on, gardens to walk and a large dollhouse to play in.

Good food is another important part of the Rocky Acre Farm experience. Breakfasts, served once a day, might include scrambled eggs, home fries, waffles, pancakes, french toast, sausage, creamed chipped beef, corn fritters and fruit, in season, as well as baked items like muffins.

“Guests want the traditional foods,” Eileen said. “They come back for the same foods — they want a certain coffee cake or old-fashioned sugar cake.”

“They love homemade hot chocolate,” Holly said.

They love Eileen’s fresh corn soup as well. She put together a small booklet of the recipes she and Holly use to make breakfasts because guests were asking for them so frequently.

Holly, who does marketing for the B&B, was instrumental in getting a website for Rocky Acre Farm B&B, and was one of the first farm stays to go online. She is involved in the area’s farm stay association and has strongly encourages others to get online as well.

“People want an immediate answer — they don’t want to have to wait for a phone call back to make a reservation,” Holly advised about prospective guests.

Holly had worked as a CPA previously, but enjoys the flexibility she has working at the B&B now to be available to her kids.

“She (Eileen) is very open (to new ideas) and that’s what makes it fun to work here,” Holly said.

Some of those new ideas include adding a coffee bar in the main area for guests to help themselves. Each room now has a fridge. Geothermal heating and cooling have also been installed for the main bedrooms, reducing the need for 12 air-conditioning units in the farmhouse down to 5.

“It’s an upfront cost, but it will save money later,” Holly said. “It’s very expensive to heat with oil.”

Eileen’s advice to others wanting to start a farm B&B?

“The average B&B life is five years,” Eileen says. “Some people want to start where we are, but we did (renovations) gradually over time.”

“You gotta give 100 percent. There’s things I didn’t go to because I had to be here,” she said.

For more information about farm stays, go to www.afarmstay.com. Rocky Acre Farm is at www.rockyacre.com or 717-653-4449.<$>


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