10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Jessica Rose Spangler Reporter
BELLEVILLE, Pa. — Summer camps for youth aren’t a new idea, nor is a weekend getaway for artists.
But something that is a relatively new idea is for those camps and retreats to take place on a working dairy farm.
Hameau Farm, in the Big Valley of central Pennsylvania, is a family owned and operated dairy farm nestled along the Kishacoquillas Creek just east of Belleville, Mifflin County.
Thirty-three years ago, Hameau Farm owner Audrey Gay Rodgers had just graduated from college where she had majored in European studies and political science. She interviewed for her dream job in Washington, D.C., and was working on her parents’ dairy farm while awaiting a call from her potential employer.
“That was back in the day before cell phones and answering machines,” she said, adding that her parents, John and Gayle Rodgers, never let her sit beside the phone and wait for the call.
After a summer without a phone call, Gay Rodgers opted to move on. In September 1980, she borrowed money, bought a herd of 12 Holsteins and started farming — specifically a rotationally grazed herd — at her own location along State Route 655.
Picking a name for her new farm proved to be rather easy.
“The first word that came to mind was Hameau.’ It’s French for a cluster of buildings in a rural setting. It’s a community,” said Rodgers, who had spent a short time in France in college. “Marie Antoinette even had one at Versailles.”
“The week I started, the call came in from D.C.,” she said. She could have been the receptionist for then-Congressman Bill Shuster Sr.
But Rodgers decided to keep farming, and by 1986 she had built her herd up to 60 milking animals.
By that time, she also was longing for something more in her life. Rodgers opted to sell her beloved Holsteins in 1986 with the intent to go back to school. But she never sold the farm itself.
Instead, she took a position with the American Forage and Grassland Council. But when the council’s office moved to Texas, she didn’t.
Her next stop was Brookmere Winery in Belleville, Pa.
“I wanted to see and learn if it was possible to get people to Mifflin County,” Rodgers said. “I learned that, yes, it was very possible. I always kept thinking of ways to make the farm work. I always had this idea of starting a camp.”
After the winery, Rodgers moved on to Stone Mountain Adventures in Huntingdon County, Pa. There she got to learn the ins and outs of running a camp.
“This whole time I was trying to figure out what I was good at, not good at, what was missing in my life. Some answers were hard to take in when I was already in my mid 30s,” she said.
So what did Rodgers discover she wanted in her life? Both dairy cows and a social life, together.
Thus, in 1996 she brought dairy cows back to her farm, but this time they were Ayrshires.
“Ayrshires originated in Scotland, as did I,” Rodgers said. “They’re curious and hardy. I’ve always thought Ayrshires looked best out on green pastures.
“My Achilles’ heel is equipment,” Rodgers said. “But I have 20 little harvesters that walk out to the field every day.”
Rodgers also employs two full-time helpers on the dairy farm, both of whom are, coincidentally, women.
That same year she also started her summer camps for girls ages 8 to 14. Her experience at Stone Mountain connected her with a network of camp counselors, allowing her to not only find help, but to connect with campers.
In 1996, the camp consisted of two, two-week sessions. Two cabins were built on the farm, but without electricity or plumbing. Each cabin sleeps 10 girls and two counselors. The basement of the farmhouse was converted into bathrooms for the girls.
The next year, Hameau still had two camp sessions, but had to start a waiting list for additional girls. In 1998, a third camp session was added. In 2002, a third cabin was added, allowing Rodgers to host more girls during each two-week session.
A dining hall was also constructed for the three-a-day family-style meals.
Hameau maintains a 4-to-1 camper to counselor ratio. All counselors are over age 21 — some have even come from Europe, Africa and Australia.
While Rodgers mainly operates a dairy farm, she makes sure that campers can experience a variety of animals during the summer months. With the help of local farmer friends, Rodgers welcomes pigs and goats for a summer visit. Other full-time farm residents include sheep, chickens, turkeys and geese.
Daily activities can include feeding animals, hiking, canoeing, arts and crafts, swimming, music, tennis, fishing, painting and more. Depending on which summer session girls attend, they have the opportunity to visit different local attractions, like county fairs and arts festivals.
At the end of every camper session, parents are invited to Hameau Farm for its version of a farm show or fair. Campers are encouraged to befriend any one of Hameau’s animals during their stay and then show that animal in a “competition.”
“I’ve had girls from New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Italy, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, California, New Mexico. Pittsburgh has really picked up the last two years. Everyone’s found me through someone else” who’s been here, Rodgers said.
“I feel it’s good for girls to have a non-traditional experience, give them something to think about for the future,” she said. “They leave here understanding the sounds, smells and activities of a farm.”
“I’ve been tweaking things ever since,” Rodgers said.
That includes the addition of artist retreats for adults in 1999. Sessions are held in February, May and October, and the retreats can be for one day, a weekend or for an entire week. In 2014, a September session may be added as well.
Local artists Susan Nicholas Gephart and James Farrah help to organize the workshops and offer instruction to attendees. They also arrange an annual Mentor Day where high school students can visit Hameau and learn more about art in “plein air,” or painting outdoors.
The hayloft on the top floor of the barn was converted into an art studio and theater space for use by artists and campers. The one side of the room is a wall of windows, allowing artists — painters, sculptors, illustrators and more — to view the picturesque landscape during times of inclement weather. This design was created to incorporate the plein-air feel that French artist Monet used.
Artists are also welcome to sit on the art room’s deck or venture out onto Hameau Farm property, including the creek. All artists of all talent levels and mediums are welcome to attend.
In 2005, Rodgers started a third “enterprise” — an international trip to Scotland.
“I was saying goodbye to campers who aged-out. I wanted to find a way to keep them engaged,” Rodgers said. “The Ayrshire cows led to Scotland. So far I’ve taken three groups.”
The trip is for girls 14 to 17 years old.
More than 15 years since she started her camp for girls, Rodgers feels the only major thing she would have done differently was to start a camp for boys at the same time.
She frequently gets questions from parents of female campers about where they can find similar camps for boys. Rodgers says that when she was first getting started, she didn’t feel comfortable or qualified enough to start a camp for boys, but she wishes she had convinced one of her brothers to get involved.
Looking back over the years, one of Rodger’s favorite sights is seeing the interaction of a child with an animal, often for the first time in her life.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “Even children on medication or with ADD can connect with an animal.”
Other programs at Hameau Farm include a counselor’s apprentice program for girls ages 15 to 16, a three- or four-day retreat for women wanting to be a farmer for a few days, and family farm weekends.
For more information, visit www.HameauFarm.com and www.SNicholasArt.com or call 717-667-3731.