BELLEVILLE, Pa. – A humid haze blankets Kishacoquillas Valley and almost hides the Appalachian Mountains. Stray spikes of lightning pierce the morning sky. Persistent drizzle ruins thoughts of a sunny summer day.
Waking to this gloom, many young girls might roll over and pull a pillow over their heads. But at Hameau Farm, dried manure splatters already cover these girls’ ankles.
Baltimore’s Eva Jacobs is one of them. With a thick, brown ponytail slung over her shoulder, high cheekbones and a wide smile, she’s on her way to becoming a model.
But here she is, pairing rubber boots with her short shorts and scraping manure with enough concentration for her peers to later name her the day’s Queen of Clean.
Eva, along with two dozen other city girls between 12-14, are staying two weeks at Hameau Farm. Voluntarily.
Parents are paying to drop their daughters off in the middle of Pennsylvanian nowhere to spend their summer vacations scraping manure, washing cattle and feeding pigs.
These girls, most of whom had never seen a cow up close or smelled country air, are smiling, singing, skipping. And begging to come back year after year.
Tomorrow will make it nine years that Gay Rodgers has welcomed these girls from across the country to her little farm in Belleville.
A lesson in farming
Brina Furman came from Baltimore in 1999. At 9, she didn’t know anything about farming.
Within days of arriving, she had to pick a sheep or cow or pig and spend the next two weeks preparing it for the last day of camp, when all the parents would come to watch their daughters compete in showmanship.
This outspoken girl with the loud laugh went for the most stubborn heifer in the barn. And developed a bond with the bullheaded animal.
Now in her fifth year at Hameau Farm, Brina hasn’t changed.
“I always pick the animal no one wants and make her my baby,” she said.
After continuing to choose the wildest or moodiest animal on the farm, Brina won supreme champion at the farm show two years in a row.
But it isn’t about winning a show, she says. It’s the entire experience.
“A lot of my friends look at me and say, ‘A farm? Gross,'” she said. “But they’re the ones losing out. Not me.”
Watch her blossom
As Brina walks around the farm wondering if one of the heifers is bred and explaining what it means for a cow to be in heat, Gay says this camp is about more than farming.
“Get these girls outside their realm and watch them blossom,” she said.
Here, city girls run to take dinner scraps to the baby goats, Gay said.
“I went and asked them, ‘Who would’ve ever thought you’d have this much fun working?'”
Third-year camper Raichel Pezzner, wearing Abercrombie pants and a lacrosse sweatshirt, responds: “I don’t even consider them chores. They’re more like privileges.”
These girls aren’t the only ones new to farming. Gay likes to have counselors from around the globe so the campers learn other cultures.
Women from England, Scotland, Germany and Poland come to Hameau Farm for the summer and lead small groups of campers.
After a lengthy interview process, Gay tries to chose counselors with an interest in farming. But that doesn’t always work out.
Counselor Claire McDonough considers herself to be most like Paris Hilton.
This 22-year-old teacher from Liverpool, England, spent her first night at the farm with her pajama pants tucked into her socks and a laundry bag in her hand, preparation in case she needed to cover her head with it.
“The bugs!” she cried. “I’d never been to a farm before.”
A few days later when she called home the first time, she told her mom she milked a cow.
“What? A real one?” her mother asked. “Oh my God. You touched a cow?”
It took about nine weeks for Claire to get used to farm life, Gay said. But now she’s slopping through mud, feeding bottles to slobbering calves and helping her group of girls realize there’s more to life than shopping malls.
Each day starts with breakfast and then barn chores: feeding the ducks, goats, sheep, calves, pigs, heifers, cows; cleaning the barn; milking the cows.
Then the girls work with their animals. Hayden Kiessling walks her Ayrshire heifer up and down the long gravel lane leading to Hameau Farm. Stephanie Layfield tries to train her baby pig not to nibble her fingers. A group of six girls walk their sheep in a ring, while Polish counselor Ania Markiewicz “judges.” Brina washes her stubborn cow, Pocahontas.
But it isn’t all about farming.
The girls hike, bike, swim, play sports, make arts and crafts, put on skits, perform in talent shows and even take field trips to farm markets and county fairs. They wash dishes, write newsletters, send “warm fuzzies,” learn the customs of their foreign counselors, roller skate and paint a silo.
Mull of Kintyre
Gay has three camps each summer for girls 8-12. The fourth and last session of the summer, however, is reserved for campers 12-14. This is today’s camp and all but two of these girls have been here before. Gay says about 70 percent of the girls who come to her camp will return.
This leaves Gay in a tough spot, however. What does she do with girls who have come to her camp for five or six years but will soon be too old to come back?
With encouragement from parents like Brina’s, Gay decided to add something new next year. She will take 12 girls who are too old for her camp on a trip. To Scotland.
They will spend 15 days touring the home of Ayrshire cattle. They will stop at the major cities, tour famous sites, visit farms, and spend their last night at the Mull of Kintyre, one of Gay’s favorite spots in the world. Sitting off the west coast of Scotland, the girls will see green pastures, dotted with sheep and cows, slope down into the North Sea.
Six girls already signed up.
Gay is the real thing when it comes to farming. She was raised on her family’s Plum Bottom Farm. She left the farm for college and France. She ended up working for the American Forage and Grassland Council.
She came “home” 24 years ago, re-naming the farm to match her love of France, and showed cattle through the 1990s. Hoard’s Dairyman featured her Ayrshires on three covers.
A picture of her favorite cow sits at her fingertips: Plum Bottom Trident’s Paris, which she once owned and later was named All-American reserve champion.
Hameau Farm also is the real thing. When her campers are home in Baltimore or New York City or New Jersey or Cleveland for the winter, Gay milks and cleans barns and builds her Ayrshire herd.
Twelve-year-old Claire Holahan’s heifer isn’t cooperating. She stiffens her legs, stretches her neck and won’t budge.
“Move, you stupid cow,” Claire H. says.
She hands the halter strap to Fatima Akhmatova. Fatima is from Kazakhstan, which is near China, and has stayed at the farm the past year as an exchange student.
“You have to talk to her gently,” Fatima says. “Come on. Please come. Just a little farther. Let’s go.”
The girls learn the most valuable lessons in instances like this, Gay says.
She asks: Was your cow stubborn? It wouldn’t respond to you? Did you get upset? Were you angry?
Your animal responds to you, she explains. When you’re grumpy and mean, it can tell and will act the same way toward you. It’s the same with your parents. When you wake up in a bad mood and take it out on your family, it changes the way they feel, too.
“There’re so many lessons the animals teach us. It’s almost like they’re talking,” she tells her girls.
It’s almost over. Tomorrow is the big show. The girls’ parents will all come at 3:30 p.m. and watch their urbanite daughters lead a squealing pig or 800-pound heifer in a circle. The moms and dads will hear their daughters talk about sires and dams and milk production and breeds.
Will they be as astonished at what their children learned as actor Richard Gere was when he picked up his stepdaughter?
Will Stephanie stop her pig from nibbling on her fingers long enough to answer the judge’s questions?
Will Claire H. take Fatima’s advice and use gentle words to get her cow to walk?
Will Brina and her hardheaded heifer take supreme champion the third year in a row?
None of this weighs heavy on the girls now.
They have 24 more hours here in the country and plan to make the most of it … pickling cucumbers.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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