February 27, 2005
Where a rooster makes the wake-up call
A friendly Central California farm stay satisfies two urban parents and their tractor-loving toddler.
By Susan Carpenter, Times Staff Writer
Tractors do not yet rival cruise ships as vacation icons. But they would if my 2-year-old were in charge. Thanks to the obscure video “Farm Country Ahead,” my son is obsessed with agricultural machinery, hay bales and cows. So my boyfriend, Chris, and I did what doting parents do: We set out to find him some.
Recreational tractor access, it turns out, is surprisingly limited for us urbanites. We found ours through a farm stay — the sort of agrarian B & B that’s long been available in Europe but wasn’t legalized in California until 2000. So far, only a handful of farms offer guest accommodations; some let you pick fruit, others offer wine tasting and cooking classes.
But we were looking for tractors and cows, which led us last month to the Work Family Guest Ranch, a 12,000-acre cattle farm in the remote hills of Monterey County. We chose it for its acreage and animals — 400 cows, several dozen horses and a handful of goats, sheep and chickens.
Carpenter’s naptime had come and gone in the car by the time we got close to San Miguel, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. “Keep driving ’til you think you’re lost,” a stranger told us when we asked for guidance. “Then keep driving some more.” Nearly an hour after we had pulled off U.S. 101 onto country highways, we arrived at a barbed-wire gate. We passed a crumbling farmhouse, a bustling stable and a man on a dirt-encrusted motorbike before finding farm patriarch George Work, a 68-year-old third-generation cattle rancher with a white Abe Lincoln beard.
Within 15 minutes, we’d met a herd of goats and Henry, the dog; we’d climbed into the seat of a parked tractor and watched another one in action. Back in the SUV, George pointed us up the steep, three-quarters-mile hill to the main house. It was the first, and probably only, time Chris ever needed his SUV’s four-wheel drive. He was thrilled.
More thrilling was the view from the Works’ ranch-style house, which takes in miles of lush green land unencumbered by a single urban sight or sound. Responding to the crunch of tires on gravel, Elaine Work emerged from her kitchen with a big smile and an extended hand, the scent of peanut butter in her wake.
After unloading into our two-bedroom bungalow (read: mobile home), we found George in the kitchen with a pile of fresh peanut butter cookies and hot coffee. Three cats and a miniature poodle enticed Carpenter outside to the patio. We followed and were treated to a spectacular watercolor sunset. Elaine came out as well, to pick greens from her garden — that evening’s salad.
Over supper, baked chicken and wine from a nearby vineyard, we talked about the Works’ farm and the state of American agriculture. The Works are progressive, or holistic, farmers striving to balance their financial needs with social and environmental concerns.
They started hosting farm stays (and lobbied for the law that allows them) to supplement their income. The agricultural value of, and profit from, their enormous acreage is far less than the tens of millions it would fetch from developers. The Works aren’t selling, though other area farmers have.
We learned all this while our son was systematically emptying the Works’ cat-food container onto their kitchen floor, an activity Elaine condoned. “A half-hour of entertainment taken care of with the sweep of a broom,” she said.
At 8:30 p.m., we returned to our bungalow. It was country chic, with white shag carpet, floral wallpaper and artificial flowers. In the living room, copies of Range, Sunset and Fine Gardening magazines lay atop the coffee table between an overstuffed couch and electric fireplace.
After tucking our son into one of the twin beds, we spent the rest of the night in conversation. There was no TV, no cellphone service, and we didn’t miss either.
A rural awakening
Our 2-year-old normally serves as our alarm clock, but on Saturday we were awakened by a rooster. He had been crowing since about 5 a.m., but we ignored him for two hours. We got over to the Works by 8 a.m. for breakfast, which, like dinner, is included in the price of a night’s stay.
Around 9, one of the Works’ grandchildren showed up to bake her own birthday cake for a party at the house later that night. All three of the Works’ children and five grandchildren live elsewhere on the property and visit the main house regularly.
We followed George outside. First stop was a stable to feed his two sheep. Next was the chicken coop to meet our rooster friend and his clucking progeny. Afterward, we headed down the hill, where George swept Carpenter up into his lap for a tractor ride.
Mission (half) accomplished.
A short drive took us to a remote area of the property for a guided nature walk. Walking across ground that had been rooted by wild pigs, George explained that he’s testing grasses to find some that will both feed his cows and rejuvenate the soil. We visited a dry streambed and discovered sand dollars and a small piece of petrified wood.
At noon, we returned to the trailer to put our boy down for a nap, but he was too excited to sleep. At Elaine’s recommendation, we went into Paso Robles for lunch at Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ, a newfangled saloon with country music on the stereo and a mechanical bull in the corner.
It was a pulled-pork sandwich for me, baby back ribs for the big guy and bits of both our orders for the tot. Contrary to its name, Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ served up some of the best I’ve ever had.
Paso Robles being the new Napa, we stopped at Eberle Winery — one of many lining Highway 46 — but Carpenter barely let us taste the wine, let alone take a tour of its caves. We made our Cabernet purchase quickly.
When we returned at 4 p.m., guests were just beginning to arrive for the birthday party. I feared we’d be intruding, but Elaine said we were welcome. The house was filled with 40 or so people by dinnertime, half of them kids younger than 10, all of them running around the yard, climbing trees and screaming.
Talk about kid friendly. Piñatas in the carport were followed with pizza and homemade Chinese food. At cake time, only half the kids sang “Happy Birthday.” The rest stayed in the living room, break dancing to Toby Keith.
The rooster crowed again Sunday morning, but we didn’t get up and dress until 8, at which time we breakfasted on fresh fruit, eggs and lox.
Like the day before, we fed the sheep, greeted the chickens and headed down the hill. This time, George arranged an up-close look at the largest tractor he owns: an enormous John Deere harvester. Surprisingly, Carpenter couldn’t have cared less. Once the shed’s doors were thrown open, he happened upon the joys of throwing loose straw. And that was that.
It was difficult to lure him away, but a nearby corral of neighing horses eventually drew him out. If we’d made arrangements, we could have gone horseback riding. Or hunting, for that matter.
But our main interests were tractors and cows, so that’s where we went — to a part of the farm that had tillers, backhoes and more farming equipment for our son to look at and touch, along with lots of grass to run around in. The cows, unfortunately, were grazing in a distant pasture, too muddy to get to by car. So on that count, our mission failed. Our son didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared if he did. He was in hog heaven.
Life on the farm Budget for three for this trip:
Work Family Guest Ranch $332
Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ $57
Final tab $424
CALIFORNIA FARM STAYS:
Work Family Guest Ranch, 75903 Ranchita Canyon Road, San Miguel; (805) 467-3233, http://www.workranch.com . Cattle and horse ranch with guest cottage and farm-stay program with a tour of the ranch. Horseback rides, $40 per person; two-person minimum. $150 per night includes dinner and breakfast. Reservations required.