Gone to the goats

We milked our first, close-to-home farmstay for all its cuteness (but didn't actually do any milking).

The dust was still wafting off the car from the dirt-road ride in, but already some of our hosts were alert to our presence. They walked toward us at a steady gait and yelled their hellos from the field. Their excitement heightened as they reared on their back hoofs trying to climb over the fence.

"Me-eh-eh-eh," they loudly called out.

Loose translation: "Did you guys bring anything to eat?"

In a roundabout way, it was our own interest in dining that led us to spend two nights with a bunch of goats. The other big reason was the kids -- theirs and ours.

It was a mini-vacation that was quite literally under our noses all these years in Minnesota: My wife and I packed up our herd and headed to Dancing Winds Farm in late April. Only after we made our trip did we learn there's an actual tourism term for it, one that's commonplace in Europe and growing in popularity stateside.

They call it a farmstay. Take yuppies from the city -- preferably ones with a hippie streak or an affinity for farmers' markets and co-ops -- and drop them in the country, where a lot of their pricey, local, organic, pink-slime-free food is grown or bred.

For Twin Cities residents, these types of getaways are temptingly close, but the numbers of farmstay options in farm-rich Minnesota are not as abundant as you'd think. Dancing Winds Farm was a 75-minute drive south of Minneapolis near Kenyon in the heart of Goodhue County, where a lot of the produce and meat at the St. Paul Farmers Market starts out.

Proximity and familiarity with the local farm names were part of what made Dancing Winds attractive. There was also our 4-year-old daughter's affinity for goats. She had fed quite a few at the Minnesota Zoo's family farm, and didn't mind that some tried to feed on her clothes there.

Our human host for our weekend getaway made sure we didn't get eaten.

•••

"They're excited to see somebody new," Mairi Doerr told us as our hellos continued from the stars of Dancing Winds: Vanna White, Mr. Red, Galaxy and the other goats.

A pioneer in the organic farm business, Doerr operates on the land of original pioneers. Her 20-acre spread and farmhouse date back to 1856, when two bachelor brothers from Norway went into business together.

Doerr was goaded (goated?) onto the farm from a discontent city life as a computer programer in 1985. She originally intended to just grow organic produce, but after a neighbor gave her an unwanted pregnant goat, and then another, well. ...

"They're friendly and funny creatures, and pretty easy to like," Doerr said lovingly as she showed us around the place.

We showed up near their suppertime, the perfect timing to get them to like us. Doerr first took us to the smaller barn with the new moms and their kids, born just about three weeks earlier. Perfect timing for the cuteness quotient, too.

If she hadn't already pegged us as city dwellers, Doerr was clued in when I asked if we could help her milk the goats. Any reasonably trained farmhand would know that nursing moms don't get milked by anyone but their kids.

The two goat moms, Scotti and Sophi -- both reddish-brown Oberhasli (Swiss Alpine) breeds -- came right up to us. The three babies, however, barely acknowledged us, and skittishly, adorably ran behind their mothers anytime we got too close.

"They have no need for us right now, because they get all their food from their moms," Doerr explained. The kids did eventually warm up to us enough for a little petting.

As Doerr scooped out grainy pellets of goat feed from a barrel -- think: rabbit food meets beer hops for homebrewers -- we asked her the usual questions, such as, "Is it true they'll eat anything?" (they'll chew on anything, she clarified).

Our daughter was the one to ask a question that Doerr claimed to have never heard before: "Can people eat the food, too?" The veteran farmer tried a pellet first, deemed it not too bad, then handed one to Lila. "Kind of like granola," Doerr suggested. That wasn't enough to wipe the unimpressed look off the 4-year-old's face as she chewed.

After a tour of the larger barn, where the males and non-maternal females live, Doerr pretty much gave us the run of the place. She had only one strict rule to follow: Shut any gate or barn door behind you.

This would prove especially important around the most rambunctious of the farmstay's residents, the mixed-breed fellow named Mr. Red, who's also the oldest and friendliest of the herd. His off-white coat belied his name (he wears a red collar), and his warm but wild actions were more that of a dog -- which is what our 1-year-old daughter seemed to think as she repeatedly made her "da-da-da" sound for "dog."

Ol' Red seems to spend half the day on his hind legs, straining to eat leaves off trees. After I pulled down one small branch an inch to help him out, he took it a mile and tried climbing onto my shoulders to reach more. I let out an intimidated yelp as his horns and hoofs neared my face. My elder daughter then let out a deep belly-chuckle, sensing her dad's city-boy wimpiness.

•••

After many more such instances of getting up close and personal with the goats by day, nights were spent inside a one-bedroom wing of the original farmhouse that is now separated from the half where Doerr lives (a third unit is housed above the newer garage). At $269 for a weekend stay, we had our kitchen well-stocked with organic fare, including local eggs and chicken sausage for breakfast and, of course, über-fresh goat cheese. The decorating theme throughout the house, by the way, was pretty much goats, goats and more goats.

Like a lot of farmers who take in farmstay visitors, Doerr relishes the chance to share and teach about sustainable farm life, but she also needs the extra income. Her herd is now down to only a dozen goats, from a peak of about 100. She had to sell off most of them a few years ago during a family medical crisis.

"You can't fly off at a moment's notice with a farm full of goats," she explained.

While gradually working her way back up to a bigger herd, Doerr managed to find another nature-communing job at a nearby state park, which itself was a highlight of our stay -- and another tribute to Minnesota land preservation.

Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park is made up of nearly 3,000 acres of elm, oak and sugar maple trees that were set aside by the original Norwegian farmers in the 1850s when they were carving out the surrounding landscape. In April, the park's rare and allegedly famous dwarf trout lily was in bloom, along with some of its other 200 varieties of flowers that carpet the forest floor. We hiked past those to the wall-like Hidden Falls. So much for just looking at barns and silos in farm country.

Plenty else caught our eye around Goodhue County, too. Historic, picturesque churches emerged on the horizon seemingly in the middle of nowhere, such as the limestone-walled St. Rose of Lima near Kenyon, built in 1878.

We headed over to the town of Zumbrota to take in Minnesota's last remaining covered bridge, which dates back to 1869. Zumbrota also boasts its own cool artisan shop and music venue, Crossings at Carnegie (in a historic Carnegie library), but we couldn't stay for that night's Storyhill concert.

One thing we looked for but never found, however, was any kind of fresh, farm-to-table restaurant in the area touting the local produce and meats. It was hard to complain, though. We eat plenty of that stuff back home in Minneapolis.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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  • Dancing Wind Farms has a herd of about a dozen goats.

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