Dogwood Hills Guest Farm visitors flock to milk the family’s cows
HARRIET, ARK. – When most people envision taking a vacation or disconnecting from the world, the image of laying out on a beach or staying at a luxury hotel comes to mind.
There are, however, those who are looking for something different, and the idea of feeding chickens and milking cows is much more appealing.
That segment of the population ends up on the doorsteps of places like Dogwood Hills Guest Farm in Harriet, Ark. Owner Ruth Pepler offers guests a chance to reconnect with nature and experience farm life in its truest sense, with a few upgrades.
“There are a lot of things for them to do,” Ruth said. “But a lot of people just want to come and relax. They are looking for a quieter vacation. They are looking to spend some time reconnecting. They might just hang out at the house during the day, hang out in the hot tub and play games.”
Ruth, who originally hails from New Jersey, opened the Dogwood Hills Bed & Breakfast in 2010. At that time, the farm was a single milk cow, some chickens and goats, which they had to take care of daily.
“We were doing a homestead farm, and we had opened the bed and breakfast more as a retreat,” Ruth said. “People kept coming down and asking if they could participate in the farm stuff. At that point, we were milking a cow tied to a post. It kind of morphed into a farm stay from there.”
In 2012, Ruth and her daughter Grace ace started the Dogwood Hills Guest Farm on the same property. Guests can stay in the comfortable surrounds of the bed and breakfast, but also choose an assortment of activities.
Each day begins early in the morning with chores around the farm. That includes feeding hydroponic barley to the cows and milking.
Grace will then pasteurize the milk. While she is doing that, the guests collect eggs, feed the goats and do any other farm chores.
The guests will then get their first break when they head to the house for a hearty farm breakfast of yogurt, granola, oatmeal, baked oats, omelets, sausage, biscuits and so on. Many of the items on the menu are produced right on the farm.
After breakfast, it is up to the guests to decide what they want to get into. Everything from hiking with the goats to floating on the Buffalo River is on the table.
“On our working homestead farm, you can enjoy your own private, spacious, and fully equipped farmhouse,” Pepler stated.
Later in the evening, guests can book reservations for dinner, which is dubbed as a fodder-to-fork menu with cheeses made at the farm, and take part in pasta classes. Desserts can include Ricotta cookies, Italian cheese cake or buttermilk ice cream with Dogwood Hills-produced or locally-sourced fruits.
“There are a lot of things for them to do,” Ruth said. “But a lot of people just want to come and relax. They are looking for a quieter vacation.”
The highlight always comes back to one thing for most people who make the trip to Dogwood Hills — the cows.
“We hand milk, so they actually get to participate. It is not just watching,” Ruth said. “They are actually walking right up to the cow and the milk stand, brushing her down a little bit, cleaning her off, and getting ready to milk her. They are looking for the whole experience.”
In the decade that the guest farm has been open, Ruth’s stock has grown to 17 goats, two sheep, two donkeys, 40 chickens, 20 geese and ducks and 20 cows. Of the 20 cows, eight of them are Jerseys for milking.
“I am sometimes surprised with how far we’ve come to participate with what’s happening here on the farm,” Ruth said. “I think because we’re a homestead farm, and because this is what we do every day, I think they like the reality of it, the different pace. I think they want their kids to find out where milk and their food come from. When they squirt themselves [with milk] and it’s warm, they are so surprised. Those are the things that we enjoy being part of. The discoveries that our guests are making. I think it’s on a lot of people’s bucket lists. When you look at farm stays across the country, milking a cow is one of the top activities people are looking for.”
Ruth described the past 10 years as a growth experience and a steady slow climb.
Currently, the entire farm and bed & breakfast is run by Ruth and Grace; Ruth’s husband works off the farm.
“We have sporadic help that will come, but it’s not permanent and it’s not consistent. It’s been a big challenge of getting to the place where you can afford a farmhand full time,” Ruth said. “That would be wonderful. I would like to get to the point where we at least have a part-time person for the mornings when we have most of the activities going on. When we have guests here, and we’re doing breakfast and we’re doing chores with them, we really do need a third person on hand. It’s really hard for us to do everything with just the two of us. But we have done it.”
However, the Peplers have shown no signs of slowing down. They are increasing their farm products and value-added revenue. That includes working with some local farmers to bring in some of their proteins and vegetables and selling handmade cookies and ice cream.
Ruth foresees the guest farm only getting bigger in the future.
“When we came from New Jersey, agriculture tourism was a huge part of everyday happenings out there,” Ruth said. “It was something we regularly did on our school field trips. So it was kind of part of my life. I think over the last 10 years, I’ve watched it grow and the interest growing toward Arkansas and the middle of the country. It’s getting more popular here and people are finding that this is more of a destination.”