As I lug my bag up the stairs to a loft over an old tobacco shed, I spy a peacock perched on the deck near the door. His feathers shimmer with the hues of a color wheel; his bearing—disinterested but alert—gives the impression he’s working security. “Is he always there?” I ask Forrest, the nine-year-old who has led me to my room.
“Yes, sir,” Forrest replies. “He’s up here just about every day. His name is Kevin.”
Kevin the peacock stands there, half-watching me with suspicious eyes and half-watching the barnyard below with its menagerie of roaming chickens, guinea birds, turkeys, a few pigs, some goats, a couple of mules, and a trio of Shetland ponies.
I’m at Hunter Cattle Company near Statesboro, Georgia, for a weekend stay on a 300-acre working farm. My job in Atlanta has been stressful, my commute even more so. I need a break from the city, and I want to get in touch with a simpler life.
When I return in the darkness to my loft, Kevin is exactly where he was when I left. His only acknowledgement of my presence is an uneasy shifting of his feet. I settle into a rocking chair on the deck. As I slowly rock, I become aware of something impossible to see back home: the brilliance of the galaxy set against the pitch-black sky. And I’m suddenly struck by what I hear around me: nothing.
All I hear is the sweet call of the katydids off in the distance. Beyond that, it’s just me, the silence and, of course, Kevin, who stands vigilant in his watch for enemies in the night.
It’s a long drive to Hunter Cattle, made longer by the stress of heavy traffic south of Atlanta and construction zone after construction zone. But once off Interstate 16 in southeast Georgia, orange cones and miles-long backups give way to cotton fields and an open road. Finding the farm is easy: A series of shiny green “Georgia Agritourism” road signs guide the way.
Agritourism—including farm-stay agritourism, which is sort of a pastoral twist on the old-fashioned dude ranch—is a relatively new tourism trend. The newly minted Georgia Agritourism Association now boasts seventy-three member farms, most of them set up for day visits, where visitors can purchase field-fresh produce such as peaches and apples or even pick their own. Hunter Cattle was one of the first agritourism destinations in the state to offer accommodations for overnight stays. For tourists, a multi-day visit is a chance to “get back to the land.” You can get dirty by pitching in with the work, or you can watch and learn where your food comes from and what it takes to produce it, or you can simply enjoy a few days of quiet harmony with nature.
For farmers, it’s an additional source of income and a way to introduce people to their way of life. A one-room loft at Hunter Cattle starts at $220 for a two-night stay; for an extra $50, you can participate in farm chores that range from gathering and cleaning fresh eggs to feeding livestock to mending fences. You can also request the on-site food option and they’ll deliver farm-fresh meals to your room to be heated and eaten at your leisure.
The Fergusons decided to get in on the agritourism action when they began to renovate the old tobacco barn on their land. Their plan was to convert it into a store where they could sell meat they’d raised and processed, as well as greens, beans, squash, okra, and other produce from nearby farms. There were two empty upstairs rooms: Why not turn them into guest quarters?
Before they owned a farm, Del and Debra Ferguson built a successful construction and real estate business in Savannah. But for several reasons—the stress of city life, the desire to keep their family close, the opportunity to give their grandkids a great place to grow up—they began looking for a spread in the country.
In 2003, the family purchased a 450-acre farm in Stilson, a town so tiny and remote that it doesn’t even have a post office. At first, the plan was to maintain their real estate business and raise enough cattle to sustain the family. They wanted grass-fed beef that were given enough room to roam and never exposed to hormones or antibiotics. Figuring out how to accomplish this was another matter—they were such novices that a lot of their wisdom was gleaned from “how to” books, essentially Cows For Dummies. They also observed other cattle farmers and asked a lot of questions.
As they learned to raise cattle, word spread of the rich flavor of their beef. Friends and neighbors began to ask to buy it. Then strangers came calling. Hunter Cattle Company was born in 2009 when the Fergusons started going to farmers markets on weekends, selling cuts of beef out of a freezer on the back of their pickup truck.
Then the recession hit, and their businesses back in Savannah began to struggle. “We would sit there each month, having to decide which houses to keep and which to sell,” says Kristan Fretwell, the couple’s oldest daughter.
The moment of truth came in 2012. “We had several houses for sale with no one to buy them, and rental houses with people not paying rent,” says Del. “At the same time, we had the phone ringing off the hook with people wanting to buy our beef. So we decided to follow the path where it was leading us.” They shut down their real estate business and expanded the farm to raise pigs, lamb, chickens, and eggs. Their meats are now used in acclaimed restaurants in Savannah and across South Georgia; when the James Beard House hosted a “Georgia Grown” night in New York City last year, Hunter Cattle beef was represented on the menu.
Though his business has grown, Del still treasures the serenity of his farm. My first night there, we sat talking quietly in the darkness as we watched shooting stars streak through the sky. But he also enjoys all the activity. He likes having kids and grandkids and kittens running around to liven things up. And he likes having guests around for the same reason.
My loft is nicknamed “The Roost.” It’s rustic and homey, with two antique iron beds and an old-fashioned red Formica-topped dining table. The kitchen (which uses well water) has an old Philco refrigerator that looks like the one from my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a kid. It doesn’t work, but the room is equipped with a modern dorm-sized refrigerator, along with a microwave and coffee pot. There’s no television, but the room does have lightning-quick Wi-Fi.
What the room lacks in modern amenities, the Fergusons make up for in old-fashioned hospitality. I feel like a relative visiting for the weekend, not a stranger-turned-guest. This morning, Forrest and eleven-year-old Riley are waiting for me when I walk downstairs to the store following one of the most peaceful sleeps I’ve had in a long, long time. They take me on a tour of the barnyard, where there are about thirty baby chicks and concerned mama hens scampering about across the dirt. The Fergusons offer visitors the opportunity to join in the farm chores, and I’d intended to help out. But there are no eggs to collect and clean, so the kids automatically begin their routine of feeding and checking on the baby chicks. As they do, they show me how they leave decoy eggs to throw off snakes.
The boys also warn me to keep my distance from the turkey, who struts around the barnyard and is prone to attack humans, particularly men. But I’m not worried. Kevin is there, and with the instincts of a seasoned security guard, he always seems to be standing protectively between the imperious turkey and the three of us.
Hunter, Del’s youngest son, drives up on a motorized golf cart, and we all head for the pastures on the other side of the farm. The family started with fifty cows, and the herd has grown to 250 head of Black Angus and Hereford cattle. The cows feed on grass, eat no grain, and will never experience a feedlot. We stop to unlock a gate and enter the back pasture where they are foraging. They move lazily across the field; you can hear them tear the grass from the ground as they eat. Hunter explains that the cows rotate between pastures to keep the grass healthy.
From there, we drive to the pig pasture, an acre of land with a grassy field, a grove of trees, and yes, lots of mud. We stand on one side of the fence as Forrest reaches over and pours slop into their feeder. A dozen piglets race up to eat. The papa pig—weighing upwards of 300 pounds—lumbers over and with angry snorts and grunts, shoves them out of the way with his snout. I’m suddenly aware that a thin fence is all that separates me from a huge animal with a serious set of teeth. But all the papa pig is interested in is food. He gulps down three or four huge swallows and saunters off, allowing the kids a taste of what’s left.
Hunter and his two half-siblings, Kristan and Anthony, live on the farm with their kids. Every day, they all gather at MooMa’s Farm Store (“MooMa” is Debra’s nickname) downstairs from my loft. There, they coordinate, check in, and visit.
MooMa’s is the public face of the farm. Painted bright red with vintage metal advertising signs on the facade, it’s easy to spot. Out front, an old “Sinclair HC Gasoline” sign sits atop a pole next to a single, rusted-over gas pump; an antique red pick-up is parked to appear as if it’s filling up. Inside, the store is crammed with freezers full of meat and coolers stocked with cow’s milk, yogurt, and raw goat’s milk. Shelves are lined with local produce and gourmet staples such as grits, pasta, honey, and salsa.
The family dynamics are also on display in the store. Kristan seems the organizer. Anthony, who does the meat processing and experiments with sausage flavors (his jalapeño-and-cheddar cheese sausage links are sold in MooMa’s store and online), is brash and opinionated and speaks without filters. Sherry, the store manager, is the drill sergeant. They are so open and natural that it’s a charming spectacle to witness. (Hunter remains outside the fray, spending most of his time working around the farm.)
Sherry began working for the family three years ago, just before MooMa’s opened. Aside from running the store, she is also the cook, and for lunch she has roasted and seasoned a whole chicken, which she serves with a salad of locally grown greens. We eat at an old dining table in a back corner of the store and, yes, the chicken is incredible. The flavor and juicy texture makes the poultry I’m used to seem sad by comparison. Go back to the memory of eating a homegrown tomato for the first time after getting used to the store-bought kind. The difference is profound and serves as a stark reminder of how much we’ve lowered our standards in exchange for convenience.
I spend the afternoon with Lucia, a charming recent Georgia Southern graduate with a master’s in biology. She intended to spend her career studying animals, but her plan was abruptly sidetracked when she fell in love with organic farming in grad school. She’s newly hired at Hunter Cattle, with the charge to start a vegetable farm on the property.
As we walk into the barnyard to check on the chicks, I see Kevin shuffling around. Lucia laughs when I mention his overnight vigil on the deck of my loft. “Yes, peacocks are like that,” she says as she scatters chicken feed. “He thinks he has to protect the entire barnyard. He has to look out for all the others.”
We ride over to a field where she already has a crop of greens that are close to harvest. She points out a row of kale, walks over, and plucks a leaf. “Here, try a bite,” she says, splitting it in half. It’s delicious, with a distinct peppery after-bite. “It’s a challenge to grow naturally, but it’s worth it,” she says. “I really believe in this kind of farming.”
When I return to the loft for my final night, I see Kevin at his post, and I settle into my rocking chair. The katydids are back at play, and I notice clouds have begun to drift in from the coast. As I sink into the stillness and gaze at the stars, things that once seemed urgently important no longer feel so significant. Instead, I’m enveloped in the comfort of the vast nothingness. Out here, it’s just Kevin and me. And we’re at home in the silence.