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Take a family 'haycation' on an Illinois farm

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One of the five Feather Down tents guests can stay in at Kinnikinnick Farm in Caledonia, Ill., about 85 miles northwest of Chicago.

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CALEDONIA, Ill. - "Anyone want to help me get some eggs?" a voice called around 7 a.m. from outside our tent.

You'd have thought it was an invitation from the Easter Bunny, what with the haste my stepson and niece bolted from their bunk beds and headed for the chicken coop.

They came back 10 minutes later, gingerly holding a wire basket full of beige eggs, still warm from the hens that had been sitting on them.

Welcome to life on the farm. Kinnikinnick Farm is only 85 miles northwest of Chicago, but it feels like another world - and another time. Our old-fashioned tent had no electricity, just oil lamps and candles. The only water came from a manual pump by the kitchen sink. When we were ready to turn our eggs into breakfast omelets, we first had to feed the wood-burning stove with logs.

It couldn't have been more different than modern-day city life - and that's the point of Feather Down Farm Days, a European-based company whose "haycations" are taking root in the United States.

Feather Down partners with working family farms like Kinnikinnick to give urban folks a crash course in country living, while providing small-scale farms with supplemental income. Guests can play "Little House on the Prairie" and roll up their sleeves to help plant and pick crops, play with the farm animals, see how hay is made and drink raw, unpasteurized milk straight from the neighbor's cow (dubbed "thick and extra milky" by my 9-year-old stepson).

"Every child grows up knowing how to make a picture of a church or a barn, but let's face it: fewer and fewer people actually go to either," said Kinnikinnick owner Susan Cleverdon, a former Chicagoan who likes the idea of showing kids that food doesn't grow in supermarkets.

"There's something special about eating asparagus while looking out on the field where it was grown," she added. "I want people to experience that."

Feather Down started in the Netherlands in 2004 and spread to Britain, Germany and France before hopping the pond last year to two farms in New York. Kinnikinnick, Feather Down's first Midwest outpost, plans to open officially early next month.

Each Feather Down farm has several spacious canvass tents with wooden floors, decked out in a style that's Pottery Barn circa Civil War. Tents sleep up to six people in comfy beds and include a kitchen stocked with pots, pans, plates and other necessities. Guests cook the food they either bring with or buy at the on-site honor shop, selling items grown on the property or at local farms. At Kinnikinnick, guests share a bath house with showers and toilets.

Keep in mind that this is a farm, not a hotel. You won't get turndown service with a mint on your pillow - but I'd happily forgo that for fresh organic eggs each morning.

You're doing your own dishes, making your own beds and sweeping your own floor. And the only wake up call you get (whether you want it or not) comes bright and early, courtesy of the roosters.

Don't worry about doing all the chores yourself. On the farm, mundane tasks magically transform into high entertainment for the kids. Ben, my stepson, couldn't wait to empty the gray-water bucket under the kitchen sink. He never balked at running to the barn to fetch more frozen hot-water bottles to keep our perishables cold. I think he'd trade in his Wii for the hand-cranked mill he used to grind our coffee beans each morning.

He and my 5-year-old niece, Sara, spent a good hour in the summer sun planting two long rows of broccoli.

"I did jobs, so I'm a real farmer now," Sara said, proudly displaying 10 tiny fingernails caked with dirt.

A finnicky eater, Sara usually doesn't like food unless its covered with frosting. But being surrounded by so many freshly picked vegetables - she barely recognized the radishes and garlic with their long stems still attached - inspired her to explore other parts of the food pyramid. I watched in amazement as Cupcake Queen ate a few forkfuls of arugula and declared the asparagus "delicious."

Kinnikinnick supplies some of Chicago's top restaurants - Spiaggia, North Pond, Naha - with its organic Italian cooking greens, more than 25 varieties of tomatoes, snap peas, sunchokes and squash. Its produce and eggs also are sold at the Evanston Farmers Market and the Green City Market in Lincoln Park.

"We started with a little half-acre garden and it got bigger and bigger. Finally I said, ‘I don't need a garden. I need a farm,'" said Susan's husband, David Cleverdon, one of the most unlikely farmers you'll ever meet.

A former civil right activist and political strategist (he was a top aide to Gov. Dan Walker), Cleverdon went on to work for the Board of Trade. He and Susan were among the first loft owners in Printers Row.

In 1987, they bought a dirt-cheap patch of rolling farmland overlooking Kinnikinnick Creek near the Wisconsin border. The farm house was unlivable; the land needed a lot of work. They spent their weekends fixing up the place. Five years later, David hung up his business suits and broke out the overalls, and the couple moved here for good.

The Cleverdons have always done a lot of entertaining on their 114-acre organic farm - chef dinners, family gatherings, the occasional wedding. They toyed with the idea of opening a B&B but opted for the Feather Down route instead.

It hasn't been one of their easier rows to hoe. They've had to jump through plenty of administrative hoops from local governing bodies to get the necessary permits and approvals. And a few of their neighbors weren't shy about voicing opposition to tourists invading their pastoral turf. But the Cleverdons kept plowing ahead.

They were close to being finished with the Feather Down part of their property when we visited late last month. Susan's carpenter son from Evanston had the exterior of the bath house built. An outdoor wood-burning oven for crispy pizzas - a mandatory feature at any Feather Down franchise - was up and running. A truckload of sand was waiting to be made into a play area for kids, and Susan was working out the logistics of offering hayrides.

"We anticipate a lot of our guests will be our children's ages - late 30s, early 40s - with kids of their own," Susan said. "I want this to feel like a visit to grandma's house."

Knowing how much kids like animals, the Cleverdons have been bulking up their inventory. They brought in a bunch of new chickens and a couple of alpine goats that live near their fuzzy rabbit. David plans on adding sheep, too.

"You want to walk the goats?" he asked Ben and Sara, snapping leashes on the gently bleating animals named Violet and Johnny Bosco.

David didn't have to ask twice.

"I can't believe I'm walking a goat," Ben said, as Johnny Bosco bent down to chomp a mouthful of grass. "Not many kids can say that."

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored in part by Feather Down Farm Days.