With pitchforks and heavy coats, three teenage cousins brave below-freezing temperatures and learn how to pitch straw into a sheep pen — something their teacher, 27-year-old Matt McClain, has been doing since he was a kid.
Bleating sheep may not be the expected soundtrack for a holiday vacation, but some farm families in Nebraska and elsewhere are hoping to change that with an old-fashioned holiday celebration that includes chores, chopping down a Christmas tree, baking cookies and more.
"The way we look at it is, every farmer needs a supplementary income to support their farming habit," McClain said. "Nowadays, with the price of fuel and fertilizer and everything, you've got to be a major farmer to make ... it work."
His parents, Lorraine and Jerry McClain, invite families to their Republican City farm for what they call a "1900s Family Christmas Adventure."
"It's just like a family thing. There isn't enough things for families to do all together," said Lorraine McClain. "We also like to educate about what farmers do and ranchers do."
Dana Markel of Omaha found out about the McClain's vacation package on an Internet site called Country Adventures. The Kearney-based online catalog helps farmers and ranchers plan their packages, get insurance, and lure people to the farm to spend their vacation dollars.
Markel found that for $2,500, up to 10 people could spend two nights and three days at the McClain's farm. She convinced her two sisters and their families to come along.
Bill and Karen Stoverink brought their teenage children, 13-year-old Brian and 16-year-old Katie.
"We're from St. Louis. We don't see much country like this too often," Bill Stoverink said. "I thought farmers had it easy in the wintertime ... no crops, they had nothing to do. Now I realize they work harder in the winter than they do in the summer."
Such agri-tourism is gaining traction in Nebraska and beyond. Country Adventures has 160 listings in Nebraska, about a dozen in South Dakota and a few in Kansas and Missouri, said CEO Marge Lauer. Many vacation packages include hunting, fishing and lodging.
People can book a vacation pay online with a credit card or PayPal.
"They could stay at this bed and breakfast one night, they could go horseback riding the next afternoon, they could tour a dairy the following day, stay at another farm home," Lauer said.
Farmers in Nebraska and elsewhere are catching on, Lauer said. Country Adventures recently got a $72,000 USDA grant to expand to South Dakota and Utah.
"The concept is understood, but now it is actually convincing a farmer that a ride on a combine, a tour through an implement lot, the ability to pick grapes, to stay in a farm home is something that's attractive to a consumer, to a traveler," she said.
Lorraine McClain is convinced. She and her daughter, Vicky, dressed up in period clothing and taught their guests to make Christmas cookies. They used chicken feathers to paint them with frosting — "just like they would have in 1900" — and hang them on a live tree the family chopped down in a nearby field.
Jerry and Matt McClain showed the boys how to skin a deer.
"It's not as bad as I thought it would be," said Markel's son, 13-year-old Cale Rohwer, who grimaced as he pulled back the skin from the frozen carcass. He and his brother Gage, 16, have never been hunting.
"It's good for them to know where the meat comes from, where their milk comes from, and what we do out here to feed the world," Lorraine McClain said
Katie Stoverink, 16, who's a vegetarian, skipped the deer-skinning lesson, opting instead to feed the chickens.
"It's a little bit crazy," she said. "I guess I don't think of people eating deer. ... It's like, oh no, poor cute little deer!"
Once the holiday season passes, the McClains will keep leading hunting tours on their property and plan to put together another vacation package.
Lorraine "has a good business head," said Jerry McClain. "This is her dream, and I'm just trying to help make her dream come true."