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Christmas in the heartland

Brian Stoverink feeds sheep at the Buffalo Chip Ranch in Republican City, Neb. Brian and members of his family braved below-freezing temperatures while on a
Brian Stoverink feeds sheep at the Buffalo Chip Ranch in Republican City, Neb. Brian and members of his family braved below-freezing temperatures while on a "1900s Family Christmas Adventure" vacation. The weekend included farm chores, chopping down a Christmas tree and baking cookies. Associated Press photos (Associated Press photos / The Spokesman-Review)

REPUBLICAN CITY, Neb. – 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 celebrations that include 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,” said McClain.

“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 aren’t enough things for families to do all together,” said Lorraine McClain.

“We also like to educate about what farmers do and ranchers do,” she added.

Dana Markel of Omaha found out about the McClains’ vacation package on an Internet site called Country Adventures. The Kearney, Neb.-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 McClains’ 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. It 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,” Lauer 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 hung 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.”