Few places appeal to children more than a farm. At Genesis Farm, five miles west of Chapel Hill, kids can climb on Daisy the tractor, chase chickens and eat fresh tomatoes right out of the garden. They can also learn how to milk a cow and plant cucumbers. This month, farm owner Trudy Matheny will open the Genesis Farm School for its second season. The school teaches children–and the adults who escort them–about life on a sustainable farm.

With cornflower-blue eyes and hair highlighted with gray, Matheny has owned Genesis Farm since 1996. She discovered it by accident. After eight years studying monkeys on Morgan Island off the coast of Beaufort, S.C., she returned to this area to finish her doctorate in biological anthropology.

“I drove out here late one January afternoon when the sun was setting, and it was just gorgeous,” she says. She rented the house for three years before buying the 20-acre farm from her landlords, who didn’t want to put more work into it. “I knew what was wrong with the place, but I loved it anyway.”

She loves less-than-perfect animals in much the same way. Last year she traveled to Virginia to bring home Molly and Patches, a miniature donkey and horse who are both lame. They will live out their days at Genesis Farm together with a rescued rooster, four guinea hens, five rescued cows, and a flock of chickens.

A biology instructor at N.C. Central University, Matheny is an avid gardener who agrees with Calvin when he tells Hobbes, “If your knees aren’t dirty by the end of the day, you need to seriously rethink your life.”

She tends three different garden plots on the farm, where she grows poppies, peanuts and sweet potatoes. In the summer, she harvests vegetables like corn, eggplant, peppers and squash. For the last four years she sold Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, inviting members to get their produce at the farm every other week. She organized it so she could get to know her customers while showing them which crops were doing well and which ones were not.

“Every year I held an orientation to the CSA and asked people to help out in the gardens,” she says. “The more I talked to the members–and to the kids I teach–the more I realized there is this huge disconnect between people and nature, especially between people and agriculture. It’s what inspired me to launch the Genesis Farm School.”

The first thing kids do at the farm school is to attend Matheny’s Cow Clinic. After asking them what they know about cows, she gives them a few facts, explaining how cows eat and where their milk comes from, and then asks for a volunteer. By the time she’s done, the child is dressed in a complete cow costume: a sponge for a nose, a plastic glove filled with whipped cream for an udder, a sack of tennis balls for a stomach, and a flyswatter for a tail.

“The kids love it,” she says. “They are so eager to tell me what they do know, and by the time we’re done, everyone is laughing.”

Open June through October, the school accepts children of all ages but is best suited for those in kindergarten through fifth grade. Matheny’s goal is to get them involved in hands-on activities that will teach them to taste and feel the rhythms of nature. The school program lasts about 1 1/2 hours and is broken up into 20-minute segments. Each focuses on a different aspect of farm life. For example, one teaches kids to recognize what is growing in the garden, while another shows them how to groom Molly and Patches.

Matheny designs the programs to be age appropriate and reinforce the curriculum for each grade. “It really appeals to me as an educator,” she says. The third-graders learn about soil ecology, and the fourth-graders learn about animal behavior. Younger kids learn how to sort seeds by color, then to plant and water them.

Soon she will offer teachers a chance to learn about organic farming while earning continuing education credits. “I’ve had a few tell me they would love to come out here to do that, so I’ll try it,” she says. “Plus, it will give me a chance to get new ideas about what will work best for the kids.”

For adults who want to visit the farm and stay awhile, with or without children, Matheny invites them to “sleep in the hay” at her recently renovated guesthouse. Sleeping in the hay is a European phrase that refers to the centuries-old tradition of guests staying overnight at a farm. The practice is popular across England, France and New Zealand, where the governments promote agritourism, and is becoming more common in the United States, especially in New England.

The term often refers to farm visits that give people a chance to help out with chores and spend time with the farmer. Guests at Genesis Farm can gather eggs, feed and water the animals, or help weed Matheny’s organic garden. They can also sip coffee under a 30-foot hemlock tree and take a leisurely stroll by the pond.

“It’s OK if people don’t want to help out,” she says. “But I hope they’ll come away with an understanding of what it takes to grow food, all the work and the decisions that need to be made.”

Instead of promising a big farm breakfast, which she doesn’t want to cook, Matheny plans to stock the kitchen with local products: cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery, milk from Maple View Farm and bread from Weaver Street Market. The guesthouse will be decorated with paintings, pottery and quilts made by local artists, and all the artwork will be for sale.

The house that Matheny lives in was moved from Carrboro to Genesis Farm near the turn of the 20th century. Its owners planted pecan and maple trees nearby that are now more than 80 years old. Hanging from one, a wooden swing gives kids a chance to sit in the shade and enjoy the recurring breeze that blows across the farm.

Once the farm school classes are finished, the children eat lunch or a snack, then enjoy free time. They can swing, play volleyball, jump in the haystack or explore the duck pond. For Matheny, it’s one of her favorite times of the day.

“There are so few places where kids can do this, just take off and run until they want to stop,” she says. “They yell and throw their arms in the air. It’s great to see.”

After listening to her describe a typical sprint through the pasture, I ask her if she remembers this feeling of freedom. “I do,” she says, “that’s how I feel about being here.”

Genesis Farm School

The Genesis Farm School is designed for groups of 30 to 35 children. School classes, church groups, summer camps, 4-H clubs and scout troops are welcome. The school is open Tuesday through Friday for two morning sessions, from 9:30 to 11 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the cost is $8 per child for one session. It does not include lunch.

The Genesis Farm guesthouse will be open in early July for sleeping in the hay. It sleeps five comfortably and includes a bassinet, full kitchen, large living room and a deck. For school and guesthouse reservations, call Matheny at 968-4759.