A Visit to Dogwood Hills Guest Farm
It was a cool, brisk morning when I walked into the barn at Dogwood Hills Guest Farm for my first attempt at milking a cow. Apparently, the trick is to squeeze with the thumb and forefinger, followed by the other fingers instead of one big squeeze with the whole hand all at once. There’s a bit of a gentle up and down motion to it as well.
Aiming was a bit tricky as the milk sometimes came out more sideways than straight. Immediately, the two farm cats crowded around the milk pail and stool, ready for my misses.
In the next barn stall over, goats bleated, butted and jumped on wood structures. Outside, cows grazed rocky fields and chickens pecked at the earth. Dogs took naps and posed as lazy guards.
The breeze carried robust yet pleasant waves of dirt and manure, grass, and livestock.
“The animals are here because the guests enjoy them,” Ruth Pepler told me as we wandered the farm, which is owned by she and her husband. “Everything we’ve built has been in response to what guests wanted.”
Dogwood Hills is a working homestead farm offering a unique hands-on farm experience for all ages. It’s located in Harriet near the middle section of the Buffalo National River.
Originally, the Peplers only offered the rental of their guest house. Those guests began asking to help out on the farm and interact with the livestock. So, the Peplers built some new facilities, including a barn and certified teaching kitchen, and incorporated farm life into the guest experience.
Now, visitors can work on the farm and enjoy fabulous farm to table dinners. The Peplers have fully embraced agritourism and strive to educate as well as entertain.
The Farm Stay
A stay on the farm can involve joining the owners for daily chores: milking goats and cows, grooming Pollywog (the mini horse), collecting fresh eggs, feeding animals and sometimes checking on newborns. Furry farm residents include cows, horses, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, alpaca, a lemur, a donkey, dogs and cats. In addition to farm work, visitors can hike among the goats free-ranging in 40 acres of fenced-in wooded trails. Pepler also helps set up visits to other area farms, such as those growing blueberries and raising buffalo.
Not all who rent the guest house want to milk cows. Some use it as basecamp for area activities like hiking, mountain biking and floating the Buffalo National River. The Peplers welcome guests to be involved on the farm as much or as little as they like. Often, families or groups rent the house and do a little of both farm and other activities.
A stay in the guest house comes with some meals. “We do breakfast and dinner, but not lunch because there are too many things to do during the day around the farm,” Pepler explained. Most guests come in and do chores, then wash up and have breakfast.
Guests are welcome to cook their own meals in the guest house as well. “They can do whatever they want to do,” she said.
The 1,100 square-foot farmhouse has a full kitchen, three bedrooms, dining room and living room. The kitchen is stocked with basic pantry supplies and the dining table is perfect for games and family meals. The ranch-style home has two bedrooms and a full bath on one side, and master suite with a private full bath on the other. A large back deck with a grill and hot tub overlooking the pastures below is a great hang out space for watching the sunset or a starry night sky.
There are a variety of farm stay packages to choose from. Note, there is no cable television or Wi-fi, but there are movies to watch.
“We had a single dad bring four teenage kids,” Pepler said. “They mucked the barn and weeded blueberries. We had them all over the farm that week. And the dad came up to us and said, ‘This is what we needed. This is so much better than Disney.’”
Ruth and her daughter Grace use their fresh herbs, garden produce, milk and chicken eggs to make fabulous meals for those who stay at the farm or attend their Farm to Table dinners offered throughout the year.
On the night I stayed, they treated me to beef, mushrooms and shallots over rice, roasted carrots, green beans with lemon thyme, purple hull peas, molasses cookies and buttermilk chocolate cake. The freshness of food that comes straight from their farm or other area farmers is unparalleled in taste.
The farm-to-table experience is more comprehensive than some might realize. It’s not just picking a vegetable out of the garden or using an egg laid by one of their hens. The best way to understand it is through their buttermilk pie, which won Best Arkansas Pie at the 2019 Arkansas Pie Festival.
“Our buttermilk pie is truly a labor of love,” Pepler explained. “We grow the hydroponic barley fodder that we feed to our milk cows, hand milk the cows each morning, culture the fresh milk and set it out to thicken. When it is all set, we take the eggs from the free ranged hens and maybe a couple of ducks. The crust is gluten free and takes time to make it tender and flaky. Once the custard is made, it’s into the oven, baked and cooled. Overnight in the fridge, and then you can have a slice of pie.”
The kitchen is entirely gluten free. Pepler works to perfect every recipe so that people would never guess it was gluten free if they didn’t know.
Guests can learn the nuances of cooking with fresh ingredients while watching Pepler in the certified teaching kitchen. For example, Pepler might explain the difference between options such as free range versus cage free chicken eggs. She offers demonstrations and classes seasonally as well.
“We don’t criticize any other method,” she said. “We explain what the difference is so they can make an educated choice. I want them to go home and go to the grocery store and go to the eggs and recognize the choices."
The Big Picture
“This whole thing is about the community, about how it affects rural Arkansas,” Pepler explained.
While the dairy cows are kept not just for a farm guest experience, but also for their milk, the goats are show goats, not meat goats. Pepler sources other food from area farmers, which is important in helping the area retain its rurality. When she purchases a cow or pigs from a nearby farmer, that farmer can then use the money to better the farm or the product. It becomes circular. “It’s about keeping their way of life secure and what gives them value,” she explained. “Their heritage doesn’t have to change because they need to make money and get a job.”
Pepler said this niche market of agritourism is complementary to the outdoor tourism of the Buffalo National River area.
Keeping Up With Dogwood Hills
Many people like to keep up to date on what’s happening around the farm through social media. “The Facebook page we try to keep really, really fresh with what's going on,” Pepler said. For example, they had a calf naming contest. Dewdrop had a baby that was named Drizzle. People also waited with great anticipation for one of the goats to birth its kid.
Farm to Table dinner events are also listed on the Facebook page. Additionally, Dogwood Hills holds a Cast Iron Cook-Off the first weekend in November each year.