A farmer's guide to quick and cheap fun

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

Some of the best memories from my childhood are rooted in family camping trips spent up in Waushara County. 

A few worms, fishing poles, a canoe and a tent was all that was needed on this family vacation.

The planning involved in taking a family of six up north for a long week away from home was no small feat. Dad and mom had the logistics of this exodus down to a science: notebooks filled with lists and a timetable that was strictly adhered to.

The mantra drilled into the heads of us kids in the days leading up to V-day was "Get ready! There will be none of this running around at the last minute!!"

Then I married a farmer.

Those intimately connected with agriculture understand that calendars mean nothing to those who make a living milking cows, raising livestock and growing crops.

Gone was the certainty of making plans, especially plans that involved leaving the farm for more than two hours. With the rhythm of our lives intricately intertwined with the seasons, weather and animals, flexibility, adaptability and creativity were key in taking advantage of the rare downtime on a farm.

Knowing that most farm families are short on time and long overdue for a break, here are some lessons I've learned along the way for sneaking in a little R and R.

Make it quick

It isn't often that a farmer walks in the door and announces that the hay isn't quite dry and we might as well take the afternoon off.  Once the initial shock wears off it's time to spring into action—lest he changes his mind and finds a fence to fix.

While my husband and the kids rounds up swimsuits, inner tubes and towels, I quickly slap together some semblance of a picnic lunch. In less than a half hour we're in the car and on the road.

With milking time and chores only a few hours away, our choice of destinations for this impromptu getaway are limited. Handy go-to options include the local swimming pool or waterpark, or a nearby lake.

Because it's close to home, we often head to Mauthe Lake tucked inside the Kettle Moraine Moraine Northern Unit.

The Hamburger Haus hidden in the small hamlet of Dundee near the Kettle Moraine Forest northern unit is a must stop for families.

For those who elect to go to Mauthe Lake, be sure to stop at the Hamburger Haus in Dundee afterward. This quaint little, outdoor mom and pop eatery serves the best, gigantic ice cream cones. Half the fun for me is watching the expressions on folks' faces when they go to the window to claim their enormous treat.

Do it on the cheap

While some families save up for elaborate getaways that require airfare or reservations, many farm families especially those with young children are always looking for fun but affordable alternatives.

Before there was such a thing as Dollar Day or a wristband day on the midway at our county fair, we would appease our children's desire to go on the (pricey)fair rides with the promise of a day spent up at Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Where else can you pay just $20 for a whole day of fun for a family but Bay Beach in Green Bay?

Nestled along the shores of the Green Bay, this family friendly park is filled with a variety of rides, playgrounds, and plenty of picnic tables. At the time, rides were just 10 cents apiece. For just $20 our kids got their fill for the summer. Try that at Great America. We often found ourselves with unused tickets and gave them away to families just entering the park.

Other hidden gems for an afternoon getaway are small county parks that offer fishing, swimming, hiking and a place to grill out. The best part, most of these are free.

Keep it simple

Because days off from the farm were few and far between, our kids were beyond excited when our annual week-long vacation rolled around (the one planned around planting, harvest and the county fair).

Sometimes we would fill the week with day trips found in guidebooks ordered through the mail from the Wisconsin Tourism Department. Without the internet back then, these books offered tried and true suggestions for some great, affordable attractions around the state.

However, I still wanted to give my family the same outdoor experience that I so enjoyed as a child: camping. During a church at church camp in Waushara County (fate, I know!), we discovered that beyond the retreat center and cabins for youth camps, there was a primitive family campground across the lake. It's only amenities were two pit toilets and a hand pump for water.

Back in its heyday, the campground was filled with church groups and families. Those times were a distant memory when we discovered it. We often had the entire place to ourselves much to our delight.

For just $6 a night, we had access to beautiful Lake Lucerne where the boys filled their days with fishing, canoeing, catching turtles and swimming. At night we sat around the campfire talking and enjoying the cadence of crickets and the incessant calls of the whippoorwills. And if we were lucky, we would hear the soft strains of hymns  being sung across the lake.

With a second hand camper, a cooler of food and a few changes of clothes and a canoe, we were set.

Back then we were truly off the clock and off the grid. We tracked time by the position of the sun in the sky and ate when we felt hungry, not because the cows were waiting.

It's hard to convince a farmer that the hay can wait just one afternoon, especially when i

Our kids are now grown, the rustic church campground closed, and those days are but a memory. Of course, activity continues to hum along on the farm, but I always wonder if some farmers wish they would have let the hay wait just one afternoon to spend precious, fleeting time with their children while they were still young.