Drive a few hours north of gray New York City and you’ll find yourself surrounded by the deep greens and blues of the Catskills. And here, surrounded by the mountains, is Hull-O Farms.
The Hulls run a seven-generation, 240-year-old family farm, one that welcomes visitors from as far away as South Africa and Hong Kong.
“I was born here,” said farmer Frank Hull, who just turned 71. “When I was a child working here in the valley, we had 13 working farms. So, as far as I was concerned, growing up, the whole world was farming.”
Hull was the only son, and showed cattle from ages 8 to 19. There was never any question that he would inherit the farm. But these were dairy farms, and though productive, over time, the prices were no longer sustainable.
“All the farms have gone but us,” Frank said. “We’re the end of it.”
Life in Nature
Frank and Sherry Hull have been married 48 years this fall and run the farm together. While farming has been Frank’s entire life, Sherry was a city girl.
“I tell people, I happened to be dropped in paradise, because that’s how it feels to me: This is paradise,” Sherry said.
Sherry is from Syracuse, New York, and met Frank through a mutual friend in college.
“I was raised in a family where we loved each other and did things together. And when I moved here, they operated the farm as a family. They did chores together, they ate meals together, they went to church together,” she said.
“And outside, they had these beautiful lush fields to look at. And further off, a little bit into the distance, they have these lovely Catskill Mountains that just surround and protect us, and, to me, it almost felt like I was coming home,” Sherry said.
“Not like I had found my home, but I was coming home—like I was supposed to be here. That’s how I felt.”
She fell in love with the farm and the farmer, and never looked back.
But running a farm isn’t easy work. You work practically around the clock, and there are no days off.
The Hull farm has changed many times over the years, with each generation finding different ways to keep the family business going.
“We worked really hard, but there were never any extra dollars,” Frank said. But he had an idea.
In the 1930s, Frank’s grandmother opened a boarding house, and Frank’s father would go down to the barges to meet groups of people coming up from New York City and bring them up to the house, where they would stay for the summer.
So Frank suggested they open up the farmhouse for visitors to stay. People could learn about farming and spend time relaxing in nature.
Sherry actually wasn’t so sure people would take to the idea. She thought maybe her rosy perception of the farm wouldn’t be what everyone else thought of it.
She’s never been more gratified to be proven wrong.
“The kind of people that are attracted to this kind of vacation are just wonderful, loving people who are family-oriented and grateful and appreciative,” Sherry said. “And I could not have predicted it this way.”
This is the 25th year that the Hulls have opened their home to others.
From One Family to Another
The Hulls remind us that though many of us live in the suburbs or in cities, it wasn’t that long ago that most everyone lived on or near a farm. Farmers see themselves as stewards of the land, and there is a strong sense of family, community, and giving.
Running a farm means raising animals; here, there are pigs, dairy heifers, chickens, even red deer, and others. This means the animals need to be fed and cared for every day without exception. Everyone has to work together, and there’s really no room for excuses. There’s a natural respect for other living creatures, and a dedication to your personal responsibilities that are learned naturally here.
That stands in stark contrast to much of current life, in which we do a lot of throwing things away, Sherry said. The longevity of the farm, the inherent sustainability of the lifestyle, and the work ethic found here are impressive to a lot of people.
“Every family that comes here is in awe of how hard we work,” Frank said. “That kind of blows them away, that we can do this seven days a week, year in and year out.”
Frank himself was surprised to see that everyday things for him are a source of wonder for the guests.
“It’s astounding, because they’ll reach into a nest box and they’ll come out with an egg that’s warm, that a chicken just got off of, and they’d be enthralled that the egg is warm, because, of course, coming from the grocery store, all the eggs they’ve ever been able to handle were cold,” Frank said.
“Those are things that are normal everyday stuff for us. But [for them], that’s a real novelty,” he said.
Visitors have chores to do every morning and afternoon, such as feeding the animals or piling a truck full of fresh-cut green grass for hay. Seeing it in person is eye-opening, and the connection made with the animals creates a memorable experience.
In the summer, the children get a baby chick to hold when they first come in.
“We raise all our own laying chickens. I actually get the shipments from Pennsylvania every two to three weeks. I go right to the post office and I order them in March. And they’ll come every two to three weeks, all summer long,” Frank said. “This is all due to planning; nothing is by accident. I’m ordering these chicks in March that are actually coming in right on through August, and those are next year’s brown egg layers. So you gotta raise them from the start.”
“And of course, they’ve all got to be fed and cared for in the wintertime, even when they’re not laying eggs. Everybody’s got to have feed and fresh water every day, no matter what, no matter the weather. So it’s really a love of dedication, for sure.”
In addition to Frank and Sherry, one of their sons works on the farm full-time. The couple has yet to decide whether they will need to sell the farmland in order to retire, but financially it’s very unlikely they will be able to pass on the farm.
Sherry says they don’t take life lightly, and it’s gratifying that their guests leave with an appreciation for what they do.
“We do this by choice and we live at this beautiful farm, and that’s what we do to be able to live here,” Sherry said. “I think that our guests leave here with understanding that we have a deep appreciation and respect and responsibility, that we don’t take it lightly.”
“And you can’t take it lightly if you’re going to hold on to it, because it requires a lot of tending to. When you have a farm you need to tend to it,” she said.
The Hulls have always been very family- and community-minded, and big on giving. Sherry was raised in a home that always had lots of friends and family around, and there was always entertaining.
“So, it was in my nature. I was raised in that environment of wanting to share what we had with others,” Sherry said. Being able to share her “slice of paradise with my guests” was a blessing.
“Probably the most special moment of my farm-vacation experience—and there’s been lots of them—but when I really knew that this is what we were supposed to do, I had a little 10-year-old boy who came up to me,” she said. “He said to me, ‘Ms. Sherry, I think this just may be the best day of my life.'”
Visitors started finding the Hulls through word of mouth and a bit of local advertising, but they’ve since grown to welcome visitors from halfway around the world.
“I have an intense need to share with others what I find beautiful,” Sherry said, and so her gratefulness for the continued success of the farm vacations has been twofold. She is able to offer these families a beautiful experience, and the vacations have helped keep their farm afloat.
Sherry and Frank started their website in 1996, with help from a son who was in college at the time.
“He said, ‘Send me all the information and pictures of the farm,'” Sherry said. She was baffled. “I said, ‘What is the World Wide Web?'”
The premises, too, have grown to accommodate vacationers. The Hulls started with one guest house, the Rose. Then they opened the Austin, which is surrounded by trees. Then there was the Gifford, and the Great Room, a dining hall where the guests share meals. The accommodations are turnkey homes, which especially suit the large number of family visitors, many of which have small children.
“I will tell you, sometimes, there is not a native English speaking person at my dining table,” Sherry said. “Children from completely different backgrounds will look at each other from across the table and make connections.”
“You don’t have a child who looks at another child and says, ‘What kind of car do you drive? And how much money do you make, and who are your relatives?’ What they say is, ‘Let’s go play,'” Sherry said.
“That’s what I think that we should all do a little bit more often with each other: ‘Let’s just go have a good time together.'”