Ten years ago, Scottie Jones had enough of big-city life, and had never heard of agritourism. She and her husband packed their bags and left Phoenix. Their escape plan: buy land in rural Oregon. Sounds simple, right?
“The city became too crowded; there was traffic and asphalt everywhere we looked,” she says. “But boy, were we naive!”
The couple bought a homestead built in 1896, surrounded by 54 acres of lush green hills. “It was an adventure, to say the least,” she says. “We were completely wowed by the entire process. While it was hard work, it was also down-to-earth work.”
And she means that literally. Flash forward: In addition to growing hay and raising sheep for market, Jones now runs a successful farm-stay program at her Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, northwest of Eugene.
Guests travel from as far away as New York and Texas to stay on the farm for anywhere from a few days to an entire week. “I just had a mother and daughter out for the weekend,” she says. “They picked food from the garden and helped collect eggs from the coop.”
But is it all work and no play? According to Jones, the trip can be as hands-on or as laid-back as a guest desires. “Sometimes people come out just to slow down and retreat,” she says, “to get away from the hustle and bustle … and maybe pick some blackberries.”
Scottie Jones is part of a growing movement of farmers looking to supplement their earnings. “In today’s world, 10 percent of the nation’s farms produce 90 percent of the food. How are small farms supposed to compete?” she says. In Jones’ case, nearly half of the farm’s income comes from agritourism, making it a vital segment of their livelihood.
Luckily, many farmers have found this new niche labeled “agritourism.” These rural land owners are drawing in visitors with their farm-related activities and retreats. They’ve developed myriad successful crowd-pleasers, ranging from dairy tours to “U-Pick” operations to farm stays like Jones’ program. In California alone, farmers and ranchers hosted more than 2.4 million agriculture tourists in 2008, according to a study by University of California researchers. In New York, Assemblyman Steve Englebright says agritourism is second only to milk as a source of income for farmers in the state.
Jones says the reason for the growth is simple: More people are interested in how and where their food is grown. “We’ve seen a huge influx of farmers’ markets across the country,” she says. “People enjoy buying local products and helping to support local economies.”
It could be a simple desire to return to nature. These unique vacations allow the city dweller a behind-the-scenes peek at country living, as well as an escape from urban life. Guests also gain a deeper sense of local culture. After all, why stay at a chain hotel when a family-run farm is right down the road?
Coast to coast
Agritourism farms can be found stretching from coast to coast, and all places in between. Lan Mark Farms, in the bluegrass hills of central Kentucky, encourages tourists to meet the farm’s sheep, llamas and alpacas. The farm also offers a variety of workshops, including felted scarf making, crafting with wool and braided rug making. All of their products are naturally processed in a renovated 1910 barn.
Agritourism is not limited to traditional agriculture. Tennessee’s Freshwater Pearl Museum and Farm is North America’s only freshwater pearl culturing operation. Guests have the opportunity to tour the farm, meet the farm manager and visit with a local diver.
Escaping city life
While the industry is undoubtedly growing, the concept is nothing new. During the late 1800s, the wealthy often took vacations in the country to escape city life. One notable nature lover was President Theo-dore Roosevelt. He often traveled by train into the vast wilderness of the countryside and visited dozens of farms throughout his life.
The culture of farming and vacationing, though, started to change during the 1950s as interstate travel became common. Americans, eager for convenience, ignored the “road less traveled by” and vacationed instead at the motels along the highway. Consequently, visits to farms waned for the next few decades.
Nowadays, American society has come full circle to its roots. As before, trips to the country are seen as refreshing and desirable.
Despite its rich history, agritourism can still be overlooked by vacationers eager to leave the city. Jones is trying to change the public perception of small farms and bring visibility to agritourism. Through several grants from the state of Oregon, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jones runs Farmstay U.S. (www.FarmstayUS.com), a website devoted to highlighting programs across the country, as well as educating the public. One can find a wide variety of information on the site, from how to start a farm-stay program to what a guest can expect from a visit.
In addition to the website, Jones participates in Oregon Country Trails, a grassroots organization of ranchers, farmers and recreation specialists who have opened their back porches, meadows and crafts to the public. This partnership allows members to share resources for marketing and strategizing.
Agritourism vs. agritainment
With this growing publicity, more people are beginning not only to take advantage of agritourism, but also to understand it. One important element is the distinction between agritourism and agritainment. Many define agritourism as the act of visiting working farms for education or active involvement in the day-to-day operations (like a farm stay). However, agritainment, some say, focuses more on the entertainment aspects. Activities falling under this category include hayrides, pumpkin patches, petting zoos and other amusements. Most often, though, farmers utilize a combination of the two to reach the maximum audience.
For example, the Maize Valley Market and Winery, in northeast Ohio, offers tours, festivals and a “Stomp the Grapes” half-marathon. Additionally, the “pumpkin canon” delights visitors each fall by blasting produce into the air. Owner Donna Vaughan says, “It is a tough world out there, and we hope to provide a place where people can set aside their troubles, catch their breath, enjoy the experience and build some memories.”
Brett Herbst is one entrepreneur who has had success through his own specialized segment of agritainment. According to his website, Herbst set the Guinness record for the largest corn maze in 1999. Since then, his company, The MAiZE Inc., has assisted with the planning and development of more than 1,800 mazes in the United States, Canada and Europe. It is the largest maze consulting company in the world, working with more than 225 locations. Herbst’s mazes have featured the likes of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, famed zookeeper Jack Hanna and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
Whether you’re planning a family vacation or considering starting your own agritourism business, a wealth of information is available. Your state’s Department of Agriculture, as well as your local extension office, can provide details on grants, marketing strategies, local farms and more.
Michelle Nowak, a small-farm supporter and author of the upcoming Farm Stay Handbook, Eastern USA, first fell in love with agritourism after studying farm stays in Italy.
“It should be the right of every child to hear a rooster crow before sunrise, to pet a new spring lamb and to pull a radish from the ground,” she says. And according to the rising popularity of agritourism, America wholeheartedly agrees.
Kate Hixson teaches at a college in southwest Florida. When she’s not in the classroom, you can find her working in her backyard garden or strolling through local state parks with her husband and hound dog.
Leaping Lamb Farm
20368 Honey Grove Road
Alsea, OR 97324
Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Museum and Farm
255 Marina Road
Camden Kentucky Lake, TN 38320-9699
Oregon Country Trails
Great Lakes Seaway Trail
P.O. Box 660
Sackets Harbor, NY 13685
Maize Valley Market and Winery
6193 Edison St. NE
Hartville, OH 44632
The MAiZE Inc.
Brett and Nicole Herbst
P.O. Box 367
Spanish Fork, UT 84660