Farming Magazine - May, 2014

FEATURES

Are You Ready to Add a Farm Stay to Your Business Mix?

By Kara Lynn Dunn


Some of the registered Holsteins at Liberty Hill Farm.
Photo courtesy of Liberty Hill Farm.

Whether you call it an on-farm vacation, agritourism or farm stay, the opportunity to lodge overnight and experience life on a working farm has become increasingly popular in the U.S.

For guests, the farm visits represent everything from peaceful, pastoral scenery viewed from the front porch to reconnecting with the natural world, dining on fresh, farm-raised food, and hands-on agriculture education.

For Scottie and Greg Jones in Alsea, Ore., overnight stays bolster Leaping Lamb Farm's (http://www.leapinglambfarm.com) bottom line.

"When we left Phoenix to escape the rush-hour gridlock, we quickly learned that small farmers have to develop a niche. The farm stay concept had proven itself in Europe, but only caught on in the U.S. in the 1990s as another tool for sustainability," Scottie Jones says. "Offering farm stays represented a new income stream for us. Our niche is sharing the farm lifestyle with people who want to experience rural living without having to buy their own farm, and just being on a farm is good for one's soul."

The Joneses produce and sell grass-fed lambs, hay, eggs, market garden produce, flowers and fruit. They offer overnights year-round in a self-contained, two-bedroom guest cottage located 500 feet from the farmhouse. Farm rules are posted, with tips for cautiously approaching the livestock. Guests are invited to help feed the animals, collect eggs and do other tasks.

Breakfast is do-it-yourself, with cereal, waffles, fresh fruit in season, bread, beverages and the like provided. Rates are $175 per night in the off-season (November into March) and $250 per night the rest of the year and holidays, with a two-night minimum for weekends and three-night minimum for holidays.



The Horning family on the porch of their farm stay cottage at Country Cousins Farm, Evans Mills, N.Y.
Photo by Brian P. Whattam.

In 2010, Jones started Farm Stay U.S., a searchable website (http://www.farmstayus.com) that lists more than 900 farms and ranches offering lodging, including bed-and-breakfast accommodations in the main farmhouse, rustic or luxurious housing apart from the family home, country inns on historic farm properties, and farms with campsites and RV parking.

Jones says part of educating the public about farm stays is letting them know guests are not required to help with farm chores.

"A lot of people think they pay to stay and have to work besides. That is one of the biggest misconceptions we have to overcome. We want people to know they can just relax, sit on the porch and breathe, or choose to hands-on feed the animals, help with the lambing, or join us for whatever chores need doing," she explains. "Families especially grab the chance to help and create special memories with their children."

Vermont dairy offsets milk price dip with farm stay

In 2013, Beth Kennett of Liberty Hill Farm (http://www.libertyhillfarm.com) received the Vermont Chamber of Commerce Innkeeper of the Year Award. She and her husband Bob have offered rooms at their historic homestead in Rochester, Vt., since 1984.

"When the price of milk plummeted, we needed extra income to make ends meet and keep the farm going. We are blessed to have a lovely home that could accommodate guests comfortably. Today, opening our home and kitchen table to visitors is about sharing our way of life. A friend says, 'Vermont is what America used to be.' Our guests tell us the experience here helps them better appreciate the contribution of family farms to the economy and social fabric of our country," says Kennett, a ninth-generation New England farmer.

Liberty Hill guests can help with milking the farm's Holsteins or pick wild berries, go tubing on the White River, walk the nearby Robert Frost Trail, or watch the kids swing from a tree - a sugar maple, of course. There are 125 acres to roam on the main farm, with a scenic view of the Green Mountains.

The farmhouse has seven guest bedrooms (including one with five beds), four shared baths and common areas. Kennett says guests may be vacationers, families, frequent visitors or businesspeople looking for a restful place with good Vermont food. Her cooking, which emphasizes fresh, local products, has been featured in Gourmet magazine. Rates range from $60 to $120 by age, with dinner and a full breakfast included.

The single most important tip Kennett offers to aspiring innkeepers: "Be real. Share yourself and your life on the farm. You're not the Holiday Inn, and you're not Disneyland. People are coming to have a real experience on your farm."

She notes that guests are often surprised by what they learn on the farm. "They see how much work it takes to feed and milk the cows and raise calves, and the thoughtfulness and care that go into stewardship of the land and animals. Staying here has significantly changed their understanding of where their food comes from and that the choices they make in the grocery store can truly impact our farm's opportunity to survive," she explains.

"Farm stays are all about fostering and nurturing relationships. This spring, our first guests of 30 years ago returned with the third generation," Kennett says. "Farm stays are a true economic development engine in Vermont, in New England, and for farms across the U.S."



Scottie Jones at Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Ore. Taking care of lambs is one of the optional farm chores overnight guests can help with.
Photo courtesy of Leaping Lamb Farm.

Country Cousins did the research

Developing a farm stay of any kind requires a full family commitment and diligent homework on several different fronts, not the least of which are zoning, building and health code permits; insurance; financing; accounting; activities; and marketing.

You'll need to consider setting policies for reservations and cancellations, on-farm rules, safety standards, and, if you plan to hire help, hospitality training and labor management.

Stanley and Sharon Horning opened the Country Cousins Farm (http://www.countrycousinsfarm.com) cabin to guests in May 2012, six years after Stanley first read about farm vacations and began considering the idea of offering overnight accommodations. The Evans Mills dairy farm, milking 58 to 60 cows, is located in New York's Thousand Islands region.

The Hornings talked with their town supervisor, researched building codes, consulted their insurance agent, and evaluated farm finances to decide if the investment was feasible.

"We didn't want to spend money we didn't have, so we bought a storage barn and converted it into a cabin ourselves. We covered expenses by paying out of the farm's cash flow and borrowed just a little to finish off the building," Stanley explains.

"One thing we did not anticipate was how much the added insurance would cost. The liability doubled the policy expense," he adds.

Daughter Angela, who had begun collecting farm stay information after her dad first suggested the idea, offered to develop a website.

"[The site] http://farmstayus.com was a huge resource for ideas on housing, activities, scheduling, rates, discounts, advertising, photos and website design," Angela says. "Most of all, we wanted to create an authentic family experience. My mom and dad are pretty fantastic with the guests. Mom is a great welcoming committee; Dad is a great listener and has so much knowledge to share."

Crop fields and pastureland stretch out around the house, barn and cabin. If you help with chores, the cows are milked at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., and Shadow the dog or George the cat may accompany you.

"Some guests come out to the barn, help milk one cow and they're done; others want to do more. One man saw me chopping hay out the cabin window and told me he thought he could do that, so I let him try. He filled the wagon about two-thirds full," Stanley says.

"I enjoy teaching, showing people the farm and letting them help. One of my favorite moments was when a 9-year-old special needs child helped with the milking. Having people help with chores might mean it takes twice as long to finish, but that is part of sharing the farm experience," he adds.

Offering a farm stay was both a business decision and a personal mission for the Hornings.



Guests enjoy accommodations in the main farmhouse at Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester, Vt.
Photo courtesy of Liberty Hill Farm.

Stanley says, "Advertising is a significant investment, so we want to place our advertising efficiently." They use their website, Facebook, the local chamber of commerce, the Farm Stay U.S. website and radio.

"We are planning for three to five years to build a steady overnight business as part of our operation, but for us the farm stay is also about sharing our lives," Stanley explains. "[People] are interested to hear our personal story of moving here from Pennsylvania with 35 cows traveling on seven trucks in a snowstorm, and we are interested to know about them."

Sharon, who serves a hearty Pennsylvania Dutch-style menu, says, "We invite guests to join us for supper, just as we would invite neighbors."

The rates at Country Cousins range from $15 for young children to $100 for adults. The cabin has two full beds, a bunk bed and a futon; a full bath; dorm-sized fridge; TV/VCR; and family-friendly videos. Day visits are also available.

Beef producer may add overnights to day camp

Overnight stays at Equity Angus Ranch (http://www.equityangus.com) may be in the future for Rich Brown, a sixth-generation livestock producer, and his wife Marianne in Montezuma, N.Y.

"We currently offer day camp visits with opportunities to help feed the cattle or bale hay, make repairs, cut firewood, or go four-wheeling, hunting, fishing or cross-country skiing, relax on the back porch, and sit around the campfire and watch the sun set," Brown says.



This young visitor to Leaping Lamb Farm enjoys time with Paco, the miniature donkey.
Photo by Melissa Carroll.

The farm also has a private shooting range.

A certified agriculture teacher, Brown easily explains to guests the systems he uses as a respected leader in the beef industry.

"Every chance we get, we need to tell how well we take care of our livestock and land. Being outdoors, working with the cattle, driving tractors and putting in the crops give us great satisfaction. We enjoy the fresh clean air of the morning and watching the sun set in the evenings," Brown says.

Although he wears a cowboy hat and manages 130 acres, he does not currently wrangle his cattle with horses.

"I think a lot of people are looking for farm stays with horses and a 'City Slickers' kind of experience more than a real working farm experience. People have almost become so far removed from agriculture that they are more intimidated than we realize by the farm equipment and things farmers take for granted. We need to develop a market for people who want to drive a tractor more than ride a horse. We may need to start with horses and trail rides, and then move them toward the cattle and tractor," Brown explains.

Day visits at the beef ranch with lunch and dinner are $140 per person with a family discount available; the minimum age is 13. Overnight accommodations are available at a campground and hotels 4 miles away.

A Snapshot of American Farm Stays

Scottie Jones of Farm Stay U.S. shares the following data from a small sampling of member farms and ranches offering lodging from August 2012 to August 2013:

Gross annual revenues

  • 25.9 percent reported up to $10,000
  • 14.8 percent reported $10,001 to $40,000
  • 33.3 percent reported $40,001 or more

Years in business

  • 5 years or less: 40.7 percent
  • 6-15 years: 26 percent
  • 16 years or longer: 33.3 percent

Percentage farm stay revenues contribute to farm's overall gross revenue:

  • 41.3 percent reported up to 40 percent
  • 38.5 percent reported as more than 40 percent
  • Reservations over previous season
  • 53.85 percent reported an increase from previous season

Expansion plans

  • 37.93 percent reported plans to expand in the next year, with several planning to add camping/RV sites

Marketing methods

Methods reported included website, social media, YouTube, membership in local and/or state tourism associations, and listings on vacation rental and B&B websites.

The insurance rider for the day camps at Equity Angus costs about $1,000. When researching liability insurance coverage for a farm stay, contact your farm insurer to ask about commercial package rates that include personal, property, liability and product coverage. Sites that will serve food may need restaurant-type coverage. Historic buildings and antique furnishings may also impact costs.

For anyone considering opening a farm stay business, Matt Hunt with Nationwide Insurance says, "A farm typically has farm and personal liability coverage, often at least $1 million worth. If a farm stay or most any other type of operation that is not farming is to be added, property owners should talk to their agent about commercial general liability coverage. Riders vary by company and state."

Coverage and cost depend on whether accommodations are offered in the farm residence or a separate building and the number of rooms. Other amenities that will affect coverage and cost include swimming pools, ponds, hot tubs, bicycle or boat rentals, hiking trails and the like.

"You would also need to inquire about insurance for a petting zoo; pony, horse or wagon rides; and the use of farm machinery by guests. And [you] may need coverage for preparing and serving food or alcohol," Hunt adds.

10 Questions to Ask Before Starting a Farm Stay

1. Do you like talking with strangers?

2. Can you see yourself as a host, educator, tour guide, reservation clerk, cook and maid?

3. Do you know how your land is zoned?

4. Do you have the cash or financing to build or remodel to accommodate guests?

5. How many nights will you need to book to be profitable?

6. What is the competition for overnight guests in your area?

7. Have you spoken with your insurance agent about coverage and costs of adding a new enterprise to the farm business?

8. Do you know how to use the Internet to market your business?

9. Do you need to take customer service or hospitality training?

10. Is the entire family committed to making a farm stay work?

Adapted from http://www.farmstayus.com.

Resources for developing a farm stay

A good place to begin is the Farm Stay U.S. website, where you'll find Starting a Farm Stay and the Farm Stay Business Guide under the Farmers Guide heading.

For general hospitality training and tips, try your state bed-and-breakfast association, the Empire State Bed and Breakfast Association (http://www.esbba.com), or the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (http://www.innkeeping.org).

For information on how to offer farm tours, check with local agricultural and tourism offices; for example, in New York, contact the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (http://www.nyanimalag.org).