A Sleep in the Hay: Agritourism Rising in Popularity

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Photo Courtesy JX Ranch
Guests watch calf branding at JX Ranch in Nebraska.

Want to support family farming–on your vacation? Across the nation, farmers, vintners, and ranchers are adding guesthouses to their homesteads and inviting urbanites to sample country life.

Farm bed and breakfasts are as varied as the fruits of the land, offering everything from hunting and fishing trips to bee-keeping demos and honey tasting. For example, on JX Ranch in Crawford, Nebraska, guests saddle up and help the ranch owners drive their cattle to pasture. Vacationers get intimate with their food at Chileno Valley Ranch, an 800-acre ranch and B&B in Petaluma, California. Comfortably bunked in the restored Victorian farmhouse, they wander vegetable and herb gardens, spy on grass-fed cattle at pasture, and pick organic Pink Ladies in the orchard. Ranch owners Mike and Sally Gale serve a two-course breakfast featuring local organic ingredients. After fueling up, guests can winery hop, antique shop, or visit nearby farms to buy fresh cheeses, tomatoes, and flowers. Birders also flock to the ranch to watch lazuli buntings, yellow warblers, and other migratory songbirds that nest by the creek where the Gales have planted native oaks, walnuts, and willows.

Farm stays are helping keep U.S. agriculture alive. The American Farmland Trust estimates that fifty acres of farmland disappear every hour, mainly to urban and suburban development. Farmers earn much-needed income–in some cases, as much as half their earnings–through farm stays and other forms of agritourism such as U-pick fields, corn mazes, and tasting tours. “The global market supplies produce, but at the cost of small-scale local farmers,” says Ellie Rella, a farm adviser with the University of California Extension program. “Agritourism gives family farmers another way to sustain themselves.”

It’s a win-win situation. Guests get a taste of farm living by harvesting grapes, shearing sheep, checking bees, or gathering fresh eggs. Plus, they walk away appreciating their food and the hard work required to grow it. It’s also a chance to turn off the cell phone and enjoy the legacies of country life: open space, clean air, quiet nights, and starry skies.

Agritourism is most popular in New England and coastal California, though the idea is quickly spreading. Many states have farm-stay networks or offer agritourism information through their state travel bureaus.

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