Why Vacationing on a Farm Isn’t as Weird as It Sounds

Food and farm travel is one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry. Could agritourism help save the small farm?

(Photo: Johner/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Let’s face it: When it comes to domestic travel, Disney World isn’t for everyone. Some would rather go to a nudist colony at an ant farm. Others would rather stay home.

And a growing number would rather shear sheep in Oregon, harvest oysters in Alaska, tend hens in Nicaragua, or pick heirloom vegetables in Georgia than have their picture snapped with Goofy. 

Experiential travel has exploded in the last decade, and its subsector of food and agriculture tourism, which connects travelers more deeply with the sources of what they eat while putting money in the pockets of family farmers, has grown up too. U.S. farms reported $566 million in income from agritourism, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most-recent comprehensive farm census. And travelers in the United States spend almost $100,000 every minute on memorable food and wine experiences, says Erik Wolf, founder and executive director of the World Food Travel Association—and not necessarily “the spendy kind.”

Another indication of the boom in food tourism worldwide is the growth of the organization Wolf founded: The World Food Travel Association began in 2003 with no members; today, Wolf says his membership includes 23,000 professionals in 135 countries.

After Wolf spoke on food tourism at last month’s National Tour Association convention in Los Angeles, an audience member asked him what the “next big thing” in food tourism would be.

“I stated there were two: sustainability in food tourism and wellness in food tourism,” he says.

Wellness is also one of the main reasons more travelers are visiting farms in their downtime, says Mary Stewart, owner of MARStewart Creative Group, which works to increase agritourism in Oregon. One way it does this is through the creation of farm loops, self-guided driving tours that connect travelers with farmers and producers in the area.

Farm-hosted, chef-prepared “dinners in the field” are a way for agritourists and locavores alike to enjoy the fat of the land. Last year Stewart's company helped produce four such dinners in the area around Mount Hood; feedback was so positive, she will increase the number of 2014 events to 11.

“People are looking for ways to connect with the land, that are interesting places, where they can learn something,” Stewart says. “If you can add to that a culinary angle where they’re actually getting to taste and experience the wonderful, fresh foods from those farms—it’s a winning combination.”

These experiences on the farm may last a few hours or a few months. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a U.K.-based network of organic growers in nearly 50 countries that welcome travelers to stay for free on-site and volunteer doing any number of agricultural tasks, including harvesting vegetables, working with animals, keeping bees, or making wine. In the United States alone, willing volunteers (there were more than 12,000 in 2010) can choose from more than 1,800 organic agriculture operations that are registered with WWOOF. It's a new riff on "volutourism" that groups such as Earthwatch have been organizing for decades. 

Even with the surge in popularity of agritourism and the income opportunities travelers present, some farm owners still shy away from playing host to visitors because of the inherent risk associated with life on a farm. If Nancy from Atlanta gets kicked in the head by a mule while visiting a ranch in Colorado, for instance, her lawsuit could spell the end of a low-margin business with limited cash flow. To counter farms’ fear of lawsuits and encourage more farms to welcome tourists, several states have moved to provide agritourism operators limited immunity from civil liability should a visitor be injured or die on their property. Such a bill seems poised to pass in Wisconsin, where income from agritourism more than tripled between 2002 and 2007.

Despite the risks, Stewart says she’s hearing from more farmers with operations of every size who are interested in learning about agritourism as a way to increase profitability and tell their stories more effectively.

“There’s often a very interesting history of the farm,” she says. “Here in Oregon, these are often four- or five-generation farmers where the farms were homesteaded. They have a strong pride of place, a pride of land.”

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