Up early to feed horses, move cows and check fences, Melissa Libby loves every minute of her day. Ranch work out West isn’t her profession, though—she’s a New Jersey-native consumer-safety officer for the Food and Drug Administration. For two years, ranching at McGinnis Meadows Cattle & Guest Ranch in Libby, Mont., was her vacation—her farmcation. Like an increasing number of non-farmers with agricultural and culinary interests, Libby opted to use her days off from her full-time work to escape to the country and become connected to a lifelong passion—in her case, horses.
Libby is a dressage rider, not typically known to go roping cattle, but she learned horsemanship techniques at McGinnis Ranch that she was able to take home and use with her own horses.
“My Dutch Warmblood back home was 3 years old the first year I went, and the groundwork the ranch taught me really helped me teach him. I still use it to this day,” Libby says.
Being able to connect people to rural living in this way is a reason many farm-stay operators want to host guests on their farms. The McGinnis Ranch is a large, full-time ranching operation that hosts many visitors at a time, but farm stays can be as small as a single cabin on your property that works with your schedule and provides a little extra income for your farm.
When John and Marni Rapf purchased the 100-acre Butter Creek Ranch in Hyampom, Calif., the property already had a small cabin—just a one-bedroom cottage perfect for couples. They started renting it when they had a small, personal orchard and garden. Their operation now includes a 2-acre vineyard and a winery, and they quickly found that guests were interested in helping out with work they were doing.
“Generally speaking, they might pick grapes for an hour, but they don’t usually do hands-on work for all that long,” Marni Rapf says. Afterward, guests like to tour the winery and watch the wine-making process.
For Jean Eagleston and her husband, Terry Sapp, the farm came before the farm stay. Their Hoehn Bend Farm in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., also had a house on the property, but the couple used it as a rental home. They were becoming disillusioned with the renting process when a friend sent them a New York Times Sunday Review article about farm stays. All it took was a few calls to local bed-and-breakfasts for advice and a rough business plan for guidance, and Farm Stay Skagit at Hoehn Bend Farm was launched.
Know These Things Before You Start
Farm-stay operators attest to positive experiences hosting farmcationers, but also admit it’s not for everyone. Here are seven things to keep in mind before launching a farm stay:
1. You Must Follow the Law
Check county and city laws regarding farm-stay and bed-and-breakfast arrangements. Learn the definition of these entities to see how the operation you’re considering fits in legal standards. You might not be able to offer food to guests, depending on laws in your area regarding commercial kitchens and the exchange of money for grub.
At The Farm in Danville, Ky., Roy and Angie Martin provide a full country breakfast to guests, and a local, family-owned restaurant has a special seating area for The Farm’s guests for lunch and dinner-—the farm stay is only structured as a bed-and-breakfast, and the Martins allow guests to enjoy local dining options for the other meals of the day.
At High Breeze House and Farm in Highland Lakes, N.J., guests have a cabin to themselves, including a fully equipped unstocked kitchen.
“Many of [the guests] buy ingredients grown here on the farm (produce, meat, eggs and maple syrup), but they prepare all of their food on their own,” explains Jess Clark, who operates the farm stay with Bill Becker. Many counties and states require a commercial kitchen to serve food to guests. Developing a commercial kitchen on-farm has a lot of benefits, but it’s also costly if it doesn’t fit into the farm’s business plan.
“Talking to your extension, local business development [Small Business Development Center] and planning department are best done before you invest in a farm stay,” says Scottie Jones, owner of Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Ore., and founder of the U.S. Farm Stay Association, a nonprofit established in 2010 offering support for farm-stay operators. “You also might find you need to educate your local regulatory agencies about farm stays. Start with the term ‘bed and breakfast,’ and work from there. (This is also true for insurance!)”
2. Research Is Crucial
Some farm-stay operators in have had experience with rental properties or the hospitality industry before offering accommodations on their own farms. If you’re not so lucky, there’s help.
Jones’ farm-stay directory website, FarmStayUS.com, has a host of information about starting and running a farm stay, and the USFSA offers networking opportunities. Do an Internet search for agritourism resources, and you’ll likely find cooperative extension and other farm- and tourism-related business resources in your area.
Additionally, Jones used her friends as guinea pigs for Leaping Lamb Farm’s first farm-stay season, asking them for feedback about items that would make their stay more comfortable and anything she could do better as a host. In return, she got ideas ranging from a guest book that includes farm rules to a luggage rack so guests don’t ruin the bedspreads by putting luggage on them. Also draw on your own time spent vacationing: What did you like or dislike about various accommodations?
3. Guests Are Not Free Labor
Be prepared for people of all ages and abilities to want to help around the farm, especially if adorable baby animals are involved.
“Guests are invited to join us for morning chores at 9 a.m., where we are happy to have them gather eggs, feed the pigs and try milking if they’d like. We move at a leisurely pace and talk a lot,” Clark says. “Usually, after doing morning chores, they are happy to be on their way to another activity, though they are welcome to spend as much time on the farm as they’d like. They will often hike on the farm or picnic on the farm, but we have not found that people take vacations to squat in the blistering sun and weed thistles out of the garden. They’re here for the romance of it, which means that they are not in our way or keep us from getting the work done.”
Have your regular chores structured in a routine that makes it easy for guests to join. Keep in mind additional work that can be done by the extra-willing. Eagleston has had kids want to clean the barn and chicken coop, scrub water troughs, and help pick up litter in the driveway.
“During lambing season, I actually get help with all the veterinary responsibilities, as well,” Jones says. “This might include filling syringes with vaccines, writing notes, holding lambs, bottle-feeding bummers, even collecting lambs out in the fields and helping me to bring them in with their mothers to the barn.”
When guests help Jones harvest berries or vegetables, they keep half and Jones keeps half, providing a nice reward for a little easy work. The activities you engage your guests in should depend on your level of comfort having people work around your farm.
Larger farm stays, such as The Farm, might host a guided barn tour and classes each day so guests get the full experience.
“Guests usually all like the butter-making class and the milking of the goats,” Angie Martin says. “During the summer, a favorite is milking the goats; then we turn it into homemade goat’s-milk freezer ice cream. After all the hard work, the ice cream tastes so much better.” There is a charge for the tour and classes, but she builds those into a farm-stay price package for guests.
Common sense dictates that guests shouldn’t partake in certain activities, including those involving machinery—which is the first thing many guests will ask about!
While it’s not the norm, don’t take it personally if a guest doesn’t want to participate. “There are some people who come to just get away from life,” Eagleston says. “We’ve had a couple of folks who’ve been writers, and the house has become their writing retreat.”
4. You Will Have Less Privacy
Having quarters that are well separated is helpful for privacy’s sake, but it’s not always feasible if you’re working with an existing structure or if you’re hosting farmcationers in your home, as is the case of a bed-and-breakfast. Even with separate living spaces, you’ll have guests accompanying you for farm work, usually with many questions and photo requests. You might end up on many people’s Facebook pages, which could be good (for word-of-mouth business referral) or bad (if you’re having a bad hair day). You need to be comfortable with this idea from the get-go.
5. Set Rules & Stick to Them
If you’re an “anything goes” kind of person, you’ll need to rethink this approach. There are numerous ways in which an inexperienced person can get hurt on a farm. You might think you’re coming across as a stickler by introducing rules, but they’re necessary for making everyone’s experience—yours, your guests’ and your animals’—as safe and fun as possible.
“Before guests book the house, they are warned that this is a real working farm with large animals, electric fences, equipment, watering holes and many other potential dangers. We ask them to be mindful and cautious and let it be known that children must be supervised at all times. We have these rules posted again in the house to remind them,” Clark says.
Rules at Leaping Lamb Farm—Jones calls them “facts”—involve gates, animals, eggs and the hayloft: “I have a Farm Facts book that is set noticeably on the coffee table in the cottage. It says, ‘Read this first!’ I also have terms and conditions and a liability waiver I include in all reservations, on my website and in the Farm Facts book. These deal with things like cancellations, noise, -illegal activities and acknowledgment that farms are dangerous places,” Jones says. “I had my lawyer review both the terms and conditions and liability waiver.”
Convincing parents that children must be supervised at all times can be a challenge. This requirement is included in Farm Stay Skagit’s rental agreement, which guests receive before arriving and is emphasized during the guests’ introductory tour upon arrival.
If your farm has animals, consider carefully whether it’s OK for guests to interact with them when you’re not around for the safety of both animals and guests.
6. This Is a Major Time Commitment
There’s time involved in listing your accommodations for rent, keeping the space tidy and in good repair, preparing the space for guests, keeping up with hazards and clean-up around the farm, meeting your guests, and interacting with guests. Thanks to plentiful websites, listing your farm stay is less time-consuming now than in pre-Internet days. Still, you need to write your description, take quality photos, and keep up with scheduling and potential farmcationers’ inquiries.
Clark estimates she spends six hours preparing High Breeze House between guests. Eagleston and Sapp do all the work surrounding Farm Stay Skagit themselves, except when a neighbor helps out with cleaning, such as when farm work is in full swing.
With the time commitment in mind, Martin blocks out time to close The Farm to guests when her family visits, and Jones takes off late fall from the farm stay to have a break herself.
“If someone is thinking about doing this, they may want to be sure that it will fit into their lives, because it becomes your life,” Martin says. “The time concerns that it takes up are no different than if you are raising a field full of corn or tobacco. It’s up in the early morning and up late at night, ‘tending your crop.’ The beauty of this ‘crop,’ however, is that you can give it a hug and welcome it to come back and see you again and again.”
7. The Rewards Are Plentiful
Especially if you’re in an area with high tourist traffic, you can get visitors from another county, state or country. “The majority of the people want to talk and want to learn,” Eagleston says. This is your opportunity to teach people about where their food comes from and about life on a small farm. More than one child has left Farm Stay Skagit wanting to be a farmer or a veterinarian when he grows up.
“I am like grandma and mom as I take families out, and we learn all sorts of interesting things, do chores that are unusual in the city, pull fresh veggies from the earth, throw rocks in the creek and make hay forts in the hay loft,” Jones says. “I have had families go home and add chickens to their backyard. I am rewarded when people want to come back for another visit.”
Like any business, running a farm stay requires commitment and a learning curve. It can provide a nice income—at least enough to cover your mortgage and taxes, in many cases—with the right time investment. And every visitor is one more person in this world who better understands rural living and farm life.
This article orignally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Hobby Farms.