The family farm is hard-pressed to remain a sustainable model in the United States and an increasing number of farmers are turning to agritourism ventures as an alternative revenue generator. The “farm stay,” overnight lodging on a working farm, has had a long and successful history in Europe. Still a nascent idea for many Americans, interest in the concept is increasing as farms and ranches seek to diversify their operations, and urbanites look to the countryside for a connection to the land and their food source.
But, how does a farmer market his or her new lodging in an industry more comfortable with selling livestock and produce than overnight accommodations? Enter Farm Stay U.S., a website launched in June 2010 with the assistance of a 2010 Western SARE grant. This multifunction website project had several objectives:
1) to develop a highly professional website resource directory of Northwest Territory (OR, WA, MT, ID, CA) farm and ranch stays in order to market them directly to the traveling public;
2) to create a website that could scale for the entire United States; and
3) to introduce the farm stay concept as an added-value operation aimed at improving bottom line financials to farmers and ranchers unfamiliar with the model.
The Farm Stay U.S. website is the combined work of the producer (a farm stay operator herself), her research team and the professional web design firm, ProWorks. The producer worked with ProWorks (and continues to do so) as the website was conceived in a series of phases, each adding to its functionality. Focus was placed equally on guest queries, farmer needs and back-end flexibility.
To educate farmers and ranchers about the farm stay model, a number of talks were given in Oregon, Washington and California at workshops and conferences. For Idaho, brochures were sent to their Extension Service office. For Montana, a connection was made with a large ranching cooperative. Interested farms and ranches that had questions about start-up were counseled by the producer on an individual basis.
An outcome of the website launch and media marketing has been an increased awareness of the opportunities to take a family farm vacation instead of heading to commercial destinations. As the model moves more mainstream and farm stay inventory improves, farm and ranch operations will see increased benefit from tourism dollars. In a survey of existing farm stay operators, 58% noted that income from overnight guests accounted for 10-50+ percent of the farm’s income. The by-product from this increase in business will be community jobs and other rural business opportunities to satisfy guest needs.
In its first year, the Farm Stay U.S. website increased from 50 hits per day at start-up to as high as 1,800 hits in one day in July 2011. Currently, the site receives between 350-500 daily visitors (a 700% increase). While the site continues to undergo improvements to make it easier to use for guests and farmers, its basic functionality is excellent and the site has received recognition from many national publications. The website ranks well in Internet searches, has over 900 fans on Facebook and over 400 followers on Twitter.
The most significant challenges encountered during the project focused on a lengthy time horizon for farmer adoption and a difficult start-up process for new farm stay businesses. In most states, land-use rules, permitting, insurance and the vagaries of local regulatory agencies are challenges. While much of this is beyond the scope of the initial grant, the current website format and membership, along with the future addition of a member forum, will make the site useful as a dissemination point for information exchanges addressing these issues.
The family farm is hard-pressed to remain a sustainable model in the United States and an increasing number of farmers are turning to agritourism ventures as an alternative revenue generator. This speaks to an entrepreneurial spirit of small agriculture as it taps into the needs and desires of a rural-hungry urban population, newly focused on local foods and the experience of country life.
Farm stay agritourism has had a long and successful history in Europe, supported by the combined interests of agriculture and tourism agencies within the governments. Overnight accommodations on a working farm (aka farm stays) provide financial benefit for local farmers and their communities, as well as the travel industry (regional, national and international).
The United States has been slow to adopt this model; however, there are some farms and ranches that have a proven track record of success with farm stays. In June 2010, Farm Stay U.S. launched, with the assistance of two USDA grants, as a fully- functioning, interactive website. Its goal: to act as a directory and marketing arm for existing farm and ranch stay operations as well as a resource for start-ups.
There were three objectives and targets outlined for this project.
1. The first objective was to develop a highly professional, interactive website that would identify and market Northwest farms and ranches offering accommodations to the traveling public.
As of August 2011, for the Northwest Territories (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and California), the Farm Stay U.S. website represents 197 working farms and ranches offering overnight accommodations to the public.
The site launched June 1, 2010 with 64 identified operations in this region. Over the following year, additional farms, ranches and vineyards were identified via the Internet and at conferences and workshops attended and presented by producer/coordinator, Scottie Jones of Leaping Lamb Farm. These businesses were subsequently added to the website. Additionally, as the word spread through extension services and the media, farmers and ranchers found the site on their own and joined.
2. The second objective was to create a website that could scale for the entire United States.
As with all things “Internet,” the website began scaling immediately and has since become the premier site for finding and marketing farm and ranch stays in the United States. The site currently hosts over 950 U.S. farm and ranch stays and is continuing to grow.
From a general point of view, the site provides information to farmers across the country interested in adding a farm stay to their operations, as well as marketing support for those already in business. Guests can use the site to find specific farms and ranches meeting their criteria and read about what to expect from this type of family vacation. Now, the media has access to the largest database of farm and ranch stays in the country from which to retrieve comprehensive information to use for national publications.
3. The third objective was to introduce the concept of the farm stay to Northwest farms and ranches as an added-value operation in order to improve bottom line financials. The website membership would also set the basis for forming a farm stay association in the future.
Presentations were made at the 2011 Oregon Small Farm Direct Marketing conference, the California Small Farms conference, Willamette Ag Expo and the National Extension Tourism conference in South Carolina. University of California-Davis Extension’s Agritourism director embraced the website and now includes the information in agritourism workshops presented in California. The website is also mentioned as a resource in the newly updated publication, “Agritourism and Nature Tourism in California.”
Materials about the farm stay model and website were disseminated with assistance from Extension Service offices in all five targeted states. Organizations such as Friends of Family Farmers (Oregon), Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon’s Association of Counties and Rural Initiatives (Oregon) were contacted and the concept introduced for further discussion at the legislative level.
In addition, marketing materials were re-printed several times when other states around the country (extension offices, tourism offices, agritourism conferences, national conferences) heard about the website and asked for information (and to hear a talk) about the farm stay model for their members/farmers.
The Farm Stay U.S. website is the combined work of the producer, her research team and the professional web design firm, ProWorks. The producer worked with ProWorks (and continues to do so) as the website was conceived in a series of phases, each adding to its functionality. Focus was placed equally on guest queries, farmer needs and back-end flexibility.
Before the website went live, research was necessary to identify existing farms and ranches offering accommodation. These lodging operations formed the first entities to be promoted on the website when it launched. Research began in 2009 and continued throughout 2010 and into spring 2011, using search engines, media reports (including social media: blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr) and conferences and workshops focused on agriculture and agritourism.
As the first year progressed, the website was tracked using Google Analytics so that changes could be made for Search Engine Optimization, traffic could be identified and information could be gathered about how the site was being used. In addition, a focused marketing campaign was launched to draw attention not only to the website but to introduce the American public to the concept of farm stays as an experiential (and fun) family vacation.
To educate farmers and ranchers about the possibilities surrounding on-property accommodations, a number of talks were given in Oregon, Washington and California. For Idaho, brochures were sent to their Extension Service office. For Montana, a connection was made with a large ranching cooperative that already matched guests with working guest ranches. Materials were produced for distribution that included a poster and brochure for farmers and ranchers, an informational rack card for guests and tourism agencies, and a handout about starting a farm stay.
Information continues to be added to the website to answer questions in two separate sections: For Farms and For Guests. This includes a FAQs section based on common questions arising from both sets of customers for the site (Farmers and Guests) and also more general conversations about expectations (Farmers and Guests), funding resources (Farmers), and in the future, a business tutorial for new farm stay operators (Farms).
A baseline survey of existing farm and ranch stays was conducted in Oregon (and another nationally) in February 2011 (attached). This survey was designed to find out how well the farm stay model was working for its hosts, what challenges they faced with start-up and operations, how they were weathering the economy and whether they thought hosting a farm stay was a good idea in regard to their time and effort.
Twelve farms completed the survey. The majority of the respondents (58%) felt that the financial gain was worth the effort (producing 10-50+ % of farm income). The majority had also stayed flat or increased in bookings despite the hit to the economy. The biggest issue for the farms was marketing.
Two final-project Northwest Territory surveys were conducted in summer 2011. The first was aimed at existing farm stays and the second at start-ups (both attached).
For the former, questions centered on the farms’ interactions with Farm Stay U.S., the site’s impact on their business, the usefulness of the information they obtained from Farm Stay U.S., again the effect of the economy (this time in just the last year), additional jobs created and additional assistance needed with the business.
Thirty existing farm stays completed the survey. Fifty-three percent of the total respondents had been on the site since its launch, and 50% of the total respondents felt they had had an increase in requests for information because of the site. Thirty percent of the total respondents had remained flat in their business, and a surprising 60% of the total respondents had seen anywhere from a 1-25+ % increase in nights booked. Thirty-three percent of the total respondents had added staff to assist with the rise in work load, although this could have been seasonal.
For the latter (not yet or just starting), the questions focused on barriers to start-up, again the helpfulness of Farm Stay U.S. and what was holding them back from opening. Twelve farms completed the survey. The main reasons for the delay in start-up (multiple reasons could be checked) were: permitting and legal issues (33%), time to give to the project (8%), money to give to the project (17%) and not knowing if this was a good idea (42%). Out of the 12, one had opened for business, one expects to open in 2012 and two expect to open in 2013.
While the figures in the Performance Targets would seem to suggest that there was a 300% increase in the number of farm stays opened in the Northwest Territories over the first year of the Farm Stay U.S. site’s operation (from 64 to 197), this is not so. What the numbers do suggest, however, is that 60+ farms were relatively easy to find on the Internet and thus understood something of online marketing. The other 130+ were hidden from most queries. The primary outcome of Farm Stay U.S. is to offer a highly niched website, marketing all the farms and ranches in a state or region directly to targeted guests looking for this particular experience.
The expected impact from this is heightened awareness, both of the vacation model (for Americans) and of specific locales and offerings (for a world-wide audience). It is expected, with increased awareness and farm stay inventory, both operators and their communities will benefit from additional bookings and money flowing into local businesses as a by-product of visitors to the area.
Educational & Outreach Activities
• Farm Stay U.S. www.farmstayus.com, including:
o Individual farm listings
o Booking information
o FAQs for farmers and guests
o Search/Advanced Search capability
o Social media connections: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr
o Resource materials
o Out-bound links
o Media placements
o Farmer/rancher login to membership area
• Brochure for farmers/ranchers: “Considering Agritourism? A new service for Farmers and Ranchers who want to host travelers. www.farmstayus.com”
• Rack card for guests: “Farm Stay U.S. – Imagine staying on a working farm or ranch”
• Poster for Extension offices and any agencies dealing with farmers: “Considering Agritourism?”
• Workshop Session. Presenter. Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Portland, Oregon. September 24, 2010. “Farm Stay Agritourism in the U.S.”
• Workshop Session. Presenter. Willamette Valley Ag Expo, Albany, Oregon. November 16, 2010. “Farm Stay U.S.: Growing Farm Stay Agritourism in Oregon”
• Trade Booth. North American Farmer’s Farm Direct Marketing Annual Conference, Baltimore, Maryland. February 7-9, 2011. Presenting Farm Stay U.S.
• Agritourism Workshop. Attendee. Red Bluff, California. February 23, 2011. Representing Farm Stay U.S.
• Workshop Session. Presenter. Small Farms Conference, Corvallis, Oregon. February 26, 2011. “Farm Stay U.S.: Growing Farm Stay Agritourism in the Pacific Northwest”
• Field Course. Presenter. Small Farms Conference, San Jose, California. March 6, 2011. “Farm Stay U.S.: Growing Farm Stay Agritourism in California”
• Workshop Session. Presenter. National Extension Tourism Conference, Charleston, SC, March 11, 2011. “Farm Stay U.S.: Growing Farm Stay Agritourism”
• Workshop Session. Presenter. Mother Earth News Fair, Puyallup, Washington. June 6, 2011. “Farm Stay U.S.: Growing Farm Stay Agritourism in the Pacific Northwest”
• Brochures, pamphlets, and posters sent to conferences/workshops/offices:
o Univ. of ID – Latah County Extension, Moscow, ID 8/2010
o Colorado Agritourism Workshop, Lakewood, CO 9/2010
o Women in Sustainable Ag, Fairlee, VT. 11/2010
o Georgia Agritourism Conference, Dillard, GA. 11/2010
o Small Farm Tradeshow, Columbia, MO. 11/2010
o Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association, PA 11/2010
o Louisiana Agritourism Conference, Rayville, LA 11/2010
o Putnam Co Extension Services, East Palatka, FL 11/2010
o American Agri-Women Convention, St. Louis, MO 11/2010
o Southern Sustainable Ag Workshop, Chattanooga, TN 1/2011
o TN Agritourism Wkshp, Pickwick Landing State Park, TN 1/2011
o NC Agritourism Networking (ANA)Conference, Raleigh, NC. 1/2011
o IL Agritourism&Organic Conf., Springfield, IL 1/2011
o Henderson County Coop. Extension, Hendersonville, NC 1/2011
o Midwest Country RC&D, Altoona, WI 1/2011
o Flint Hills RC&D, Emporia, KS 1/2011
o WSU Whatcom County Extension, Bellingham, WA 1/2011
o VA Cooperative Extension, Danville,VA 1/2011
o PASA, State College, PA. 2/2011
o Arkansas Agritourism Conference, Little Rock, AR 8/2011
The website development proceeded as promised and has enjoyed increased use over the past year, from less than 50 hits per day at start-up to as high as 1,800 hits in one day in July 2011. Currently, the site receives between 350-500 daily visitors (a 700% increase in just 12 months). While the site continues to undergo improvements to make it easier to use for guests and farmers, its basic functionality is excellent, and the site has received recognition from many national publications. The website ranks well in Internet searches, has over 900 fans on Facebook and over 400 followers on Twitter.
During the past year, but especially beginning in February 2011, the national media began to take notice of the website as the main resource for locating farm and ranch stays around the country. The website was also identified as an informational site that could answer questions like, “What is a farm stay?”, “What can I expect from a farm stay?” and “What you need to know before starting a farm stay.” For a highlight of articles about farm stays and links to the site since June 2010:
•Chicago Tribune, 7-13-2011, “Down on the Farm, With a Side of Good Food”
•The New York Times, 6-9-2011, “Small U.S. Farms Find Profits in Tourism”
•CNN, 6-2-2011, “Farmstay Questions Answered”
•USA Today, 5-13-2011, “10 Great Places for a Rural “Haycation””
•Budget Travel, 5-1-2011, “Farm Stays”
•Conde Naste Traveler, 4-1-2011, “True Grit”
•Country Living, 3-1-2011, “The Haycation”
•Outside Magazine, 3-1-2011, “The 2011 Travel Hot List” (#15)
•Edible Portland, Spring 2011, “Escape to the Country” (Including KATU TV segment 4-13-2011 http://www.katu.com/amnw/segments/119775024.html)
•Grit Magazine, 2-1-2011, “Getting Back to the Roots on Small Farms”
•Southern Living Magazine, 9-1-2010, “Seven Farm Hideaways”
•Whole Living, 9-1-2010, “Acres Away”
•The Oregonian, 7-31-2010, “A family vacation at the Leaping Lamb Farm may be just what the doctor ordered”
•Redbook, 7-20-2010, “Unplugged Vacation”
•Numerous online magazine and blogs
•Press release sent out 3-25-2011 was picked up by 250 media outlets, “FarmStayUS.com Names Top States for Haycations”. http://www.farmstayus.com/blog/2011/3/15/farm-stay-us-names-top-states-for-farm-travel-and-tourism-pennsylvania,-california,-vermont-lead-the-way-in-%E2%80%9Chaycations%E2%80%9D
(Links to all of the above articles are available on the Farm Stay U.S. website at http://www.farmstayus.com/news)
The producer continues to work with several extension service offices to assist in the development of business tools for farms interested in the idea of adding a farm stay to their operations. The producer is an active listener in California’s conversation about how to address the hurdles of regulations that stand in the way of farms moving into agritourism and hopes that several of the Oregon partners will find the information useful in how laws and regulations can be handled. Several states, including Montana, have sent their Agritourism Liability laws as templates for rule setting that could be introduced into other states as a way to mediate some of the expense of business insurance.
The website has the potential to serve as a dissemination point for information that addresses the challenges and successes accomplished by different farm stays around the country. For example, the site has already been used to assist one farm in California with liability insurance issues by asking the membership for suggestions and referrals.
Finally, the producer hopes to attract the attention of the tourism community which, while fractured into state entities, has a new national tourism office (Corporation for Travel Promotion) with an agenda of regaining market share in the international travel community. As mentioned in the introduction, farm stays are a well-recognized form of tourism in most of the E.U countries as well as New Zealand and Australia. With over 1.2 million small farms in the U.S., this is a model with enormous growth potential and financial impact for our rural communities.
- Farm Stay U.S. Search Page Results – example
- Farm Stay U.S. Individual Farm Listing – Willow Witt Ranch, OR
The time it takes to get a farm from interest in the farm stay concept to actually opening its doors to guests has quite a long time horizon – anywhere from one to five years. While several farms jumped right into operation, more have been hesitant to start up, either based on lack of funds, lack of time, unwillingness to deal with regulatory agencies or fear of the unknown, such as the hospitality industry.
For a ‘product’ that is not dependent on the vagaries of the weather or the price of commodities, farm accommodation seems like a good hedge for the uncertainties that accompany farming. In France alone, there are 5000+ farms that offer lodging, but it should be noted that many of the E.U. farmers hosting farm stays receive strong support from their governmental agriculture and tourism agencies. It appears that continued education and support (via Farm Stay U.S., and USDA loans or grants) to farms considering this alternative operation is important, not only for family farms, but for driving tourism dollars into our rural areas.
Farm Stay U.S. will continue to market and promote the website to the travel industry, as well as place itself in front of as many farmers at agritourism conferences and workshops as possible. It will also continue to develop materials useful for farm and ranch stay operators so that the shared knowledge improves overall customer service and guest interest. The ultimate objective is to form a farm stay association, but we are not at that place yet.
The Farm Stay U.S. website is continuing to be refined and improved, with additional functionality for guests on the front end and farm/ranch members on the back end. The end goal of the site is to optimize the match-making between the farmers and ranchers who want to host guests and the guests who would like to visit. With 12 months of operation behind it, there are endless ideas for ways to make these connections, and the team is diligently working to move back and forth between its farmer and guest customers to introduce the best solutions in an ever-changing communications environment.