- Education and Training: decision support system, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, participatory research, workshop
- Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, e-commerce, feasibility study, risk management, value added, agritourism
- Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, urban/rural integration, social networks, sustainability measures
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.