The rise of the farm-cation

With the boom of the Northwest's local food movement, a new kind of vacation has emerged. More and more farmers are converting spare rooms into guest rooms, and offering city-dwellers a taste of farm life -- chickens and all.

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Evan, a young guest at Solstice Farm, overcame his fear of dogs during his stay.

With the boom of the Northwest's local food movement, a new kind of vacation has emerged. More and more farmers are converting spare rooms into guest rooms, and offering city-dwellers a taste of farm life -- chickens and all.

Several years ago I visited Croatia to meet extended family and cousins for the first time. Eager for their company, but craving my own space I searched online to look for hotels and inns near the villages where they live. Instead of finding traditional housing, however, I ended up scrolling through page after page of farms offering room and board. The availability of such housing was prolific and in many cases the only option to rely upon. ‘Agroturizam’ was a new concept for me, and one that promised a farm-fresh meal and a full belly — both excellent qualities when traveling.

Back in the states, it became quite clear that many farms offer farm stays. By definition, “Agritourism enterprise is a business conducted by a farm operator for the enjoyment and education of the public, and to promote the products of the farm, and thereby generate additional farm income,” states an agritourism report out of New York published in 2001. The options for a farm stay are quite diverse — some offer free standing cabins, while others offer room and board within the family home. By offering housing, classes, or participation in the day-to-day function of the farm, owners are able to both educate guests and diversify their income stream. Hosting people is particularly beneficial in winter months, when the business of farming is otherwise relatively quiet.

“We started renting the gite about four years ago,” says Joan Montiellet, co-owner along with her husband of their namesake — Fromagerie, in Dayton, about 20 miles east of Walla Walla. Their goat and sheep farm produces terroir-inspired cheese for sale at local restaurants and farmers markets in eastern Washington. While they have lived in Walla Walla County for years, it was only recently that they got into farming and looked for clever ways to create income.

“It used to be my art studio, but more and more people wanted to stay,” she noted about the transition. “It’s a growing business,” Joan said about guests coming to the farm, but now with both a cabin for rent and regular classes they are becoming quite popular. This summer, they were even featured as the featured farm for Outstanding In The Field, a national event drawing accolades for its dedication to highlighting and supporting small family farms by hosting prominent chef events.

While Dayton is tucked into the southeast corner of Washington, there are also farm stays much closer to urban hubs. On the Olympic peninsula just outside of Port Townsend, Solstice Farms just celebrated its ten year anniversary as a working farm and is wrapping up its second full year offering farm stays. “For us, (having guests) was about not becoming isolated in the country and bringing good people through our lives,” says Linda Davis explaining the long term vision of the farm. “And it’s something that a farmer can do into his or her old age; as you scale back the farm aspect in your 80s, you can still keep a few animals and keep the bed and breakfast going,” she noted.

Along with private rooms in the family home, guests are invited to join in breakfast cooked by Linda from the farm: homegrown eggs, sausage, and fruits — when in season — along with biscuits, local jams, and honey. “The menu ranges from Parisian Crepes to a hearty farm breakfast depending on a guests wishes and the cook's larder,” the website reads, which speaks to the seasonality one can expect to find at the breakfast table.

In addition to offering a great meal and some quiet space, Solstice Farms is happy to host a class for any guest. Basketry and Bookbinding are two passions of Linda’s and she is happy to share her skill with anyone interested to learn. “There are some things I can do that are not common skills and when a good teacher teaches you, it serves them well to pass (the craft) on to other people,” she said noting that they are perfect wintertime activities for guests.

While Linda offers guests private classes, some farms actually prefer that you participate in farm chores. Crown S Ranch in the Methow Valley encourages their guests to stay for two nights in a private cabin and have a short “Haycation,” complete with farm tour and optional ranch work. They’ll even stock the cottage with local farm goods like homemade bacon, Bluebird Grain Farms Pancake mix, and fresh goat cheese from neighboring Sunny Pines. Composting, solar-powered chicken coops, haying, and maintaining farm infrastructure (read: construction) are all common activities around the farm that any guest is invited to participate in.

Not all farms, however, are motivated purely by the income guests generate. Several farms are based around a structured educational curriculum. Quillisascut Farm School is located in Stevens County, two hours north of the Grand Coulee Dam on the east side of the Columbia River. As-back-to-the-landers in the 70s, Rick and Lora Lea Misterly set up a homestead and goat dairy as newlyweds. In 2002, they formally started the Quillisascut Farm School for the Domestic Arts.

“We wanted our farm to be a place where people can learn together, to understand where their food is coming from,” explains Lora Lea. Students come to the farm for multi-day courses focused on where food comes from, building kitchen skills, and general homesteading practices.

Farmstead Meatsmith, on Vashon Island, started teaching butchery classes using pig and lamb last fall as a way to support their young family, while living the farm lifestyle they are so attracted to. ”We just love the family business and we love to work together,” said Lauren Sheard, co-owner along with her husband Brandon.

Learning is not just for adults, of course, as evidenced by the launch of the Oxbow Farm Educational Center for Children in the Carnation valley in summer of 2010. Along with their thriving market and CSA business, Oxbow provides access to a day on the farm for parents wanting to both inspire their kids and have a breath of fresh air themselves.

Lisa Hill recently took her daughter for a weekend agricultural adventure in central Oregon. “She is an animal lover and since I live in a city I wanted to give her a chance to experience the country and farm life. I also love the slow pace of the farm experience and really being involved rather than watching,” says Lisa Hill, just back from her trip to Leaping Lambs Farm.

Agritourism is a clear trend and you can expect to see more farms offering up a bed of straw or deluxe accommodations in the coming years. “There has definitely been growth and public interest towards on-farm working vacations,” noted Patrice Barrentine, founder of Washington State Culinary Agritourism — a nonprofit website featuring farm-stay travel itineraries for every region of the state.

“We have unique farms with different opportunities all over,” she says. When pressed to pick her current favorite, she hesitates before calling out Skagit Valley (with its stunning vistas) and Yakima for its multi-cultural offerings. “I had a friend call from Yakima last week and say ’I got 20 tamales and I brought back 120 pounds of fruit and now I’m making all my baby food for a year!’ because she used our itineraries,” Barrentine beams. “You can have fantastic food and delve into another culture,” she offers, suggesting that, with agritourism becoming more prominent, there really is something for everyone.


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