Q. What drives your passion and enthusiasm for the industry?
Because I am involved in the lodging experience on farms, I have a farm bent. Quite honestly, I see two beneficiaries to farm stays: the guest and the farmer.
The guest is offered an opportunity to stay in the country, to sync with the pace of farm life, to experience livestock and production agriculture, to be surrounded and engulfed in a space that was more familiar to his or her great grandparents than to the modern urban/suburban family. It’s a vacation that often amazes and hits on all senses: sight, smell, hearing , taste, and touch… which means it’s a vacation that is likely to be better remembered and treasured than others. This is especially true for children. In a digital age, staying on a farm allows one to disconnect from technology, if only for a weekend. It frees up the brain to be in the natural world, but also to be present with family, friends, partners, even the farmers, in that old-fashioned style of communicating – face-to-face. And, for urbanites, there is an education they return home with, whether actively or passively learned, about the challenges of food production, challenges that are not obvious by looking at rows and rows of clean veggies in the produce section of a grocery store.
As for the farmer, he or she is able to diversify the farm “production” with lodging, a non-agricultural product that helps to reduce the financial risk. The additional income to the bottom lines provides a more sustainable business model and thus assists with the viability of the farm. Whereas many factors in farming are not actually able to be controlled by the farmer (e.g., cost of feed, prices for product sales, the weather), lodging is a different industry entirely and not susceptible to the same challenges. Italy identified in the 1980s they were losing their smaller farmers to something they called rural outflow to the cities, something that was hugely impacting their rural communities on all levels. An agritourism program was implemented, supported both by their agriculture departments and state tourism, as a way to stem the tide. The success of this program is now recognized internationally. Other European countries realized the same opportunities. Here in the U.S. we are a little late to that party, so even as travelers look for farm vacations, working farms have only recently started to add lodging to their operations. Momentum is building. Alternative lodging is being promoted to the traveling public and farmers are recognizing what they can offer. Next, hospitality training for farmers!
Q. Is the term ‘Farm Stay’ misunderstood in the US? If so, how?
I don’t think it is exactly misunderstood in the U.S. I think it is not even part of the vocabulary! If you ask 9.9 out of 10 people what a ‘farm stay’ is, they either have no idea or think I am saying ‘farm stand’. The next comments are, “I didn’t know you could even stay overnight on a farm,” and then, “Why would I want to stay on a farm?!” So, the challenge here is really the introduction of a new travel niche to Americans, much like the introduction of Bed & Breakfasts back in the 1960s and 1970s. We’re just a little behind the times compared to the UK and Europe when it comes to seeing the benefit of a country vacation.
As for misunderstanding the farm stay experience and some of the hesitancy on the part of American travelers: no, it’s not boring; no, it’s not dirty except in places where a farm is supposed to be dirty (your lodging will be clean); no, we don’t make you work for your supper! If you just want to sit on the deck and drink a glass of wine and read a good book, that’s fine with us. If on the other hand you would like to help with chores, that works too.
Q. Why is an online presence so vital right now?
It’s basically the only way travelers will find you these days. If you can’t be found with an easy Google search, then you are likely missing most business opportunities. I count an online presence as everything from having a website to being active on Instagram and Facebook, even Youtube and Twitter if you can manage it. And, even within the last several years it has become apparent that pictures sell faster and better than the written word (although don’t ignore reviews for TripAdvisor), so it is imperative that you have good photos. It’s amazing to me how bad many websites are at telling the story of your property. What can guests expect when they arrive? What is the landscape like? What is there to do? What are the accommodations like? Who are the hosts? And, these days, a bad website can make a traveler nervous about the end result.
Finally, your online presence makes you easy to find, to contact, to investigate, to book. We all want easy travel arrangements these days – from both the traveler side and the operator side. Before online booking was as easy as it is now, I used to rely on emails to confirm reservations at my farm, phone calls to take credit card deposits, follow-up with arrival instructions. …it took hours of my time. Once I added online booking, I was able to focus on other things, knowing the reservations also didn’t take up an inordinate amount of time for my guests. I may live in a really rural area with no cell service, but that doesn’t mean I’m not connected to a much larger community via my online presence. You don’t have to be, and some of our Farm Stay U.S. farms are not, but for them it’s an educated choice about the level of business they wish to engage in and with guests who are willing to search them out. Call it self-selection the old fashioned way!
Q. Why was the creation of Farm Stay U.S so essential?
When I started hosting my own farm stay in 2006 it quickly took off and since I only had one cottage to rent, I was turning away many disappointed potential guests. I knew this was a popular travel niche in Europe and was surprised it was such a novel idea here in the U.S. However, with no one place to look for farm stays, I also realized it would never become a travel niche of it’s own if we didn’t join forces and show there were working farms and ranches in every state offering overnight accommodations and authentic farm experiences.
Farm Stay U.S. started as a website for both travelers and farmers, although the primary agenda was to put all of us on a map and make us easy to find. However, we soon discovered (and still do) that the most popular page on the site was “What’s a Farm Stay?”, so we knew we had our work cut out for us just from an educational point of view. Unlike many travel sites, we included both a Traveler’s Guide and a Farmer’s Guide for guests and hosts, respectively so we could set expectations appropriately. Farm Stay U.S. is actually the website for the U.S. Farm Stay Association, a farmer-led non-profit trade association. Just as an aside, we are changing our recognized name to Farm Stay USA because that’s what everyone calls us!
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