Making the most of your farm or homestead doesn’t always mean growing more plants or raising more animals. Here are some ideas about adding value to your place through agritourism. Enjoy this excerpt from Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business by Rebecca Thistlethwaite. Permission from Chelsea Green publishers.
It’s not easy to be a profitable farmer these days, especially if the crops you grow or animals you raise don’t earn you any handouts from the government. Your creativity, decision-making skills, and hard work are what you have to rely on. Sometimes you just can’t sell enough bunches of chard, ears of corn, or sides of beef to make a proper living and fulfill your holistic goal. The money-earning potential of agriculture is not really in the basic production—it’s in all of the added ways you can earn income off your land, your knowledge, and maybe the farm products of others, all of which I call “added value.”
A lot of trends are changing in the vacation and travel industry, especially as our economy changes, Americans work more hours, and fuel prices rise. This has given rise to the notion of “staycation,” which essentially means taking a vacation within or nearby the region where you live, and maybe even coming home to sleep in your own bed for the night. Another simultaneous trend is rising, probably due to our increasingly urban nature and generational separation from the family farm, of people wanting to get out onto farms for pleasure, purchasing fresh food, and even learning something new.
Ideas for adding value to your Farm
- Farmhouse bed-and-breakfast
- Wall tents or yurts for sleepovers
- Monthly private dinner club or occasional farm dinners
- Private hunting/fishing club or stocked fishing pond
- Recreation: hiking, trail running, mountain biking, canoeing, birdwatching, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and whatever else might be popular in your neck of the woods
- Farmstands and U-pick days
- Corn maze and pumpkin patches
- U-cut Christmas trees
- Weddings, parties, and other private celebrations
- Special events and classes, such as farmstead cheesemaking or gourmet cooking
- Yoga and meditation retreats
- Barn dances and hoedowns
- Kids’ gardening and science camps
- Adult farming camps
A Little Capital, A Smidge of Local Policy
The ideas are only limited by your creativity, access to capital, and probably a little local policy. Whether you choose to do things legally or not, you should at least call and find out what your current local. land-use regulations will allow you to do and, within reason, extend to your neighboring property owners the courtesy and consideration that you would expect of them. Communicating your ideas early on to your neighbors might help prevent conflict later on. Here are some other important considerations to think of when planning your agritourism ventures:
- Road access and parking
- Staffing needed
- Safety and liability
- Potential permits needed from your county or township
- Hidden costs, fees, taxes, and so on; for example, if you offer lodging, you may have to pay a local occupancy tax
- Will you need an approved commercial kitchen to do what you want to do?
- Income and expenses of the different enterprises as well as profit margins (include your agritourism enterprises in your strategic and business planning)
- Compatibility with your privacy needs and your social or antisocial nature.
If you are interested in more information about inviting the public to your Farm, read Megan Wild’s thoughts on the subject.
A Story of Starting a Farm and CSA
Green Gate Farms, Austin, Texas. Erin Flynn and Skip Connett
You can hear Skip and Erin’s story in their KUT 90.5 Austin NPR Storycore interview.
Farming for Community
What happens to a dream deferred? Fifty year-old Skip Connett was not going to find out. Ever since he was a child growing up and working among the Mennonite farmers in Pennsylvania, he had a longing to have his hands in the dirt and to farm for a living. He even grew up on a gentleman’s farm until he was 12, often raising some animals for the family and a giant garden that would sometimes produce enough abundance to sell a bit to the local grocer. However, his life took a turn toward writing, which he did for nearly 30 years, much of it in the field of public health at the Centers for Disease Control. His wife Erin Flynn was also a writer, working across the street from his CDC office at the American Cancer Society.
The Farming Bug
Skip and Erin had a comfortable life in Atlanta, both gainfully employed, owning their home, with three children between them to keep them entertained. But Skip could not get the farming dream out of his head. If he didn’t start farming soon, he probably never would. How much would he end up regretting that later in life? He started pouring over books by Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon, and eventually started freelance writing for the Rodale Institute. This allowed him to visit farms, attend conferences, and cautiously enter the world of sustainable agriculture without the risks of actually doing it.
Erin, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with it. Despite volunteering for the organization Georgia Organics and her keen interest in healthy food, she had a historical understanding of the suffering of farmers, something she wanted no part of. Her family had ranched in Texas for generations, suffering from low prices, drought, pestilence, and even suicide. She was truly horrified by the thought of her and Skip trying to eke out an existence from agriculture.
Green Gate Farms Begins
With a tiny bit of finances they gained from selling their Atlanta house they began farming with the name Green Gate Farms (named for their location—the east side is the agricultural gateway to Austin—and for the gate at the end of their driveway, which is nearly always open to the public). Right away they signed up 30 families for their first vegetable CSA, all of whom were willing to pick up from the farm. Skip and Erin added a little retail farmstand, too, first selling their own vegetables and over the years adding local fruit, milk, eggs, meat, honey, and other products from small farmers in their region. Each year they would scale up the CSA as they became more skilled at growing the vegetables and could take on more customers. They also added some laying hens for eggs, ducks, a few sheep and goats (mainly for entertainment), and some pigs. The couple raises a batch of feeder pigs each year for meat and also has a small herd of rare guinea hogs that provide venison-colored pork as well as glean the fields and provide fertility to them. Also, you can’t beat their cuteness. If you want a pig that will delight your customers and roll over for belly rubs, this is the breed for you.
Loans Help Make Dreams Real
Since renting is never secure and their 5 acres on the edge of town has its share of issues, from high water rates to a disinterested landlord unwilling to provide a long-term lease, they decided to secure themselves a larger piece of land in the neighboring county. What is called the River Farm is 30 acres of mostly floodplain soils along the Colorado River (not the main Colorado, but a smaller river in Texas with the same name). Because they had been farming for less than 10 years, Erin and Skip qualified for the USDA Beginning Farmer loan, allowing them to purchase the land without much money down and low-interest rates.
Helping Others Realize Their Dreams
Erin and Skip are realizing they can’t farm forever, especially given their ages. They have identified very little support for sustainable and organic farmers in Texas, even though the demand is swiftly rising for their foods. Because of these factors, in 2011 they started a nonprofit called the New Farm Institute to help grow more organic farmers for Central Texas. In addition to summer camps and farming workshops open to the general public, they have started the first incubator farm in Texas. The first participants have been a twenty-something couple, followed by another young man, each given half an acre to try their hand at growing and marketing certified organic vegetables. Erin and Skip have covered all costs out of their own pockets—providing access to equipment, greenhouse, tractor, and mentorship; the new farmers just pay for their own seeds and water.
[A] giant obstacle for farmers in Texas is the archaic water laws. It essentially boils down to “He who has the biggest straw gets the most water.” A company can set up right next to your farm, drop an enormous well into the ground, and pull up as much water as possible until your well goes dry, and you have zero recourse (that’s what happened to nearby Tecolote Farm, the longest running CSA farm in Texas). For this and many other reasons, Erin and Skip helped found another nonprofit in 2010 called the Growers Alliance of Central Texas to help elevate farmers’ voices in policy discussions and also to benefit from group purchasing of supplies. They aren’t a cooperative yet but hope to be some day. The alliance holds field days on one another’s farms followed with hearty potlucks full of laughter and conversation. The spirit of collaboration among seeming competitors is heartwarming and powerful.
CSA is at the core of Green Gate Farms’ existence. Members are part of the farm; they are welcome to come out at any time to picnic, pet the animals, even go swimming or camping (at the River Farm). They also get discounts for the numerous events that Skip and Erin put on, from farm camps for kids and adults to yoga classes, cooking classes, and evening dances (or hootenannies, as they call them). For a long time all of the CSA boxes were picked up at the farm, which helped strengthen their customers’ connection to the physical farm and also reduced the labor required for distribution. However, to scale up their CSA and better compete with the more numerous produce delivery services creeping up, Green Gate Farms is setting up CSA drop-off spots all over Austin using volunteer community organizers.
Education is a huge component of the farm and an increasing source of revenues, too. Green Gate Farms provides training for hundreds of volunteers each year and offers several weeklong farm camps for kids during the year and shorter daylong farm camps for adults, too (especially relevant for adults interested in farming). They host school field trips, give pony rides, host weddings, organize farm dinners, and do fund-raisers as well. When the raging fires from Bastrop licked at their River Farm’s edge during the most extensive drought in the history of the United States, Skip and Erin held a fund-raiser a month later to aid neighboring farmers who had lost everything.
Helping people is ingrained in their bones. They also fund-raise each year for their Sponsored Share program, which provides free CSA boxes—through the Dell Children’s Medical Center’s Texas Center for Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity and the University of Texas Charter Elementary School—so underserved children can have access to good food and learn about healthier eating. The parents of those children receive free cooking classes using the contents of their CSA boxes so they can learn how to more effectively and deliciously incorporate a wider diversity of local vegetables into their diets.
Erin and Skip work extremely hard, farm year-round, and are open to the public nearly every day. The prolonged drought, extreme summer heat, and wildfires of 2011 have set back their production, increased their operating costs, and exacted a large physical and mental toll on them. Green Gate Farms will be offering its first winter vegetable CSA and meat CSA this year to make up for some of the lost summer revenues. Yet Erin and Skip are trying to regain a little privacy and balance in their life, too. The gate now closes on Sundays, and they try to do very little by way of farm chores that day, instead focusing on their children and maybe even a little relaxation.
If they are burned out, however, you wouldn’t know it by their smiles and enthusiasm for what they are doing. There is a missionary zeal to what they are doing—going into the new land and creating a new community around local food and farms.