Many small-scale farmers and ranchers are considering inviting guests for overnight stays as an additional revenue stream and to educate guests, if they're interested, about agricultural life. We talked with some experienced farm stay operators this week to learn more. Each farm stay is as unique as the farm and the farm owner.
Alice Kaiser of Casa de la Pradera in Fiddletown (Amador County), Nori and Mike Naylor of Naylor's Organic Family Farm Stay in Dinuba (Tulare County), Cathie Orr of Willow Creek Ranch in Mountain Ranch (Calaveras County), and Ruth Hartman of Coffee Creek Ranch (Trinity County) shared some experiences and advice for other farmers and ranchers thinking about farm stay operations. Here are their stories.
Casa de la Pradera
Accommodations offered at Casa de la Pradera are two upstairs bedrooms in the main farmhouse with a shared bath for a cost of $110 per night per room, which includes a full cooked breakfast for all guests. Alice says that it is great that the farm stay law allows all meals to be prepared on site (unlike a simple B&B), although only about 25 percent of her guests, mostly families with kids, take advantage of her offer of other meals for an extra charge. In addition, there is a tent platform available for those who prefer to sleep outdoors, rented for $60 per night through HipCamp.
Guests now find and book at Casa de la Pradera through a variety of avenues. About 25 percent of guests are primarily looking for a farm stay experience. These are usually families who want their kids to see things growing, says Alice. The children enjoy planting seeds in flats and gathering eggs from the chickens. The guests who are most interested in the farm stay activities usually find Casa de la Pradera through Farm Stay U.S. or through the farm's own website.
About 75 percent of guests are looking more for a nice get-away, or comfortable quiet lodging than a farm experience. Some are couples on vacation; some are foreign tourists on a trek; some are bicycle touring; some are wine tasting; some are skiing at Kirkwood. Casa de la Pradera is listed on the official bike travel map, is about half way between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and is five minutes away from about 40 wineries. The guests who are not so much interested in the farm tend to book through Airbnb, Booking.com or Hipcamp.
The lodging business keeps Alice busy. The house is usually full in peak season, April through September, and had significant winter business for the first time this year. Keeping up can be a challenge, particularly because the busy season for guests is the same as the busy season for farm work. Alice is comfortable with the current visitor flow, although she hopes to encourage more year-round bookings, and may look for someone to help with the cleaning.
Alice Kaiser offers this advice for others considering opening on-farm lodging:
- It's not for everyone. Having people in your own home, you have to want them to be there.
- You have to like to interact with people.
- You may want to learn the trade before you start. Alice worked for another B&B for a year and a half before opening her own.
Willow Creek Ranch
Visitors mostly come during school vacations starting before or during Easter break and going into Christmas. Families love to introduce their children to the farm life and how it was in "their day." Other visitors like to come to the area to snow ski, or visit the many local wineries or Calaveras County events including the "Mark Twain Frog Jump" at the Calaveras County Fair in May.
Guests come to Willow Creek from all over the world, but most are from the San Francisco Bay Area, about two or three hours away. They sometimes find the farm stay through Airbnb, VRBO or through Booking.com, but more often are referred by Farm Stay U.S. If guests are interested, they can try to milk one of the eight farm cows, gather eggs, pick from the garden, help with weeding, or maybe bottle-feed one of the “bummer” lambs who were abandoned by their mother sheep. The farm has no cell-phone coverage and very limited wifi. Sometimes this is a shock to younger visitors, who can take a couple of days to get on board and enjoy themselves. Although Willow Creek Ranch is described as a farm stay on a working farm, Cathie says that some of her Bay Area guests seem to be expecting more of a theme park with a “farm” theme. Sometimes they are surprised and disconcerted that it is really a farm, with mud, cow poop, guardian dogs and all.
Initial start-up challenges included getting the cabin set up so it's livable and getting the farm ready so that guests could enjoy their experience. Also, getting the word out and finding insurance were both difficult. The current challenge is mud. Willow Creek Ranch is close to last year's Butte fire, and also to the site of another fire that came within a mile of the house. The recent rain on the burned land has caused so much mud that Cathie decided to close the farm stay for a few months until everything dries out.
Other than the mud, the trend of visitor bookings has been going well this year, even in late Fall and Winter, with the cabin booked from before Thanksgiving into January. This is partly a result of a feature story on “America's Heartland” last year, and partly due to some effective paid marketing through the San Francisco Chronicle's online travel section. In fact, Cathie had to turn some potential guests away over the holidays.
Cathie and John have just finished upgrading one of the bathrooms for better handicapped access, and have added new furniture to the common sitting area in the cabin. Future plans include creating a building or a campsite that would be able to accommodate larger groups, with needed restroom facilities.
Cathie Orr offers this advice for farmers or ranchers considering a farm stay:
- You better be willing to take people who have different temperaments.
- You have to join the Better Business Bureau, the Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and other groups to get your name on all the lists and to get needed referrals, even if you don't go to the meetings.
- Get your money up front! (Airbnb collects for you, but Booking.com does not.)
Naylor's Organic Family Farm Stay
Guests come from all over the world to stay on the peach farm, with the majority of guests coming from overseas. About half the guests are families with children, while the other half are couples or groups of adults. Visitors generally find the farm stay online, often through Farm Stay US, through calagtour.org, through the farm's own website or, most recently, through Airbnb. Being an organic farm helps draw some visitors. Many guests are on their way to nearby Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, but also enjoy the idea of staying on a farm. The mobile home has been more popular lately than the rooms in the ranch house, and was booked every weekend in peak season (Spring and Fall) while the rooms were booked less often. However, the whole house was full in February for the World Ag Expo, held nearby.
Permitting went smoothly with Tulare County for the farm stay start-up. Attracting visitors took a bit of time. Nori says that the timing of their start-up was perfect as people were beginning to look for farm experiences. She got the cheapest website she could find and listed the operation everywhere she could, including Farm Stay US, calagtour.org and other sites. The first year was a little slow, but that was good, Nori says, as they were still learning and also farming full-time.
Mike has recently retired from full-time farming and has sold or leased the commercial organic orchards, although he still helps and consults. The Naylors now operate the farm stay and a U-pick orchard. Last year they were a bit busier than they wanted to be. Mike says that he didn't get to go fishing once last summer and didn't get to many of the projects he'd hoped to start. Next year they will block off more days to give themselves a little more free time. They are also looking into expending the operation to include a campsite for guests.
Nori Naylor offers this advice for others considering a farm stay operation:
- You have to love people. You need to be very accepting and welcoming and hospitable.
- You need to set a schedule that gives you some free time.
- I think farm stays are a great way to go, but you need to have a purpose and a mission beyond the financial. Think about what kind of experience you want to offer and what you want to teach.
Coffee Creek Ranch
The ranch is next to the Trinity Alps wilderness area and offers pack trips and hunting trips into the wilderness. Some visitors are not interested in the horseback riding or other activities, so Coffee Creek Ranch also offers a B&B option (lodging and breakfast) for $200 a night. Ruth says that she could make the business work if she could fill all the cabins as simple B&B lodging, but the horses, meals and other activities are needed to attract a full range of guests.
From the beginning a major challenge has been maintenance of the facilities and upkeep of the generator (the source of power for electricity). There is a need to remodel something every year. Ruth says she faces a challenge now finding good people to work at the labor-intensive operation. She is also experiencing difficulty recruiting enough guests. The ranch's season is Easter through Thanksgiving, and it was not full in 2016. To help attract more guests, Ruth is working with a marketing company to draw attention to her website. She will also be getting more help soon as her son joins the business.
Ruth Hartman offers this advice to potential guest ranch operators:
- Research the market. It's hard to create a loyalty base, so decide what you want to bring to the table that is different and of value.
- Understand whatever animals you will be bringing in. Learn about different breeds and select the most appropriate breeds for your operation.
- Decide if you really want to open a business in California, considering all the regulations.
Yesterday I was an agritourist. Pamela Marvel and Stuart Littell, owners of Grumpy Goats Farm, in the Capay Valley of Yolo County, invited me to be part of their annual olive harvest, joining the "friends and family" contingent and picking alongside a hired picking crew. Grumpy Goats is a twenty acre organic farm planted with multiple varieties of olives that are pressed into prize-winning extra virgin olive oil. For me, the day was an adventure. I got to enjoy a sunny fall day being part of an ancient rite of the season, and I got to spend a few hours with some people whose paths don't often cross my own.
Being a guest, I didn't arrive until 9:30 or so, after a beautiful drive through the surrounding farm land. Stuart was there to meet me, introduced me to the other friends and family, and offered me coffee and pastries. With my own picking basket strapped on, I started picking. The young trees were soft and kind, giving their fruit easily with a gentle pull. Even the lowest branches almost dragging on the ground bore olives to harvest. The rhythm was easy on the body - no ladders to climb and lots of trays close by to dump olives when the picking basket began to get heavy. The crew of men and women worked fast around me, and I learned by watching. The other family and friends guests and I tried to keep up, and talked as we picked.
After a few hours it was lunch time. Stuart and Pamela put on lunch for the "family and friends", while the crew gathered to eat by their vehicles or in the shade of the trees. We talked and ate and enjoyed the pleasant day, learning more about each others' lives. Then it was time to go back to picking. This time I joined in with the hired crew, trying not to get in their way.
I thought of the election earlier this week. I thought of our new president-elect and the fearful changes that might be coming for this kind woman and her family and her friends. I wondered what harvest day would be like for Stuart and Pamela next year, or the year after. This agritourism adventure connected me briefly to people whose kindness and friendliness I hope to be able to repay before too long.
The people of Suzie's Farm, diversified organic growers in San Diego, have explored many ways to connect their customers to the farm and the good food growing on the farm. They offer regular farm tours, a CSA program, strawberry U-Pick days, farm dinners and other events. About a year ago, farm manager Lauren Gagliano Saline and her staff noticed that some of their customers wanted more chances to get their hands dirty, maybe to harvest their own CSA.
Suzie's staff tried an unguided vegetable U-Pick, letting customers pick vegetables from the fields. That didn't work out so well. Many people didn't know how to walk in the fields without trashing the beds, and didn't know how to harvest the different crops, and the random picking adventures tied up staff time. So Lauren and the team created a guided U-Pick option, and the U-Pick Harvest Club was born.
Now about fifty U-Pick Harvest Club members pick their own CSA every week. They join and prepay for four, eight, sixteen or more "picks". Each "pick" is a varying list of eight items with a set quantity of each item, designed to be approximately equal to a CSA share. Harvest Club members are told the times each week that they can pick their shares, on Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday. The picking times are when farm staff are leading their regular farm tours, so Harvest Club members join any of the tours and are supervised in their picking by the tour leaders. Of course they are not charged for the tour, which usually costs $10 per person.
Another advantage the U-Pick Harvest Club members enjoy is the chance to customize their pick, an option not available to regular CSA members. Rather than picking a set amount of each of the eight items, they are allowed to substitute more of one crop if they prefer. For example, they can pick eight melons one week if melons are one of the listed items, and take none of the other things on the list. And some people, Lauren explained, just prefer to pick that perfect bunch of kale. Harvest Club members are also allowed to bring along up to three people to "help" them pick - which includes the free farm tour.
The first year of Suzie's U-Pick Harvest Club has been a success, seeing steady growth and renewals for the second year. For more information, see Suzie's Farm website.
About four years ago, the Olsons set up a "U-pick/CSA Member Program," and now reserve the u-pick experience for farm CSA members. The price of membership is a case of Gabriel Farm's organic juice. For $36, customers get three gallons of juice and the ability to pick and purchase whatever is in season. Once they had the membership program established, Lucy and Torrey felt comfortable in opening up the U-Pick options to their full range of crops - from apples, pluots, berries, Asian Pears, tomatoes and flowers in August through persimmons and pineapple guavas in November.
Membership in the U-pick CSA program at Gabriel Farm averages about 500 families. A membership is good for a family or for a group of four people. Most customers are families with young children who want their children to learn where their food comes from and to be able to experience the farm. Most drive an hour or two from the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Lucy and Torrey are happy with their program. They have found that most people who make the membership commitment are supportive, kind and respectful of the farm.
Most U-Pick CSA members only come out to the farm once a year, as they are very busy people, Lucy explained, although she encourages all members to experience the apple harvest at least once if they start in a different season. Turnover in the program is about 80 percent, but enough new members join each year to maintain the average membership numbers.
The Olsons are not trying to grow their U-Pick program. They tried a hay pyramid one year for the children to play on, but decided that they didn't want to be in the agri-tainment business and did not repeat the experiment. They plan to continue to use the U-Pick membership program to limit the number of customers and to make more of a connection with people who enjoy and respect Gabriel Farm. For more information, see gabrielfarm.com/portal/u-pick
Nigel and Lorraine of Eatwell Farm in Dixon go an extra mile to share a taste of real farm experiences with their 500 CSA members and their friends and relations, partly for increased understanding about the farm by their customers and partly to build loyalty and attract new CSA members.
After arriving and getting settled, we all walked out to the garlic field, where we learned how to pull up the bulbs with the stem still attached. We got the hang of garlic harvesting quickly, as the soil had already been loosened around the bulbs, making pulling pretty easy. We picked and pulled and shook off the dirt and piled our findings into harvesting trays to bring back to the packing shed.
After we'd filled a dozen or so trays with our harvest, Connie and Eric, our hosts for the afternoon, let us loose in the next field over, the most beautiful abundant strawberry patch, with instructions to taste and pick what we wanted. No prices, no weighing, just picking and eating of the most delicious ripe and sweet berries. Smiles were everywhere.
Then it was time to learn how to braid. First a little instruction in cleaning off the outer layers of skins, then a short demo on how to braid, and we were ready. We all made a few braids, or tried to make braids. Although the farm sells garlic at their farmers' markets, Connie and Eric again let us know that we could take home as much as we wanted! We felt royally gifted with kindness.
Finally, dinner was ready. The main course was farm-raised chicken, prepared by Lorraine. Rounding out the delicious meal were potluck salads, sides and sweets brought by the visitors. Dinner was followed by a campfire, complete with marshmallows and all the makings for classic s'mores.
Brooke Smith, sales manager at the Courtyard by Marriott and Residence Inn in Chico, promises that Explore Butte County, the non-profit organization funded by the TBID, will help with things such as promoting agricultural tourism, Lake Oroville and local cities. Smith explained that Explore Butte County intends to establish a grant program that will assist local partners, including agritourism operations, in their promotions. Board members of Explore Butte County are primarily hotel and motel operators, but the board also includes Nicole Johansson, a marketing professional and organizer of the popular Sierra Oro Farm Trail.
In the TBID process, local lodging operators agree to assess themselves and ask the local government to collect the money and pass the funds onto a designated tourism promotion organization, often times the Visitors and Convention Bureau or a non-profit organization such as Explore Butte County. Many county and cities in California have established TBIDs, including Napa Valley, Sacramento County, Placer County, Monterey County, San Diego, Long Beach and Oceanside. By the end of 2014, there were 85 California TBIDs. Many of these communities, including Butte County, were assisted by Civitas, a consulting firm specializing in TBID formation.
The next step for Explore Butte County is to hire a marketing firm to work with the board on the tourism marketing strategic plan and implementation program. The marketing RFP has just been released, and proposals are due by June 30 from any interested parties. Local Butte County marketing firms are specifically invited to submit proposals. Please send any questions pertaining to the RFP via email to firstname.lastname@example.org