How are small farms surviving?

Seren and Steve Sinisi’s livestock farm, Old Crow Ranch in Durham, Maine, touts the tagline “meat so good a vegetarian would eat it.” While meat may be their bread and butter, farm life isn’t cheap. That’s one reason the Sinisis are looking to make extra income by renting out space at pastoral Old Crow to vacationers who’d like a taste of New England farm life.

Before the couple married, Seren hoped to open a hostel in nearby Portland. Today, she’s a stay-at-home mom to two young children. “I do everything inside, he does everything outside,” Seren explains of the family’s work arrangement.

Now, “inside” will include the 24-by-8-foot abode they hired Tiny Homes of Maine to build for renters. They’re calling the structure — which is on wheels — the Crow’s Nest, and are welcoming their first guests on the farm the final week in June, “in order,” she says, “to hopefully not work my husband totally into the ground and to fulfill my dream of hosting.” For her, this is a way to contribute financially to the farm while still caring for her children.

The Crow’s Nest at Old Crow Ranch in Durham, Maine.

Lucky for Seren and Steve, city dwellers and suburbanites are hungry to spend their vacation time in a bucolic landscape with the promise of some wholesome downtime and maybe a locally sourced meal. They are part of a growing agritourism trend of family farmers with small to medium farms using their land, food supply, and livestock to attract guests on websites like Airbnb and VRBO, increasing their farms’ revenue and exposure.

The agritourism industry offers farmers an easy, semi-passive form of income. It’s a boon both for farms and for businesses like Airbnb, which profit from the reservations made through their websites. Airbnb recently released data showing that last year there were 57,000 rural listings on the site. An Airbnb spokesperson said that from February 2018 to February 2019, 943,534 guests stayed at a farm they found on Airbnb, booking more than 745,000 nights. Hosts with farm listings earned more than $81 million. In Maine, where the Sinisis live, 51 percent of rural hosts told Airbnb in a recent survey that income raised through the site has helped them stay in their homes.

While turning their homes and businesses into vacation rentals has plenty of upside, for many small farms it is a reaction to difficult financial realities. The USDA noted in 2015 that 88 percent of all US farms are considered small, but approximately 60 percent of all vegetable and dairy sales to consumers come from only 3 percent of larger family farms. Many of these bigger farms can receive government subsidies to augment their income. Those subsidies are determined by the size and complexity of their operation under the 2018 farm bill. Smaller or organic agricultural endeavors, or those that grow “specialty crops” like fruits, nuts, and vegetables, don’t qualify for this sort of support. Old Crow Ranch is one of these farms.

Smaller farms can, however, apply to receive disaster assistance when available, or grant funding for new projects, which can be a complicated process. Seren said she applied for disaster relief once after a drought and received $1,000 to cover some of the losses incurred, a small percentage of the total expenses. This absence of support from the government — support that larger and more profitable farms receive — makes it necessary for some farmers to find alternative ways to generate revenue.

Though it is gaining popularity, agritourism has been helping sustain farmers since the early 20th century. Italy has had the most success tapping into an interest in agrarian life to support its working and defunct farms with the agriturismoor farm-stay model, launched in the 1960s. Since 1985, it has been regulated by Italian state law to ensure the authenticity of guests’ farm experiences. A 2017 University of Turinstudy on the agriturismomodel noted that it “can open new horizons in rural sustainable development, with possible beneficial effects on the environment, society, agricultural heritage and economic growth.”

Shaina Hamilton, a lawyer from Brooklyn, loved the cultural experience of staying with a local family at an agriturismo with her husband and two sons. “It also felt great to be able to support a small business and agriculture,” she says. They liked that their city kids saw where their food came from by visiting egg-laying chickens, bees in an apiary, and a room where balsamic vinegar was aged.

The popularity of rental websites makes it easier for farms to launch these efforts and to connect with guests. In Freeport, Maine, friends of the Sinisis’, Sarah Wiederkehr and Steve Burger, rent out a space above a barn at their dairy farm and creamery, Winter Hill Farm. As Airbnb superhosts, they have housed 584 guests from 10 countries in about three years. They make enough money from rentals to cover the salary of one of their two full-time employees. “Though it is a small percentage of our annual income, it is definitely an important revenue stream,” Wiederkehr explains. There are other perks, too. “We get to interact with guests from all over the world, and it’s great, because we never have to leave the farm,” she says.

One of JoAnn Coates Hunter’s talents is bringing groups of people to the countryside for some quality downtime and a little agrarian education. When she joined the nonprofit Fox Haven Organic Farm and Learning Center in Jefferson, Maryland, as director of the Learning Center and Retreat Center, she saw unused indoor spaces as a way to support educational programming they had yet to launch. “I need[ed] to make revenue, stat. The best way that I know to do that is to clean these places up and get them on Airbnb,” she says. “That set the seed money in place.” Using Airbnb, Farm Stay US, Retreat Finder, and word of mouth, guests started booking weddings and business retreats. Many were agricultural or environmental groups from nearby Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland; others were groups of people in recovery or kids from low-income neighborhoods on mindfulness retreats.

For Fox Haven, the benefits go beyond the cost of a rental. Some visitors help out by doing chores like collecting eggs or pruning trees in the orchard. Fox Haven also hosts volunteer groups that undertake more strenuous projects, like clearing trails. Former guests often even donate to the thriving farm after they leave. Coates Hunter doesn’t have a marketing budget, so renting space functions as free advertising as well.

Having guests on a farm isn’t always ideal, nor is business necessarily steady. Finca Pajuil in Hatillo, Puerto Rico, is a working farm and education center, offering workshops on and treatments using the ancient Indian holistic healing system ayurveda. Guests can rent a room in the farm building or secure an upgraded camping experience by “glamping” in style on their land. Finca Pajuil’s team of farmers started renting because they couldn’t afford to pay bills with sales from their harvest alone.

While they have had success with rentals and add-ons like music classes, yoga sessions, and nutritional consultations, they saw a dip in business after Hurricane Maria tore through the island in September 2017. Founder Je García-Matthews, known as Jey Ma, says she and the other farmers have generally enjoyed their rental experiences, except in infrequent instances when they had to change their daily schedules to accommodate guests. “There’s been the occasional few [guests] who think they are at a regular hotel and make ridiculous demands based on that,” she says.

Guests are not always familiar with the way farms work, like the dangers of handling some machinery, the level of focus it requires, or the somewhat gory process that brings animals from the fields to your plate. There is some reason for farmers to worry; even if they’re just offering hay rides or winery tours, farmers can be liable if someone is injured on their property. That’s why the Sinisis at Old Crow Ranch hung a sign that says: “Caution. This is a working farm. Use common sense.”

Seren and her husband are also worried that images of their dairy farm taken by guests might be posted on social media and misunderstood. “We’re not an educational facility where everything has satin slippers on. … If it’s time to go to the market, it’s time to go to the market,” she says of their livestock, “but that can look not so nice.” She’s curious what she’ll learn about guests’ perspectives once rentals get into full swing.

Vacationers have reported looking for more than just a hotel stay — and experiences are built into a farm’s fabric. On a farm stay, guests might have the option to stargaze, enjoy outdoor sports, or see piglets birthed. Airbnb already offers add-on “experiences” that don’t require an overnight stay but include farm events like cooking classes or a “meet the goats at a small farm.” These let farmers host one-off events on their own terms and, according to Airbnb, “create new revenue streams in a way that doesn’t require upfront costs typically associated with starting a new business.”

“A lot of people come for sentimental reasons — like their grandfather was a dairy farmer — and some just really love animals,” Wiederkehr says. People like Chris Allen, a business owner from Miami who stayed on a working ranch in Central Florida a few years ago. He was excited for his then-3-year-old daughter to enjoy some of the freedom and experiences he did growing up in rural Minnesota. “[My daughter] would go to the barn by herself in the am and get a bucket of grain to make her rounds feeding the animals. We would watch from the window with teary eyes, witnessing how independent and thorough she was,” he says.

“People are looking for the beauty of a farm but not the ugly of a farm,” says Coates Hunter. That’s exactly what farms offer guests through farm stays found with ease on rental websites. “They get,” she says of the feedback she receives in reviews and guest emails, “a sense of healing and of peace.” And working farmers, who know all too well that they can’t put all their eggs in one basket, are able to diversify their income, keeping food on our plates and smaller farms afloat.

All Rights Reserved for Liz Tracy

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