Set in the crook of the Siuslaw National Forest, Scottie and Greg Jones found their piece of paradise. A small Alsea, Oregon, spot named Leaping Lamb Farm, it is characterized by verdant pastures, exquisitely temperate weather and lush dark-green forests.
The couple settled the 70-acre property in 2003 and, today, admit they did so naively. “My husband found our farm on the internet,” Scottie laughs. “I would love to say there was some master plan; it was more along the lines of ‘What a gorgeous barn. How hard could farming be?’”
They soon found out. It was fairly dramatic for the first several years, Scottie admits. They had dived in headfirst, relying on books, Oregon State University Extension and the kindness of neighbors to learn about everything from raising sheep to irrigating fields. They also relied on their own ingenuity.
After one of their horses began regularly escaping from an old gate, the Joneses designed a universal gate latch. They manufactured and sold the latch for a while but “realized after two years, our farm was going in the tank,” Scottie says. “The sale of lambs, latches and hay just didn’t cover tractors breaking down and inputs.”
So they got creative. Instead of a seasonal farmers’ market, a corn maze or a farm tour, they built a Farm Stay business where they fluff pillows and play hosts to guests. It provided the income they needed to help them remain on the property.
Farm Stay operations are growing in popularity and are proven ways to diversify farm operations and bring additional income. Just as importantly, Farm Stay provides travelers a way to connect with long-forgotten agricultural roots and build a deeper link to the food they eat.
While there aren’t exact statistics on the Farm Stay trend, the 2012 Census of Agriculture noted agritourism, along with related recreational services (hunting, etc.), has potential to provide a not-insignificant source of income. The 2007 Census reported 10,249 farms grossed $546 million in agritourism/recreational income. By 2012, that number had increased to 13,334 farms and $674 million.
EXTRA DOLLARS FOR SMALL FARMS. Greg and Scottie Jones had built a cottage on the property for their daughter, which she never moved into. “I thought it would be a good way to get people on the farm,” Scottie says. “That was about as far as I’d thought. I wasn’t capitalizing on it as a diversification strategy.”
She obtained a conditional-use permit and went before the county board of supervisors to explain she wanted to have guests stay on her land. Once all was in place, Scottie created a website and placed ads in a Portland magazine as well as through the county tourism board. Beginning in 2006, the property began booking up—both with city dwellers seeking respite and farmers who wanted to study the farm’s business model. Because she only had one cottage to offer, Scottie had to turn people away.
“When they asked where else they could go, I wondered why there wasn’t one place [online] for people to find a farm at which to stay,” she says. So she created one.
Scottie received two USDA grants and began Farm Stay U.S. The site scours the internet for all the country’s farms that open their properties to guests. To date, her site features about 900 farms.
More recently, Scottie converted their property’s farmhouse into guest quarters for additional income. The expansion, she says, was a no-brainer.
The couple sells lamb and excess hay, but hospitality now comprises 90% of their income. In addition to a relaxing vacation, guests can observe lambing season, pick fresh produce and soak in the relative peace of the working historic farm. Most weekends, mid-March through Labor Day, the farm is booked solid. Rates run from $175 to $400 per night, depending on time of year, with a two-night minimum.
“Farm Stays are a good diversification strategy,” Scottie adds. “You can’t control the price of corn or weather. Farm Stays are relatively consistent … as long as you’re doing a good job with hospitality, and you’re OK with having strangers on your farm. Farm Stays allow consumers to put a face on farming.”
TRANSPARENCY FOR LARGE OPERATIONS. Farm Stays are a diversification stream that seems to prove profitable for operations of multiple sizes. Jodi Benoit’s family is the fifth generation on this Bluffton, Georgia, cattle operation. Benoit came back home to the 2,500-acre place in 2014—serving as the farm events manager.
Benoit says she never really saw herself involved in the business of farming, but in the mid-1990s, her dad, Will Harris, shifted his business model toward organic, sustainable beef. “I noticed people wanted to come here and see the farm and learn how we do things,” she says.
Farm visitors often asked for nearby lodging recommendations. “The Days Inn was it,” Benoit laughs. So in 2014, the cattle business, known as White Oak Pastures, added four cabins to forested areas on the land. They’ve also renovated an existing pond house to accommodate bigger parties.
A Farm Stay here allows guests a behind-the-scenes look at the livestock life cycle. “We’re so different from other Farm Stay places,” says Benoit, who now sits on the Farm Stay U.S. board with Scottie Jones.
One point that really makes White Oaks Pastures stand out is a firsthand look at the slaughtering and butchering process—it’s optional.
“I’m very blunt and transparent about our operation,” Benoit says. “I explain we’re about to walk onto the kill floor and what they’re going to see. I think people appreciate that we let them walk in with us and watch and ask questions.”
Rates to stay here run from $99 to $199, depending on time of year and property.
“The fall is the busiest time of year,” Benoit notes, adding that the lodging business has remained steady throughout the year. Customers range from city residents to birdwatchers. “We have 80 bald eagles on the farm,” Benoit chuckles. “So, in January, we have a lot of birders here taking pictures.”
Considerations Before You Take the Hospitality Plunge:
Want some advice before you jump into a Farm Stay side of the business? Consider these points from Scottie Jones, of Leaping Lamb Farm, and Jodi Benoit, of White Oak Pastures.
• Obtain permits and insurance. Check with your county. Is it legal? What permits do you need? What sort of additional liability insurance should you carry?
• Get your family onboard. Scottie Jones says: “My husband doesn’t have much to do with the Farm Stay portion, but he’s OK with strangers on property.” She acts as the Farm Stay’s point of contact.
• Be hospitable. Sounds like an obvious factor, but are you prepared to clean up after guests? Are you OK with changing sheets and dealing with quirky requests?
• Set clear expectations in writing. Jones and Benoit both say it’s important to clearly state in a contract what you expect of guests. Early on, for instance, Jones had guests helping themselves to the farm’s produce rather than just picking a few things to consume while there. “One guest came out with bags and bags of stuff,” she says. That’s an example of the need to set clear expectations and boundaries.
• Consider safety. At the very beginning of guest stays, Jones offers a quick primer. “I call it the danger tour,” she chuckles. “I kinda joke, but accidents often happen in the first 30 minutes. I show guests everything from the hay chutes in the loft to how to approach our dog to staying away from rams and the deep parts of the creek.”
• Promote yourself. Consider joining a group, whether it’s Farm Stay U.S. or your county tourism association. Scottie Jones says her site has a private members forum to exchange ideas and best practices. These tips include everything from dealing with bad guests to drying sheets. They also share growing and livestock practices.
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