The hens look up at me from their nesting boxes. They seem slightly irritated but unsurprised. A child runs up, shoves one of the chickens aside, and snatches two eggs. Around me, a half-dozen more children and adults collect eggs in varying shades of cream and tan while a half-dozen others hand-feed dried mealworms to birds flocking around our ankles. I reach for an egg from an empty nest. There is something primally perfect about the way it fits warmly in the palm of my hand before I transfer it into a pretty wire basket provided to me by my hosts.
It is 8:30 a.m. at Wildflower Farms, a glamorous self-declared “nature resort” on 140 acres of land in New York’s Hudson Valley, where a two-person cabin starts at $731 per night. The farm has invited guests to rustle up breakfast the old-fashioned way in the henhouse, a wooden structure with a modern farmhouse aesthetic similar to that of the guest cabins just a few minutes’ walk away. A member of the farm staff who manages the animals (including pigs, sheep, and donkeys) encourages guests to collect as many eggs as they find. Visitors can take those eggs home or bring them to the on-farm restaurant, Clay, where a chef will use them to prepare breakfast.
The egg harvest is a brief, carefully orchestrated agritourism experience offering a glimpse of the labor that precludes the enjoyment of a bite of food. Many of the guests have traveled two hours into the countryside from New York City, where the closest most folks get to harvesting their own food is picking up an Instacart order from their doorstep. Snatching a few eggs and uprooting a few vegetables on Wildflower’s popular Forage the Farm tour does not constitute a full day’s work, but it is a useful reminder that food doesn’t just magically appear on restaurant plates and grocery store shelves.
A few centuries of industrialization, urbanization, and globalization have collected people into cities, but the pull of the countryside has always remained. In the new urban-centered world, enterprising farmers have found plenty of opportunities to sell their rural lifestyle along with their crops. American city dwellers of the late 1800s could spend their vacations on dude ranches among cattle and cowboys, seeking nostalgia for a fading way of life (or novelty for a life they had never known). Italy popularized the modern model for combining agriculture and tourism in the wake of World War II, when the national government encouraged rural populations to continue producing food rather than relocate to urban areas in search of more profitable jobs.
In 2023, “agritourism” acts as an umbrella term for a wide assortment of activities that take place on farms, including farmstays, where guests sleep on-site. For varying investments of time, energy, and money, anyone can engage with our farming system, giving consumers a peek behind the farm-to-table world. On one end of the spectrum are farmstays like those organized through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (aka WWOOFing), where people volunteer manual labor in exchange for lodging for days or months at a time. On the other end of the spectrum are luxury resorts like Wildflower, where guests can stay a single night and opt into free and paid educational activities in agricultural and natural settings. Somewhere in between are the u-pick apple farms and restaurants that incorporate vegetable garden tours into meals.
A morning spent collecting eggs represents the controversial line of questioning at the heart of the evolving agritourism industry in the United States: Is there a way for the 90 percent of Americans who do not work in agriculture to respectfully connect with the farmers, animals, and land upon which our food system depends? If so, can that connection meaningfully impact public sentiment on larger societal issues, like the climate crisis, global food security, workers’ rights, the widespread spraying of toxic chemicals, and the consolidation of small, diversified farms into monoculture megafarms?
“It feels important to have our doors open and share what we do here,” says Cally McDougall, who runs Studio Hill Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, with her husband Jesse. “If we want people to care about the environment, ecosystems, and wildlife, there have to be places left where they can come to know those intimately and, hopefully, keep coming back to them.”
The couple renovated a historic building on her family’s 350-acre, five-generation farm with the intention that it would become their home, but they decided to transform it into a farmstay in 2017.
“One of my favorite parts about hosting farmstays is seeing guests return again and again over the years and make their own family memories here,” Cally McDougall says. “I’m always surprised by the details that kids remember about their experiences here and what sticks with them. It could be a couple of years since their last visit, and when they come back, they will ask us about a particular sheep by name.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has categorized agritourism activities into five types: direct sales, education, hospitality, outdoor recreation, and entertainment. Of the more than 2 million farms that participated in the 2017 Census of Agriculture, about 28,000 offered some kind of agritourism. The results from the 2022 Census, the most recent, aren’t available to the public yet, but that number may well have risen. While most of the tourism industry came to an abrupt halt during the pandemic, agritourism saw a unique upswing, attracting consumers to outdoor spaces where they could breathe freely and stretch their legs. According to business consulting firm Grand View Research, the value of the U.S. agritourism market rose from $2.2 billion in 2020 to $2.5 billion in 2021, making North America the largest regional agritourism market in the world. That growth is projected to continue in the coming years.
As the American agritourism market expands, so too do the offerings on the high end of the spectrum. Luxurious resorts have popped up on farms, ranches, vineyards, and wild landscapes across the country, where the activities tend to be geared toward relaxation and wellness rather than labor. Farmworkers don’t generally indulge in a Himalayan salt stone massage at the end of the day, as guests do at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee; join a Wellness Yurt yoga session at Los Poblanos in New Mexico after harvesting in the fields, or attend a multicourse dinner (called “Theater for the Hungry”) at Social Haus, the restaurant of The Green O in Montana.
Educational programs at these venues could impart some insights about farming, but the brevity and comfort of these experiences limits learning about the demanding nature of regular employment in our food system. Though luxury estates represent only a small percentage of agritourism business, they garner an unequal amount of attention, thanks to robust marketing budgets and media coverage.
To some, this luxe kind of agritourism is as ripe for skewering as a tomato at a picnic in August. It offers all the charm of farming with none of the challenges. It also calls into question the commonly held wholesome vision of farm life, rooted at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson’s moral agrarianism. That morally superior reputation was problematic then and remains problematic now, at times veiling unsafe working conditions, like those revealed in recent years at restaurants such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, or toxic workplaces, like at Willows Inn in Washington.
There are myriad critical issues to be addressed in the agritourism industry, as in the restaurant and farming industries more broadly. Yet 80 percent of Americans live in urban centers, and their complete removal from the production side of our food system has contributed to global disasters. Despite its problems, farm-focused travel has great potential for positive change.
Evidence shows agritourism can influence consumer behavior when it comes to shopping locally, as demonstrated in a 2021 study by Carla Barbieri, professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management at North Carolina State University. Researchers collected surveys from visitors to six agritourism operations in the state in 2018 and 2019.
“We found that, after an agritourism experience, people were willing to spend up to 20 percent more on local food,” Barbieri says. “When consumers realize what local farmers are producing, they are more willing to purchase local foods and to increase their family budget to buy local foods.”
Barbieri also points to conservation efforts motivated by agritourism. “Because farmers are receiving visitors, their farm has to look nice, so they are conserving native plants and flowers and ecosystems,” she says. Native wildflowers that feed and shelter pollinators have both an aesthetic appeal for tourists and a real, beneficial environmental impact.
“When you’re just in a market, you may not realize that choosing one item over another has a ripple effect,” says David Rust, founder of Sagra Farms, one of a few digital platforms to emerge in recent years where travelers can book farmstays, retreats, and activities. “But when you’re actually on a farm and you get to know these people, you see how you’re voting with your dollars. That deeper understanding ultimately impacts the decisions you make when you get home. There’s such a profound appreciation and respect that people have when they’re on a farm for how complex the system is, and a real sense of why making certain food choices helps mitigate climate change and benefit the environment and support fair labor practices.”
Sagra strategically partners with farms located near the most populous cities in the U.S. as a means of reconnecting city residents with their regional foodsheds. The company has existing or forthcoming partnerships with farms in California, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Vermont, including the McDougalls’ Studio Hill Farm.
Besides the income boost from direct and indirect sales of farm products, paid accommodations and activities present a unique opportunity for farmers to diversify their revenue streams.
“We weren’t thinking of agritourism education. We were thinking we needed to pay our loans,” says Jesse McDougall about the couple’s decision to pivot to tourism. Part-time hospitality now earns them more money than their land and livestock, and Rust says that’s not unusual. “It really surprised me that people were very interested in what we were doing,” he says. He now regularly leads a two-hour regenerative agriculture tour that takes guests through the farm’s fields and forest to meet the 200 or so sheep that make up their flock.
With painfully thin profit margins and packed schedules, few small farmers have the resources to market and manage a hospitality program in addition to their agricultural work. Platforms such as Sagra and Farmstay help connect farmers and budding farm tourists for a cut of the profits, 15 percent in Sagra’s case. With average per-night farmstays on Sagra’s platform ranging from $300 to $900, even a 50 percent occupancy rate could net tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a year, a life-changing or even lifesaving amount for small-scale farmers. As other sources of revenue feel increasingly precarious — crop yields vulnerable to erratic weather patterns linked to the climate crisis, upheavals in international agriculture trade — a separate, more stable revenue stream could be the reason a farmer survives a bad season.
While escaping to nature is usually pitched as a cure for city dwellers, Rust also points out the social and emotional benefits to farmers, especially since rural populations are at higher risk for mental health issues such as depression.
“Farmers are quite isolated, so the amount of human interaction they get is limited,” Rust says. “One of the biggest things we see is a sense of joy at being able to share all their hard work with other people.”
The kind of agritourism that has grown especially popular in the wake of the pandemic undoubtedly presents a softer, kinder reality than the one most farmers inhabit. The way guests collect eggs at Wildflower Farms is not representative of the way that the vast majority of eggs are produced. Tours of industrial egg-laying facilities might be more effective in motivating citizens to change our food system. But there is something to be said for using wonder — the kind you get from holding a freshly laid egg — as a tool for education, whether or not this single experience causes someone to spend more money on ethically raised eggs at the grocery store.
Every agritourism business must find its own middle path between agriculture and tourism, balancing the needs of farmers and the needs of guests. There are compromises on both sides (bugs in bedrooms, broken branches in orchards), and a mutual understanding that a perfect simulation of agricultural life is impossible. If nothing else, agritourism gives small farmers a viable reason to carry on, even when they could make more money selling their land than farming on it.
“It’s clear to me that human beings need personal connections to land, but the opportunities to have those long-term relationships are dwindling,” Cally McDougall says. “As small farms give way to consolidation and development, those sorts of connections with land become rarer and rarer. If small family farms are going to stay intact for future generations, I think farmstays and agritourism are going to be key to remaining resilient, vibrant, and — frankly — relevant to the larger world.”
Elena Valeriote is a writer of stories about food, farming, culture, climate, and travel that explore the connection between people and place. Her work has appeared in publications including Gastro Obscura, Modern Farmer, and Life & Thyme.