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.