In Italy, where agritourism has been nurtured by government subsidies for decades, business is booming. Who goes to the Italian countryside anymore without participating in a farmstay? C'mon! All the cool kids are doing it.
In case you're new to the concept, it goes like this: a farmstay or agritourism vacation entails traveling to a farm, eating there and (often) staying at (or near) the farmhouse, as you would at a bed & breakfast.
There's generally participation of some kind in the regional rural lifestyle... Picking fruit in the orchards or vineyards. Observing or helping with food and/or wine-making processes. Currying the ponies. Milking the sheep and making cheese. Feeding the chickens. Stuff like that.
And on the off-chance you've managed to miss the press recently, agritourism may have grown up in Italy, but it's not just for European farmers anymore.
There's plenty of folks now betting on U.S. agritourism being big business for rural America.
And why not? Thanks to renewed interest in food sourcing and a little press from some writer named Michael Pollan, some farmers are already cashing in.
Since I grew up on a tiny Midwestern farm, I suppose I still find the concept of paying (and in some cases, paying dearly) for participation in agritourism to be kind of a bummer. To my mind, it's a bit like paying for content on the internet.
"What? I have to pay for this? But the internet is free, isn't it?"
Realizing I sound like great-grandpa as I say this (type this?), when I was a youngster, farm chores were part of the deal. You didn't pay to do them. If anything, one's weekend spending money was based on completing those tasks.
I understand why it all needs to be monetized. Like Big Daddy Kane says, "Farmin' ain't easy." But it still makes me a little sad if I'm only welcome to visit the countryside if I arrive with a fat wallet.
That said, I do live in the city now, I am starved for contact with the sources of my food, and I was very excited by the prospect of visiting a farm in Italy, breathing fresh mountain air, picking my way through an orchard and conversing with goats. And... I'm perfectly willing to pay for all those benefits.
I'd just offer this advice to city slickers like myself who might be eyeing fertile fields: as more farms transform into tourist businesses, it's going to be increasingly more important to view them as businesses.
Different farms are going to offer different benefits, and like any commercial enterprise, some will suit you better than others, so do your research. Read reviews online before you go. Make sure you know what you'll give and what you'll get.
I have no doubt that the majority of agritourism farmers are truly lovely, generous hosts, but there will be those who simply want to milk you like they milk their cows. Caveat emptor applies as much to wholesome-looking farmhouses as it does to hotels, motels and B&Bs.
Yours in wanderlust,