For the past several years, agritourism has been on the rise for Appalachian farms. Farmers have built cabins and converted barns into rentals where vacationers can stay at the farm, eat fresh local food, and enjoy farm activities. The number of Appalachian Grown farms in Western North Carolina that offer lodging has increased from 27 in 2010 to 53 today – a 96 percent increase.
For a lot of farmers, rentals are an important part of their farm business, and a way to supplement income from farmers market and CSA sales. Then many vacationers cancelled their travel plans due to COVID-19.
“Now we wonder, can you count on rentals? We’re just rethinking, are rentals something that’s a dependable income source?” says Carl Evans from Mountain Harvest Organics.
He and Julie Mansfield live on a 130 acre property in Madison County, North Carolina, where they cultivate about an acre of produce, plus 5 acres of pastured livestock. As they approached retirement age, they decided to build two farm rentals—a three bedroom apartment in their converted barn and a camper with a hot tub and mountain views.
They were on track to transition from hands-on farming to semi-retirement in the coming years as the rentals became more popular, but when they learned about COVID-19 they decided to pause their farm lodging. They were concerned about bringing visitors from other states into the area and their own health as their age puts them in a high-risk category.
“Safety is more important than money right now,” Carl says.
Carl and Julie aren’t sure when they’ll feel comfortable bringing people onto the farm, and think it could be a long time before tourism picks up again.
“I think it’s going to take a two-year recovery, especially If the virus has another surge in the fall. People think we’re done with it and then fall comes and we have another surge. It’s going to be in the back of their minds for a while, I think. Maybe Julie and I, maybe it’s just an age thing that we’re more pessimistic than some people,” he says.
There are many other local farms that rely on lodging, including Franny’s Farm in a rural part of neighboring Buncombe County. That’s where Frances Tacy offers a wide range of agritourism.
“We went into the season—between events, weddings, retreats, a yoga festival, farm camp scheduled—all of that stopped. So it was a bit of a panic because we were already booked out. So what happened? What we found is that we had tens of thousands of dollars we had to reimburse,” Frances says.
This was especially challenging because the cancelations came at the end of winter and early spring, a leaner time for many farm businesses.
“As a farm we have a peak season. We operate and generate revenue about eight months out of the year and the four winter months are pretty challenging. But we’ve always been prepared for it,” she says.
To fill the gaps this year, they sold some farm equipment and relied on income from their off-farm jobs. A few weeks ago they decided to open their farm house, eco-cabins, and camping rentals to visitors again. They increased their cleaning protocol and posted signs for visitors on how to protect themselves and others during their visit.
“We’re attracting a lot more people during the week and for longer stays. Everybody’s been so homebound and they have this flexibility now not to just go for a weekend. So our revenues have actually picked up because of the extended stays. This past month of being open, we generated more income in our lodging than we ever have historically before,” she says.
Frances says visitors are seeking open space and a connection to nature when they travel.
“What we’re seeing is people go to the farm and they stay there. That’s where they hang out. They build a fire. They go hiking on the trail. It’s a completely different experience that people are looking for right now,” she says.
Farmers throughout the region are deciding whether to reopen their lodging, and weighing the benefits and risks of allowing visitors onto their farms. You can find farms that offer lodging in ASAP’s Local Food Guide, but make sure to check if availability or policies have changed during the pandemic. The Local Food Guide is available online at www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: July 6, 2020