Originally published in Issue 14
By Mitch Hagney
Sometimes rather than bringing crops to the customers, customers come to the crops. The public’s enthusiasm for urban farming goes far beyond buying the produce, and that means that many customers seek to be more than just recipients of local food, they want to be participants in the process.
Experiences at the farm allow the public to participate directly, which can bring farmers additional revenue sources that are less tied to their production capacity. For small farms, that can provide a big boost. Customers coming to the farm certainly isn’t a totally new phenomenon. Navigating corn mazes, attending petting zoos, shopping at farm stands, and picking their own fruit have allowed members of the community to directly connected to farms throughout the years.
Today’s growing culture of local agriculture is spurring even more creative relationships between the public and their local farms. Pop up dinners and restaurants on site are emerging throughout the United States.
Bed and breakfasts on farms are an older tradition, but new online renting platforms like AirBnB have really unlocked agritourism as a revenue option for “farmstays.” Many rural getaways on big acreage are featured on the site which all across the world, but short-term space renting from tourists who want a unique experience is an option that’s particularly tempting for urban agriculture.
AirBnB’s own “wish list” of urban farms to visit has 32 entries. Many of these are simply beautiful vacation rooms with had impressive backyard gardens. Several fall into a permaculture tradition of living with the land. A few are truly commercial urban farms that happen to have a guesthouse or room available for others to experience life on an urban farm in addition to their planned trip to a city.
Earlier this year AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky said, “The No. 1 reason people chose to travel on Airbnb is they want to live like a local. They don’t want to be tourists stuck in long lines, fighting with the crowds to see the same thing as everyone else. Our hosts offer more than just generic hospitality — they welcome travelers from around the world into their communities.
In Austin’s eastside, Hausbar Urban Farm welcomes travelers into both downtown Austin and their farm community. They’re a true commercial farm, delivering their their poultry, eggs, rabbits, and vegetables to around nine restaurants every day. On the same property they rent out a guest house through AirBnB.
Dorsey Barger and her wife Susan Hausman opened the guest house in 2014. Dorsey describes it as an unusual type of hospitality. “We are completely passionate about urban sustainable agriculture, and we like to give others the chance to really jump into the experience – to harvest some crops, hangout with the animals all day, to find out how their guest house compost buckets become part of the farm. If they’re less interested or don’t have the time, they can just learn a little about it indirectly as they stay here and explore Austin.”
Unique local experiences like HausBar’s urban farm match up closely to the direction AirBnB has been prioritizing for the last few months. They are offering an “experiences feature” which allows guests to book additional tours, activities, and services when they book a room.
For example, guests pay a little extra to go on a tour of Muir Woods when visiting San Fransisco with a local, or pay to go out to drinks with Parisians when in the city of lights. Urban farm experiences, whether in the form of classes, tours, farm-to-table dinners, or pick your own produce, can bestow unique opportunities on visitors who are seeking an authentic interaction with a place. They pair up well with locations that also offer overnight stays, but sites that don’t want to be host guests overnight can just list activities, as long as the program is in their city.
According to Dorsey from HausBar Urban Farm, “If it is at all possible for anybody to do urban or suburban agriculture, it’s a fantastic additional source of income. A guest house helps to diversify and provides a good cushion, even if you have a bad season. People are becoming more and more interested in where their food comes from, so there seems to be a lot of demand.”
For years, WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, has gotten volunteers all over the world to visit organic farms and contribute labor in exchange for a place to stay. Their farm listings have grown to 61 countries and tens of thousands of volunteers have participated. Agritourism and farm stays can turn that momentum into a monetized resource for sustainable farms.
HausBar Urban Farm ran into a problem with the city when they enforced a law that prevented multiple dwellings on an urban farm property. For a while, Dorsey and Susan had to stop selling their produce, so they began to rely more on their guest house. “It’s is why we’re still in business,” Dorsey said. “Our customer base had pretty much gone away, but we were able to keep the farm alive through the guest house.”
Eventually, there was a public outcry and the laws were adjusted so that HausBar Urban Farm could reopen. Dorsey says, “Now that the farm is really thriving by selling to restaurants, it’s great additional income. I love hospitality and taking care of people. As our guest house business has grown, our farm has grown with it. I think there’s a correlation.”
Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout.