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Keeping them down on the farm
Travelers are increasingly turning to the old family farm as a place to stay while vacationing.
November 16, 2004: 9:44 AM EST
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The property begins a few yards from the Mediterranean, wanders through fields and orchards, then climbs up a talus slope before ending at the base of a marble cliff.

Everywhere are palm-, orange-, and banana-filled gardens and plantings of prickly pears, vegetables, grapes, and olive and citrus groves.

It's an old working farm -- as well as a seven-room hotel. And some 10 years after it started taking in lodgers, the Azienda Pizzolungo in western Sicily is a prime example of a growing travel trend called agritourism.

Since the 1980s, agritourism has swept through Italy and other European countries. Spain, Italy, and France each have hundred of farms that host travelers and vacationers.

In the United Kingdom it's even bigger; there's a network of farms with some 3,000 members, and overnight guests put more than $73 million in the pockets of farmers, according to Nigel Embry, of Farm Stay UK, an organization founded in 1983 to help farmers market their accommodations.

The movement has grown in the United States, as well. According to a U.S. Forest Service report, in 2001 some 62 million Americans engaged in some form of agritourism. Besides overnight accomodations, it includes activities from fruit picking to patronizing farm stands, taking a hay ride to navigating corn-row mazes.

The U.S. farm-stay industry is "not nearly as developed as in Europe," says Jane Eckert, a marketing analyst who specializes in agritourism. The domestic industry mostly began in the wineries of Napa and Sonoma counties in California, she says. There, the attraction of beautiful scenery and wine tasting appealed to vacationers and day trippers.

Organically growing

Three main factors have contributed to increased interest in agritourism:

  • Low costs.

Farm stay offer reasonable alternatives to accommodations in high-priced urban areas. Not only are rooms prices lower, many offer full kitchens, enabling guests to cut back on restaurant bills.

  • The decline of the family farm.

"Small family farms cannot make it if they have to depend on the revenue stream from selling agricultural products alone," says Eckert. This is a worldwide trend, but a particularly acute one in North America and western Europe. Many governments provide assistance to small farmers trying to preserve their way of life and that can include help in setting up an agritourism business.

  • A desire to see "real" life.

Travelers find farm stays relaxing and an opportunity to connect with local people, to learn more about the area's culture. Fred Capelle, vice president of Agricultural Tour Operators International, an association of agritourism businesses, has been arranging international farm stays for years. "Rural culture is an important part of the fabric of other countries," he says. "Americans want to experience that culture first hand."

One of the main attractions of agritourism is, naturally, food. Many of the farms have restaurants that use products fresh -- often organically grown -- from the farm. Theyl often sell wine, olive oil, produce, and preserves to guests, as well.

The extra income from agritourism can be the difference between saving the family farm and losing it. It also can help persuade young members of farm families to stay on to continue farming, maintaining a thin thread of tradition.

To reinforce that, Capelle advises those interested in booking an agritourism trip to make sure their choices are true working farms.

"You don't want a Disneyland experience," he says. "Feeding the cows and chickens, walking in the orchards -- that's what makes it special."  Top of page

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