Two Bitterroot farms are featured in a new resource manual for the growing field of “agritourism.”
Both ABC Acres and Homestead Organics are south of Hamilton, and their owners grow their own food that they sell. But like many of the other agritourism operators included in “Developing Montana’s Agritourism,” from those basic points they branch out into specialty areas that are about as diverse as the people behind them.
“We tried to capture the range in the manual to show the different ends of the spectrum,” said Kaleena Miller, a program manager at the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, or AERO, which helped put together the manual. “Agritourism can be so many different things in the state, and we wanted to show the opportunities that are out there.”
James Southwell is the Farm Stay manager at ABC Acres, which is owned by his brother and sister-in-law, Tim and Sarah Southwell. They purchased the property in 2012, and developed the land into a “permaculture” farmstead —generally speaking, a science that mirrors natural ecosystems to raise livestock and food — with two houses that are available to rent for “farm stays.”
James Southwell said they didn’t intentionally set out to do agritourism; instead, they wanted to share their efforts with the general public as an education/demonstration farm.
“I came here at the end of June last year, and that’s when we came up with the vacation side of things … basically vacation rentals on the farm,” James Southwell said. “We found out quickly that our farm stay guests had a lot of interest in this.”
They have cattle, chickens, goats, turkeys and pigs that graze in open pastures and in pens where guests can get a close-up view, where pigs run up and snort, or the barn cats will come up to the porch looking for treats. They offer tours with information on the value of bats, bees, birds and other critical elements in a natural food system, and recently built a small store where items from the farm can be purchased.
It’s a high-end operation, with one night stays averaging $203 a night, according to VRBO. Guests find ABC Acres on a variety of social media and come from Salt Lake City, Seattle, California, Texas and elsewhere around the country. They also provide lodging for people visiting their own families in the Bitterroot.
Homestead Organics, operated by Laura Garber and Henry Wuenshe, is the other end of the spectrum. While also wanting to educate the public about life on a farm, they don’t do any overnight lodging.
“We have a food stand in the summer, which is like a little farmer’s market with produce, chickens and whatever else we have for sale,” Garber said.
They also often have chicks near the farm stand, which children adore, and then they’re drawn deeper into the farm where goats, sheep and other farm animals roam.
“We are working on the idea of a petting zoo; we’re not quite there yet, but having the animals there pulls in people and they’re learning about them,” Garber said.
They host tours for Hamilton schools in the fall and spring, and the children often return with their parents to show them that cute goat that charmed them. Those parents then might turn around and purchase some produce or goat soap.
Homestead Organics also has gardens for youth, who can work side-by-side with farmers and interns in the field, and offers farm camps for children and a special middle school group called Girls Using Their Strength.
While their agritourism isn’t economically driven, Garber said they also host paid lunch gatherings for school groups and will slip in some foods that the children might not try at home.
“They might say “Hey mom, let’s make a pizza with kale on it,’” Garber said. “That’s good for us, because they’re having a farm experience and eating food from the farm.”
Harvest parties at wineries, straw bale mazes, hay rides, and you-pick farms are some of the other options featured in the manual. It also provides information on agritourism marketing, business strategies and safety and risk management.
Ben Thomas, director of the Montana Department of Agriculture notes that Montana’s two biggest industries are agriculture and tourism.
“Combining them to create meaningful agricultural experiences for tourists and producers alike is a valuable way for agricultural businesses to diversify their revenue,” he said. “The Montana Department of Agriculture applauds AERO’s leadership in creating this agritourism resource manual for Montana farmers and ranchers.”
The manual was developed after the 2017 Legislature passed House Bill 342, which officially added agritourism to the list of Montana Recreational Activities and created the opportunity to develop the industry.
“There is huge potential for Montana farmers and ranchers to utilize agritourism as a way to add revenue to their operation and to educate the public on all agriculture has to offer our great state,” said Alan Merrill, president of the Montana Farmers Union. “We appreciate the effort it took to put together this manual and feel it will be a very valuable resource for producers, consumers and those wanting to learn more about agriculture.”
But all of those involved note that agritourism isn’t for everyone.
“You have to be genuinely interested in interacting with people on every aspect of your farm, and that can take a lot of time,” Garber said. “But it’s important to teach people where their food comes from.”
James Southwell added that it takes a little getting used to — and some signage — to open your property to guests, yet have boundaries.
“We set up rules and regulations as we went along,” he said. “It’s about finding a balance, where they can walk around the farm and take it all in, but we are building some privacy screens by the main house.”
He adds that his brother loves to walk with guests on the property to share his knowledge, that they have both guided and unguided tours, and it’s been a good experience for them. While business is slow in the winter, they were quite busy last summer.
“The valley brings tourists anyway for hunting and fishing, then you add the element of farms and agriculture, and people are interested,” he said. “The families bring their children, who see hard-working people and it gets them away from video games. They really like feeding the animals.”