Savvy farmers open the gate to agritourism

How rich is the smell of fermenting manure on Joel Salatin's Shenandoah Valley spread?

A thousand bucks for a few whiffs.

That's what Salatin, 51, the second-generation owner of Polyface Farm, commands for a two-hour, personally escorted tour of what may be the most famous family-owned pastures in America.

Polyface is a centerpiece of Michael Pollan's best seller The Omnivore's Dilemma: A History of Four Meals, a treatise against the health and environmental costs of industrial agriculture in which Pollan likens the sweet, warm scent of Salatin's compost to "the forest floor in summertime."

The 550-acre farm about three hours southwest of Washington, D.C., produces healthful, "humanely raised" pork, beef and poultry that earns swooning praise from chefs at regional restaurants. And it draws more than 8,000 visitors a year from as far afield as New Zealand and South Africa — including a handful of acolytes willing to shell out $1,000 for a guaranteed audience with its charismatic owner.

Polyface's pilgrims are part of a small but expanding cadre: gastronomy-minded, eco-conscious vacationers who already scour farmers' markets and seek out menus emphasizing seasonal, locally sourced items but who also want to see firsthand what it takes to get that artisanal goat cheese or grass-fed steak from field to fork.

Agritourism across the USA still revolves around such traditional activities as corn mazes, hayrides and pick-your-own berry patches, notes Jane Eckert, creator of Farmstop.com, a directory of North American farms and ranches that welcome visitors.

But the burgeoning slow-food and eat-local movements — "locavore," or someone who prefers to eat locally grown and produced food, was the New American Oxford Dictionary's 2007 word of the year — are fueling appetites for other adventures down on the farm, from helping plant organic potatoes to savoring alfresco repasts prepared by visiting celebrity cooks.

"People are looking for more than cookie-cutter vacations, and (agritourism) is a way to help sustain small family farmers," says Erin Rosas, co-owner of Rosas Farms, just south of Gainesville, Fla. The 100-acre ranch hosts "eco-tourism culinary retreats" that cost $1,500 a night for groups of up to eight guests, including handcrafted beds topped with bamboo sheets, a five-course organic dinner and breakfast and lessons on how to prepare meals using farm-raised, hormone-free livestock, eggs and produce.

In North Carolina, a growing number of small-scale, sustainable farmers see tourists as a cash crop — and a way to help diversify away from tobacco, says Martha Glass of the state's agriculture department. The agency lists more than 350 farms, wineries and other agricultural businesses on its website, visitncfarms.com.

The university town and culinary magnet of Chapel Hill boasts more than a dozen restaurants with fare from regional Piedmont farms. Among them is Fickle Creek in nearby Efland, where partners Ben Bergmann and Noah Ranells work 60 acres with the help of biodiesel-fueled vehicles and embrace the eat-local ethic by limiting sales of their Jersey beef, Ossabaw hogs and other products to a 23-mile radius. They invite overnight guests to help gather freshly laid eggs from a bevy of pastured chickens — eggs that, along with just-snipped chives or arugula and a side of savory pork bellies, could wind up on their breakfast plates that morning.

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