Savvy farmers open the gate to agritourism

Agritourism is on the rise, with vacationers shelling out up to $1,500 a night.

ByLaura Bly, USA TODAY

SWOOPE, Va. -- 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, 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,

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.

About a three-hour drive west of Chapel Hill near the Blue Ridge hamlet of Valle Crucis, 5-year-old Maverick Farms offers bed-and-breakfast with a twist that evokes founder Tom Philpott's stint at an agriturismo, or Italian working farm. His experimental non-profit, featured in Gourmet magazine, lets guests deduct $7 an hour, or up to 25% of a $120-a-night stay at Maverick's 125-year-old farmhouse, for each hour they participate in such chores as planting spinach beds or stringing green beans.

Wisconsin, a state better known for cornfields and large commercial dairies than for organic farms, is jumping on the foodie hay wagon as well, says travel writer Mary Bergin, author of the upcoming book Hungry for Wisconsin. Two-year-old Milwaukee-based Braise on the Go, for example, hosts traveling culinary classes that showcase farm tours and on-site cooking demonstrations.

Virginia's Polyface, about a 20-minute drive off Interstate 81 via scenic, winding roads that peter out in Pure Meadows Lane, is open for free, self-guided visits Monday through Saturday. Since Pollan's book thrust it to prominence in the culinary world, Polyface has tried to channel fans to once-a-month free tours — which fill up months in advance — or to two-hour versions guided by one of the farm's 10 employees.

In keeping with Polyface's locavore leanings, residents of surrounding counties pay $300, while non-Virginians must pony up $700.

As for that $1,000 tour with the owner, "we had several takers last year, which astounded us," says Salatin, author of six books on the natural food movement.

For city slickers with notions of commercial farming shaped by headlines about beef recalls and overcrowded chicken warehouses, a visit to Polyface is literally a breath of fresh air. Salatin describes his holistic alternative to industrial agriculture as "grass farming" — minimal machinery, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and rotational grazing in which multiple species forage in the same fields.

The result: lush green expanses that stand in sharp contrast to those of his neighbors on an early spring afternoon, and a chance to commune with murmuring chickens and grunting pigs that nuzzle Salatin with an easy familiarity.

"People just go nuts over this. Smithfield (the world's largest pork processor) doesn't let you rub the bellies of their hogs, not that you'd want to be there, anyway," says Salatin, scooping up a handful of fresh compost (yes, it really does smell like a forest) and looking every inch a Farmer MacDonald in wide-brimmed straw hat, battered Carhartt jacket and mud-stained jeans.

Almost all Polyface visitors buy some of the farm's products, from $25-a-pound filet mignon to $3.50-a-dozen brown eggs, cradled in a cardboard carton with a "Taste the Difference!" sticker.

"On paper, it might look like our food is more expensive," says Salatin. "But think about the potential for problems when you eat a fast-food burger" that contains parts of many different animals. "When you know your farmer and where your food comes from, you're in a much better place."

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