Agritourism boosts revenue for farming businessesAug 24, 2023 01:04PM ● By Randee Brown
Moving to WNC from Charleston, SC, Robert Russel had been looking for farmland in the mountains for five years before his wife, Kathleen, found Mount Gilead Farm.
The couple purchased the 49 acres of the farm including several buildings in 2016 with no farming background. Russel said he worked in the academic sector for 35 years and was too young to retire. He was interested in the kinds of farming aimed at improving the land rather than “just hanging onto it.”
“Traditional farming is extractive,” Russel said. “You can’t just take everything out of the soil. Somehow soil has just become the medium in which to hold plants while you inject them with fertilizer. That’s not sustainable, and it gets really expensive. Dirt is not an inert medium, and I’ve always been fascinated about people doing farming to improve what they had.”
The soil at Mount Gilead Farm wasn’t in terrible shape, according to Russel. Over eons, topsoil from the mountains has run downhill into the valley. The Russels practice regenerative farming which involves abandoning primary agricultural equipment like the plow. The Extension Service offers a no-till seed drill, and they use this tool when growing their grass, which protects their soil and makes hay that feeds their goats.
Russel was making cheese as a hobby and decided to purchase goats for milking. While goat’s milk is a rich product worth $16 per gallon, Russel’s cheese is worth more than that. Starting at $20 per pound, different varieties of his homemade goat’s milk cheese are value-added products they can sell via direct marketing and increase the possibility of success for a full-time farming business.
The idea at the beginning of the Russels’ farming business was simply a goat dairy, and Russel said their mantra is also to have multiple income streams. Understanding the tourism draw of the area, they converted an old garage into two AirBnB units.
“This was extremely lucrative for the first couple of years,” Russel said. “We spent money upfront to renovate the building and get things going, but bookings have fallen off a bit since COVID, and we never fully bounced back from that. The general consensus is that the market here is saturated, and the Asheville area is the second highest in terms of added fees through AirBnB.”
There are still a good number of people visiting the farm, according to Russel. He gets a lot of repeat business, and a lot of those visitors are from Charlotte or other larger cities. People find something on the farm that clicks with them, and most people love getting out of the city and staying on the farm.
There are also specific farm-stay platforms that help bring visitors from other areas to the farm. Mount Gilead Farm is a member of WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a worldwide effort to link visitors to organic farmers for an educational experience. This allows visitors to learn and help on the farm in exchange for learning about agriculture from various hosts.
Russel said the state’s Department of Agriculture is pushing agritourism to farmers as a way to help farmers increase revenue for their businesses. Mount Gilead Farm also hosts Farm Tours during kidding season, and while there is growing competition in this aspect, it’s a popular portion of their business.
“From March through June, we offer a baby goat feeding experience,” Russel said. “There’s nothing cuter in the world than a baby goat, and as an ex-professor, I enjoy that I still get to educate people and get them excited about agriculture.”
Several years ago on a regional farm tour, a guide asked participants if anyone had ever heard of goat yoga. Russel said while most people laughed, one farm owner stood up and said that people pay her $25 per hour to come to her farm and play with her goats. This caught Russel’s interest, and he was later approached by a yoga instructor about offering goat yoga on his farm.
“We’ve now offered goat yoga a handful of times, and each session has more attendees than the last,” Russel said. “The thing is that goat yoga is seasonal. It can only happen until the kids are about 40 pounds — they will jump on you and be in your face, and after a certain size, it’s not as cute.”
Russel said he really enjoys the agritourism aspect of owning a farm. “We are not some sort of display farm; we are an actual working farm,” he said. “Many Americans are three generations removed from farming, and many of our visitors have never been on a farm or understand what farms do. I love that we get to expose them to some of the basics.”