Agritourism puts vacationers to work — and they love it

At 5:40 a.m. on a recent Saturday near the small town of Wrenshall, Minnesota, chickens at the locally laid egg farm were becoming restless.

Klay Jaeger and his son, Isaac, spent two nights at the Locally Laid egg farm, where they helped with household chores and slept in the same building as some chickens. (Dan Kracker)

Most people on vacation would still be dozing off. But not Klay Jaeger and his 9-year-old son, Isaac. For them, it was time to get the chickens out.

“Hello!” cried Jaeger the eldest, opening the door of one of the two large chicken coops. “Just get out!” Isaac added.

For around $50 a night, the Jaegers slept in a small outhouse in the chicken coop. It’s two-thirds dormitory, one-third chicken coop – separated only by a few panes of glass.

Agritourism is a rapidly growing industry; think of attractions like vegetable stands and pumpkin patch. Now, some farmers are offering tourists a more intimate experience, which involves sleeping and even working on the farm.

Klay and Isaac Jaeger could actually see the chickens while they were sleeping, and vice versa. “It’s weird having chickens staring at you. But… you get used to it,” Isaac Jaeger said.

Lucie and Jason Amundsen started their “farmed” egg business 10 years ago. They raise 400 chickens themselves and have contracts with seven large breeders who produce eggs for their brand. They also grow pick-your-own berries.

They call this new company their AirB-N-Bawk! The idea came from an article Lucie Amundsen read about a business in Scotland in which customers sleep in a flat above a bookshop at night and volunteer at the shop during the day.

In addition to the dormitory, the Amundsens built what they call the Perch, a small house on stilts in the woods next to the chicken coop.

Both are rustic. Neither has running water; guests use an outhouse. But they have proven popular since opening earlier this summer.

The Amundsens estimate they will earn about $13,000 this year renting the two, enough to add nearly 20% to the farm’s annual profit.

Lucie and Jason Amundsen pose for a photo on their terrace.
This summer, Jason and Lucie Amundsen began hosting guests at their two AirB-N-Bawk rentals, where guests stay on the farm and have the opportunity to help with household chores. (Dan Kracker)

“It’s real money for a farmer,” said Lucie Amundsen. “There’s kind of a sad commentary there, that raising food with integrity isn’t quite enough anymore.”

“It’s just endless spending,” Jason Amundsen said. “So it’s a good way to cover that overhead.”

The Amundsens’ rental farms are part of the booming agritourism industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the sector — which includes everything from corn mazes and farm-grown dinners to dude ranches — has grown into a nearly billion-dollar industry.

As the number of Americans working on farms has declined, Dawn Thilmany, a Colorado State University professor who studies agritourism, said the number of people looking for ways to learn about agriculture has increased.

At first, Thilmany had trouble understanding this idea. She grew up on a soybean, corn, and hog farm in Iowa. She was eager to get to the big city and leave the chores of the farm behind.

“But to anyone who hasn’t figured that out or hasn’t yet had a grandpa or grandma on the farm who couldn’t, they just want a touch of Americana. And for a lot of people, that’s a big dose of Americana,” she said.

For the Amundsens, vacation rentals have helped financial results. But they also rekindled their enthusiasm for agriculture.

“A lot of times we fall asleep and just hear laughter in the fields,” said Lucie Amundsen. “I did not expect so much joy.”

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