Dressed in chinos and a crisp linen shirt, Annie Willis, a graphic designer from west London, looks like any other well-dressed tourist heading out of Heathrow for a city break somewhere smart and metropolitan. But the contents of her and solicitor husband Jonathan’s suitcases reveal they won’t be spending their holiday in Rome gazing at the Sistine Chapel or inspecting frescos in Florence. In place of city clothes and designer shades are faded work trousers, tough gardening gloves and old trainers. Rather than their usual city break spent pounding the pavements in search of culture, the pair will spend five days in a comfortable converted barn on a farm in Umbria, in the heart of rural Italy, working in the vineyard for four hours a day helping to bring in the grape harvest.
“We’ve done Italian holidays that don’t involve anything more testing than sightseeing or lying by a pool, and felt it was time for something different, which was also educational,” explains Annie. “We love Italy, and wanted to connect with the people and landscape on a more profound level than simply as tourists. We’ll have lunch with the family daily, so we can practise our Italian, and helping with the harvest feels like a positive thing to do. Of course, it helps we both love wine!”
The Willises reflect a growing trend towards agrotourism, a word that, until relatively recently, hadn’t held much appeal. Rather like eco-fashion, agrotourism was seen as something worthy and, if we’re honest, just a little dull. But in much the same way that green fashion has moved on in leaps and bounds (think of Colin Firth’s wife Livia on the red carpet in head-to-toe ethical fashion, or Stella McCartney’s super-sexy, sky-high faux-leather knee boots), agrotourism has shaken off its frumpy, niche image and is now one of the travel industry’s most colourful and fastest-growing sectors. A truly global movement, it includes a huge number countries and spans any activity that brings visitors into a rural location — either to stay on a farm, ranch or small-holding, or to become involved, in one way or another, with working life there.
Working with a farming family, the Willises chose a particularly well-defined example of agrotourism for their break, but other examples include a foraging course in Cornwall, a gastronomy and coffee tour in Costa Rica, a holiday sleeping in barns on Swiss farms, staying with a family in a remote corner of Uzbekistan for a spot of birdwatching, and even a culinary tour through the villages in the foothills of the Himalayas, tending buffalo en route.
The growth of agrotourism hasn’t happened overnight, but has developed over the past two decades, as tourists have become better educated about travel and more altruistic in how they spend their time and money. And a growing interest in food production, combined with the fact many of us are living more urbanised lives, means some of us are turning to agrotourism as a way of educating ourselves on holiday, while contributing to small-scale projects, such as organic farms, or helping to support craftspeople.
And in our increasingly stressed-out, plugged-in lives, a holiday that takes you away from the madding crowds is always going to be welcomed by the responsible and curious traveller.
In Cyprus, for example, agrotourism gives people a chance to leave the coast and move inland to the Troodos mountains, to enjoy some of the country’s 96 walking trails, which take you to the olive mills of Laneia, the local tavernas of Lofou and Omodos and to a Tsiakkos winery in Pelentri village, to sample Commandaria wine.
This redefines the meaning of switching off from work, as it’s unlikely you’ll find a business centre — and perhaps even a mobile phone signal — on the high slopes of the Troodos.
“I find it hard to switch off and escape the demands of my BlackBerry,” says Jonathan. “Sometimes a city break, while culturally enriching, leaves me feeling more pumped up and exhausted. So I’m looking forward to tuning into a completely different pace of life on the farm, where I can have a real break from my usual, office-based work.”
Some tour operators have been working with small communities to develop really original holidays. One of these is Responsible Travel, founded in 2001 by Justin Francis, with backing from the late Anita Roddick of The Body Shop.
“Justin was passionate about developing holidays that were fun but which offered people the chance to experience a local community, while maximising the benefits to that community,” says Krissy Roe, of Responsible Travel. The company offers everything from a homestay in India to honey-farming courses in Thailand, cork seminars in Spain and truffle hunting in Italy. “People love the fact they’re learning something new, while also giving back, says Roe, who gets positive feedback from customers, as well as farmers, grateful for the tourists’ help.
When Francesco Micci and his wife Monia first saw their abandoned farmhouse, overlooking Lake Trasimeno, in 1999, they fell in love with it immediately, and have since sympathetically restored it, and now offer guests a chance to experience the natural rhythms of Umbrian farm life. “Having guests means we’re able to sustain ourselves as an organic working farm,” says Francesco. “People enjoy the experience of seeing the apricot, almond and olive harvests, and we’re grateful, as it means we can bring our young family up on the farm, and live a natural, organic lifestyle that has a low impact on the countryside. We benefit as much as the people who visit us.”
And in the current financial climate, the fact many agrotourism trips are all-inclusive has been welcomed by many holidaymakers, especially families. “Everyone’s watching the pennies, but if you’re staying on a farm, you’re not constantly opening your wallet, like you do in a city, which soon adds up, especially when travelling with children.”
Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall probably have a lot to answer for, because the culinary influences of agrotourism are a key to its success. In our increasingly urbanised lives, teaching children about the fact ham comes from a pig and doesn’t just appear in a plastic packet, has a real appeal. “It’s no coincidence the popularity of agrotourism has coincided with a growing interest in cooking and food,” says Simon Wrench of Inntravel. Founded in 1984, travellers plug straight into local life — finding people and places that might otherwise take days of painstaking research to locate. “Some of the places we visit are remote, but staying on a farm makes them as accessible as possible,” says Simon. “Helping these communities prosper and survive while giving people experiences they’ll remember forever is one of the most satisfying things we do.”
As tourists, we’re all a great deal better educated about the impact — both negative and positive — that tourism can have on a community, and agrotourism can help to minimise the negative effects. “Travel has traditionally been seen as one of the big villains in terms of environmental impact,” says Nick Newbury of Original Travel, founded in 2003. “People will continue to travel, so we go out of our way to choose projects that are low impact, like dog sledding in the Arctic, for example. We feel truly unique and responsible experiences are what our clients remember, rather than the size of their bedroom.”
While agrotourism is developing in Europe, the wide open spaces, big skies, and natural playgrounds of America make it ideal for the agrotourism industry. Initiatives such as Rural Bounty, Sleep in the Hay or Farm Stay USA have helped encourage this sense of independence among tourists, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, California is particularly visionary, with hundreds of places where tourists can enjoy cheese making, honey tasting and, of course, learn about wine making on the west coast. In North Carolina, community organisation HandMade in America uses agrotourism to boost the local economy via craft production and setting up tours on farms for tourists, while Homegrown Handmade, also in North Carolina, puts visitors in touch with hands-on farm experiences, you-pick organic produce, vineyards and wineries.
In the cowboy states of Colorado, Montana, Arizona and Texas, cattle ranches were among the first places to offer working holidays for intrepid travellers keen to live out a Clint Eastwood/Annie Oakley dream. The fact that Emily Christie, a speech therapist from Aberdeen, had tried skydiving and wolf-watching holidays is testament to quite
how adventurous she is when it comes to holidays. But for her first big holiday alone, she wanted a break that would help her engage with a small group of people, while also indulging her passion for horses and learning something
new about another culture.
She contacted Ride World Wide, a specialist in riding holidays around the globe, which sent her to the Flynn Ranch, in Montana — a 15,000-acre cattle ranch situated between the Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
For a week, Emily was totally immersed in the running of the ranch, from moving cattle and calves between pastures to rounding up bulls, while also receiving impromptu advice from the cowboys on everything from fencing to fly fishing. “I wanted a working ranch, not a play ranch (or ‘dude ranch’), and because they only accepted five guests at a time, and no children, I knew it would be serious physical work, which suits me,” says Emily. She loved the trip so much she returned again the following year. “This was completely different from trail riding or trekking, as we were moving cattle for a purpose, not just for fun, and it made me appreciate the scenery in a new way. It was hard work and quite tiring, but a fantastic experience.”
The UK, too, has seen a sharp increase in farm stays. One enterprising farmer in Devon, Phil Heard, has even started offering a similar experience to the one Emily enjoyed in Montana. Following devastating stock losses due tofoot-and-mouth disease, Phil found solace riding across Dartmoor on his horse. After he started replacing his herd, he wanted to share this experience with other people, so has recently started working riding holidays on his farm, where guests help Phil drive his cattle across the moor on horseback, and enjoy the amazing network of bridle paths that cross the farm through this valuable Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA). “As well as working with my herd, guests might also have the chance to help our neighbours move their cattle, and maybe even assist with calving,” says Phil, who lives on the farm with his wife and three sons. “When we’re quieter, we ride off for a pub lunch and explore the bridleways on the farm. Riding on the moors has always been a form of therapy for me; a wonderful place to put the world to rights, and I’m happy to share this experience with guests.”
Phil’s sentiments accurately reflect agrotourism at its very best, because as our sense of ourselves as a global community develops, understanding how small, and often remote or inaccessible communities work will be increasingly important. Accordingly, being able to contribute to the success of those communities will become increasingly pressing. It’s a trend in tourism that should be welcomed and nurtured.
Essential ideas for agrotourism breaks
Exeter International organises trips to the Nuratau Mountains, south of Lake Aydar, in central Uzbekistan, for seven nights, staying with farmers in comfortable home-stay accommodation. From £920 per person, including flights from London and a night in Tashkent. www.exeterinternational.co.uk
>> For trips to Francesco and Monia Micci’s farm in Umbria, contact Responsible Travel.Doubles start at €100 (£87) per night, while a small apartment costs from €950 (£830) a week. Meals cost from €25 (£21) including wine, with reductions for children.
>> Original Travel offers a four-night trip from £1,440 per person, including one night at the Ice Hotel, two days’ dog sledding, and staying in wilderness cabins, with one night in Stockholm. www.originaltravel.co.uk
>> The Flynn Ranch offers six nights from $1,595 (£1,000) per person, including meals and transfers but excluding flights.
>> Village Ways offers 12 nights walking in the foothills of the Himalayas, learning about cooking from local women and helping harvest crops. Prices from £821 per person, including overnight rail transfers from Delhi on the Raniket Express, full-board accommodation (two nights at the Khali Estate and the rest in specially-built village guest houses), guiding and porterage.
>> Inn Travel can organise a week in the village of Mairena, in Las Alpujarras, on a fruit farm, staying at Hotel Las Chimenas. From £575 per person, based on two sharing, and including seven days’ car hire, and meals. www.inntravel.co.uk
>> Phil Heard runs riding holidays on his farm in Devon, from £299 for two nights to £749 for a week. Prices include accommodation in a nearby inn, breakfast on the farm every morning and a picnic or pub lunch, as well as a horsemanship clinic. www.dartmoorridingholidays.co.uk