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Milking cows, stacking bales of hay, gathering eggs—for some Americans, these tasks are still a part of everyday life. However, for others, this sounds like the ideal vacation—not a European getaway or a Caribbean cruise, but an opportunity to experience rural life as it once was.

This type of excursion, better known as agritourism, is defined as any commercial enterprise that brings tourists to a farm, ranch, or other agricultural business for the purpose of education and entertainment. In the past, this has typically included operations like corn mazes, winery tours, and petting zoos, but in recent years the agritourism industry has expanded significantly. One of the most popular types of trips is the service exchange, through which tourists visit a farm to learn the ins and outs of the industry and get their hands dirty by assisting with daily operating tasks. Sometimes the experience is even a tradeoff for free room and board, meals, or other work perks.

The agritourism industry brings in more than $900 million each year, and that number is only rising. But what has Americans so obsessed with the prospect of a retreat to the country?

PREINDUSTRIAL FLASHBACK

It’s hard to envision a time when nearly all Americans farmed for a living, but before the nineteenth century that is how the majority of the country sustained itself. Flash forward to the twenty-first century and there are a little more than three million farmers living in the United States as of the 2012 census, which is just a small fraction of the total population of over 300 million people.

For those who may have never even seen a field of corn or a herd of grazing cows, the opportunity to visit a farm is like something out of a storybook. In many cases, American farmers are opening their doors to tourists who have never ventured past the outskirts of their city or the suburbs (which have grown increasingly separate from a life in the country).

When it comes to seeing food production in action—whether raising chickens or planting rows of corn—Americans are fascinated with the idea of how their food is made, and it shows in the increasing numbers of agritourism opportunities. Fair Oaks Farms is a leader in the industry, bringing in thousands of visitors per year to its Indiana headquarters for a variety of different tours and attractions. The farm itself is a testament to modern techniques, and founders Mike and Sue McCloskey have pushed a mission of sustainability that stretches into every facet of the organization.

“Fair Oaks Farms was dreamt about in the 1990s, when farmers realized that consumers were getting the wrong information about modern-day farming practices,” says Leslie Rusk, marketing and events director for Fair Oaks. “The McCloskeys wanted to open up a farm that was completely transparent, educational, and fun.”

Though modern farms are quite different from those just a few decades ago, visitors expect a kind of simplicity that even large-scale operations like Fair Oaks try to exemplify. A trip through the Dairy Adventure gives guests an up-close look at the technology and science of today’s dairy plants. “Because the founders were dairy farmers, it only made sense to focus on how well we treat our animals and how we oversee the whole process of our products to ensure good-quality, nutritious products for our consumers,” says Rusk.

In addition to the Dairy Adventure, Fair Oaks offers the Crop Adventure, which brings modern farming to life through hands-on exhibits and meet and greets with real farmers, as well as the Pig Adventure, which explores how a traditional pig farm operates—from breeding and birthing baby pigs to creating a healthy and nurturing environment for their growth. Being immersed in farm culture—if only for a few hours—is not only an education but also a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

THE FULL FARM EXPERIENCE

And it’s not only in America’s breadbasket that you can experience the full spectrum of what it takes to run a modern farm. In fact, Americans are traveling thousands of miles to immerse themselves in an agritourism experience that can only be described as all-inclusive.

Through programs like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), people with an interest in taking on a temporary position as a farmhand are able to travel across the globe and volunteer their time at a number of farms—gaining firsthand experience.

Though the organization originated in the UK, it has grown immensely, with chapters throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Once a participant selects a country he or she is interested in volunteering in, he or she completes the sign-up process, pays the membership fee, and then can browse through thousands of farms in need of assistance and make a selection based on interest, experience level, and other criteria. The program functions like a trade-off, where farm owners provide volunteers with free living quarters, food, and other essentials in exchange for their help with daily upkeep.

Shortly before graduating college in 2016, Chelsea Davies came across the WWOOF website while looking for inexpensive travel opportunities and decided that it was exactly the type of experience she needed. She and her boyfriend became WWOOF members and settled on a Hawaii trip the summer after graduation, based on their criteria for working no more than twenty-five hours a week, sleeping in a room (as opposed to a tent), and having most of the food provided at no cost. “Hawaii is a place I always dreamed of going to, but I knew how expensive it is to go there,” says Davies. “I figured, ‘Why not do this program there and cut some of the costs?’ Plus, I wanted to venture around and dive into the culture rather than feel like a tourist.”

The view of WWOOF is that the best way to learn is by doing. The farm that Davies and her boyfriend volunteered with for a month primarily grows macadamia nuts and bananas, and volunteers were expected to check in with the owners for their set of responsibilities before starting their five-hour work day. Taking people with an interest in organic farming and turning them into advocates for sustainable agriculture through hands-on experiences is instrumental for the continued success of the industry, not to mention the preservation of techniques and growing practices that vary by region. “I have a lot of respect for food and how it affects us,” says Davies. “But to be in the moment, planting seeds and seeing the entire growth of the crop—from start to finish—was something almost unexplainable.”

Farming and tourism play a significant role in Hawaii’s economy, and, although technological advancements have made most traditional farming methods a thing of the past, there is something enchanting about stewarding this kind of conservation. “Life was so laid-back in Hawaii, and I have so much respect for the values they put first in their lives,” says Davies. “It’s a very important reminder to appreciate the little things and actually enjoy the people and experiences you surround yourself with.”

AMERICA’S FERTILE PAST

Agritourism is not only a means for education but also an opportunity to look at the past, present, and future of the agriculture industry. It’s a “get your hands dirty” kind of experience, and one that promises to instill a lifelong interest in this vital piece of American life.

“The birth of agritourism has certainly put agriculture in the minds of consumers and families who wouldn’t think twice about it otherwise,” says Rusk. “This is something that we all need to embrace and celebrate because, without agriculture, we wouldn’t have popcorn, medicines, clothing, beer, lattes—just about everything that you can think of. We constantly see kids and visitors from urban settings who have never seen a real cow and who had no idea how the milk got to the shelf in the grocery store, so we need to be having these conversations and celebrating all kinds of agriculture groups.”

For more info on Fair Oaks Farms and WWOOF, visit fofarms.com and wwoofusa.org.