Writer and librarian Lili DeBarbieri recently published a wonderful
A Guide to Southern Arizona's Historic Farms and Ranches, Rustic
We talked with Lili about her book, Southern Arizona, her travel
adventures, and farm and ranching trends. Fascinating stuff --
please read on!
FSUS: When was the first time you heard the term
'farm stay?' How about 'guest ranch?'
Lili: I think first became aware of the term 'farm stay' in
association with the volunteer opportunities that the organization
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) offers. This was
more than ten years ago but I distinctly remember reading an
article about volunteer vacations on Hawaiian farms through WWOOF.
I do have to give credit to my home state of Pennsylvania for
bringing the more leisurely alterative to WWOOF in the form of
'farm stays' again to my attention. Once I saw that staying on a
working farm (in Lancaster County) was the same if not cheaper in
price than a hotel or motel but offered such wonderful
learning opportunities as an added bonus I was sold! A few years
ago, I worked and lived on a historic guest ranch near Santa Fe and
that was my introduction to that vacation option.
FSUS: What inspired you to write "A Guide to
Southern Arizona's Historic Farms and Ranches: Rustic Southwest
Retreats", and why did you choose to focus on Southern
Lili: The type of traveling I tend to gravitate towards in my
personal life inspired the content of the book -- unique vacations,
working holidays, eco-tourism -- all of which intertwine during a
stay on a ranch or farm. It seemed though that much more attention
had been previously focused on WWOOF volunteer opportunities as a
holiday option so I wanted to bring the concept of 'farm stays' and
'guest ranches' more to the forefront. I like to call
farm-stays "WOOF-ing light."
I also thought it would be interesting to write about a part
of the country that is not normally as highly associated with
agriculture and agri-tourism in the same way that the Midwest, the
East Coast or California is as well as to encourage the support of
Arizona's local businesses and economy. The incredible landscape,
character and color of the region provided an easy palate.
FSUS: In chapter two of your book, "Courting
Relaxation: A brief history of guest ranching," you discuss how
Easterners and Europeans became enamored of Southern Arizona and
began guest ranching there in the 1880s, even before there were
many modern comforts at the ranches. Was Southern Arizona a pioneer
in the guest ranch industry, or was a similar movement happening in
other parts of the West at the same time?
Lili: Yes! Great question. This whole region was very much a
trailblazer in the guest ranching industry. Through what I was able
to piece together from historical archives there is very strong
evidence that the very first guest ranches began right here in
Southern Arizona as early as the 1860s but guest ranching was
slower to really take off because of the climactic conditions well
before air-conditioning that made the tourism season here shorter
than other Western states such as Wyoming and Montana, where guest
ranching had its early beginings as well.
FSUS: How did you choose the ranches and farms that
ended up in your book?
Lili: The criteria I aimed for when I first began writing the
book were to put together a list of places that had a great deal of
not only history and scenic beauty but were also locally owned,
environmentally friendly and were contributing in positive ways to
their communities. I started with internet searches and looked at
members of professional associations in the industry. Then, over
time, I just serendipitously stumbled upon many of the ranches and
farms throughout the course of my research.
FSUS: Do you have a favorite story or moment from
researching your book?
Lili: A series of them-the Triangle L guest ranch in Oracle
holds a sentimental place in my heart since it was the first ranch
I visited back when I began writing the book and I am
still amazed by its art, architecture, vibe and scenery. Going
up there recently for the annual GLOW festival was like "coming
home" in a way. The day I spent at the Circle Z Ranch trail riding
through the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and then afterwards
having lunch at the local saloon was a real highlight as
FSUS: Veronica Schultz, who co-owns Rancho de la Osa with
her husband, says that they run the guest ranch in part "to
continue a lifestyle that is dying. Guest ranches are remote, and
fewer and fewer exist every year." Are guest ranches in fact
decreasing in numbers? If so, why?
Lili: Yes, for example at the turn of the twentieth century,
the greater Tucson area alone had over 100 guest ranches and that
number has dwindled to about three. The costs of operating a guest
ranch and the challenges involved in actually turning a profit,
like any business, are considerable. This reality is probably a
microcosm of what has happened in many other sectors of society.
Modern urban development in the past few decades around the country
has overtaken the natural land and wide open spaces needed to own a
farm stay or guest ranch and provide the appropriate experiences
for guests. What traveler wants to horse-back ride through a
subdivision? But there is also a resurgence of interest in unique
vacations driving tourists to look beyond generic forms of
accommodation and towards a stay in the country.
FSUS: Can you talk a bit about the trends in farming and
ranching happening in Southern Arizona?
Lili: Guest ranches during the 1920s and 1930s were that
generation's answer to a "staycation." Traveling overseas was
really only an option for the very wealthy. Now, with the high
cost of air travel there is that comparable economic incentive to
participate in agri-tourism as people everywhere are looking for
more affordable options for travel.
At any given moment there are different trends and words
circulating in the public's imagination have influenced farming,
ranching and the accompanying tourism --sustainability, heritage
foods, farm to table, back-to-nature, purposeful living. The desire
for simple, timeless travel experiences is certainly an
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the art and
films being made brought a lot of travelers and would-be
adventurers out West. Now, what drives the interest in staying on a
guest ranch or farm is more food, health and wellness related.
The slow food movement ignited an interest in cooking with fresh,
local, seasonal foods. I can't open a popular women's magazine
without seeing an article listing the "best farmers
markets around the country" or the "health benefits of fruits and
vegetables", the glamorization of rural living!
Overall, there is more of an awareness of and desire to
intentionally support local businesses in general and that has
spilled over into the idea of "knowing your farmer" and to the
financial support of local farms and ranches through direct
purchases as well. It is now a selling point for a business to use
local ingredients or materials. I notice that farmers and
ranchers are really reaching out to involve, promote and educate
their communities. Guest ranches in particular have really upped
their game over the years and now offer so many varied
opportunities to not only enjoy the outdoors but to really take
something away in an educational sense from your vacation. In our
school districts in Arizona, gardens are used for teaching children
about science, math and many other subjects and sourcing from local
farms into many school cafeterias is quite commonplace now and it
was not say twenty years ago. It is a turn for the better.