Over the July 4th weekend this year, a young friend came to visit the farm. He'd been following my Instagram account for a while, and was looking forward to seeing the animals and participating in a few of the chores... a big departure from his day-to-day life as a suburban kid from Southern California.
As we prepared to walk through the loafing shed and let the sheep out into the pasture for the day, he asked me to tell him what was poop, so he could avoid stepping in it.
"It's ALL poop," was my (unhelpful?) reply.
The boy gazed down at his shoes for a moment, then shrugged and followed me out.
Real talk? It's all poop. And mud and itchy straw and blood that accompanies not just wounds but birth. It's tender plants burnt by the sun, and hay fields ruined by unexpected rain. Or, you know, plants nourished by rain and haystacks perfectly dried by the sun.
Why are we having some real talk here? Recent articles in Grist and Modern Farmer claim that agritourism is romanticizing farming to a degree that becomes harmful to the sustainability of our small farms. Both articles focus heavily on farm weddings and professional photographs of brides and grooms lounging in straw (itchy! sneezy!), and how dirty and smelly a farm can be. The Modern Farmer writer bemoans "the glorification of the quaint farm aesthetic". That's pretty funny coming from a magazine that sells a twelve dollar jam spatula and limited edition muck boots in their online store.
Both writers seem to be implying that a farmer cannot be both grower and hostess, while maintaining the integrity of her farming operation.
The Grist writer says she tries not to idealize in her writing, concerned that a pretty picture of farm life does a disservice to the visitor or reader, hiding the financial, social, and environmental complexities of farming. We think a farmer's story should be an honest one, yes, but we also believe that diversifying income for small farms only makes sense. The old idiom "don't put all your eggs in one basket" comes to mind. Weddings, overnight guests, and farm-to-table dinners are simply another chapter in the farmer's story. That would be the chapter where the farmer gets to keep the farm because he's not depending solely on good market prices for his products.
Back to the weddings for a minute. COME ON. We aren't immune to gently poking fun at photos that show very clean people performing farming chores, but wedding photographs are always quixotic and romantic. WEDDING. It doesn't matter if the event takes place in a barn or on a beach (yuck, all that sand everywhere), the photographs are going to be pretty and golden-hued. That's what a bride wants, and that's what a venue wants to show future guests. It's memory, and promise, and beauty in the rustic, and should a farmer apologze for providing a setting that people want?
Photos of brides kicking up their cowboy-booted heels with just a touch of lens-flare halo kissing the hay field... well, we say that's as legitimate a story as unrelenting blood and mud. And smells. Yes, sometimes the actual experience includes the aroma of livestock wafting over the newlyweds and their guests. That's real.
We've been working on Farm Stay U.S. (now known as the U.S. Farm Stay Association) for four years now. It's been our experience that most farm stay guests are disabused of lingering notions of romantic farm life once they see the hard (smelly, dirty) work that goes into growing produce and livestock. But they still love their time on the farm. Many return year after year, happy to visit and learn and lend a hand. They're happy that their vacation dollars are infused into a rural economy.
They keep their romantic views of the peace and quiet, the stars at night. They gain an understanding of the cycle of life and death and an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us every day. Farm stay owners want to share this with urbanite travelers because we think that what we have is pretty special - even all that compost. Er... poop.