At an early-morning hour that most vacationers would spend unconscious, a few intrepid city dwellers outfitted in borrowed boots hunch over a creek full of watercress, carefully cutting the plants with kitchen scissors.
For their hosts, farmers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, it's the start of a regular workday. But for the visitors, it's a delicate balance between learning on the fly and trying to be of use on a working farm.
Hoeing, seeding and picking may not sound like a holiday, yet the appeal of agritourism is gaining in the US. More and more people want to see where their food comes from, and the same drive that leads them to visit farmers' markets or join community-supported agriculture farm-share programs draws them to the farm itself.
"I shop at the farmers' market, but I didn't really know how these people operate or how a farm functions," said Elizabeth Schafer, who works for a visual-effects company in Los Angeles and decided to visit Maverick Farms in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, after a year of working 50-hour to 60-hour weeks.
"It definitely made me appreciate what needs to be accomplished to put food on the table," Schafer said.
The arrangement at Maverick Farms is simple: Vacationers pay US$120 a night to stay in a room in the hosts' beautiful two-story, 125-year-old farmhouse, and they are also invited to work at harvesting, seeding and other chores. For each hour of labor, US$7 is deducted from the bill. Up to 25 percent of the bill can be worked off. At night, the farmers cook dinner from food they grew, and the guests/laborers are encouraged to join them. At the end of the stay, visitors can, if they like, leave a donation for the food they've eaten.
Agritourism includes a wide variety of farm activities. Though most visitors simply spend an afternoon picking fruit or feeding animals, others remain several days, contributing labor to tasks ranging from planting crops to building greenhouses.
In Vermont, income from agritourism totaled US$19.5 million in 2002, nearly twice the amount in 2000, US Department of Agriculture statistics show. Though there are no similar statistics for more recent years, agritourism leaders in the state say the figures continue to rise.
In North Carolina, 46 percent of agritourism operators surveyed by the state Department of Agriculture reported an increase in income in 2004 from 2003. And in Tennessee, agritourism enterprises directly added about US$17 million to the economy last year and bring in more than 3 million visitors a year, the state agritourism coordinator said.
"It's grown because more farmers are finding out it's an important avenue to bring in revenue and stay on the farm," said Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. "Secondarily, it's increasing because we've moved to an experience economy. People want to have a farm experience."
Melissa Gunderson is a chef and caterer in Norcross, Georgia. She, her husband, Eric, and their two young sons, Sam and Benjamin, visited Maverick in September. Since their stay, Gunderson has noticed a new appreciation of eggs by three-year-old Sam. When she cracks one open for a recipe, he remembers seeing them up close in Maverick's chicken coop.