On a recent Saturday morning outside the little town of Wrenshall, Minn., about a half-hour south of Duluth, it was 5:40 a.m., and the chickens on the Locally Laid egg farm were starting to get restless.
Most people on vacation would still be snoozing. But not Klay Jaeger and his 9-year-old son Isaac. For them, it was time to let out the chickens.
“Good morning!” the elder Jaeger shouted as he opened the door to one of two big coops. "Just come on out!” Isaac added.
For about $50 a night, the Jaegers slept in a small outbuilding in the chicken yard. It’s two-thirds bunkhouse, one-third chicken coop, separated only by a couple panes of glass.
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They can actually see the chickens while they’re sleeping; and vice versa. “It's weird having chickens stare at you. But … you get used to it,” Isaac Jaeger said.
Lucie and Jason Amundsen started their “pasture-raised” egg business ten years ago. They raise 400 chickens themselves, and they contract with seven other larger farmers who produce eggs for their brand. They also grow pick-your-own berries.
They call this new venture their “AirB-N-BAWK!” The idea came from an article Lucie Amundsen read about a local business in Scotland where guests sleep in an apartment above a bookstore at night, and volunteer at the shop by day.
Along with the bunkhouse, the Amundsens also built what they call "The Perch," a tiny house on stilts in a patch of woods next to the chicken yard.
Both are rustic. Neither have running water; guests use an outhouse. But they’ve proven popular since they opened earlier this summer.
The Amundsens estimate they'll earn about $13,000 this year renting both out, enough to add nearly 20 percent to the farm’s annual profit.
"That's real money for a farmer,” Lucie Amundsen acknowledged, adding “there is kind of a sad commentary there, that raising food with integrity isn't quite enough anymore."
The Amundsens’ quaint farm rentals are part of the rapidly growing agritourism industry. While for a long time many farmers have operated vegetable stands, or pumpkin patches, in recent years operators have become more entrepreneurial, offering everything from pizza nights to beekeeping classes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates it’s a nearly billion dollar industry. But that’s likely a severe undercount, said Dawn Thilmany, a professor at Colorado State University who researches agritourism.
“There is an appetite [for this],” she said. “People are foodies. People are big outdoorsy people. Right now, every single trend of what this next generation of tourists wants to be, we can do well on farms and ranches.”
‘Where food actually comes from’
There are more than a dozen “farm stays” and Bed and Breakfasts listed on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown directory, which highlights local food producers.
What’s different about the Amundsens’ farm is that guests don’t just sleep there; they also have the option to help with chores. And most do.
“For the most part, people want to be involved, they want to do the work, they want to gather the eggs, they want to care for the birds, they want to be in a situation where they're contributing,” said Jason Amundsen.
For the Jaegers, they started their day letting out the chickens. Then, after going back to sleep for a bit, they were back at it at 8:30 a.m. Joined by three other guests staying at the farm that morning, they collected eggs, washed and packaged them.
They also fed the chickens and filled up water containers. Klay Jaeger even scraped chicken poop out of a coop — with a smile on his face.
“It's been a lot of fun. It's great to hang out with my son. And I've always wanted to take him to a farm. It’s a good experience for him to see where food actually comes from,” he said.
And once Jason Amundsen trains the guests, he said they can be quite helpful. “We can go into town, we can go do things, or we can go to bed early, the way we couldn't do that before. We were just so hamstrung to the clock.”
As the number of Americans who work on farms has dwindled — fewer than two percent of Americans now live on farms — the number of people seeking out ways to experience agriculture has surged.
The farm tourism industry tripled between 2002 and 2017, according to the latest USDA estimates.
Minnesota doesn't track the industry's economic impact. But farm tourism has grown along with the growth of the local foods movement, said the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Paul Hugunin, because people crave experiences, not just products.
“You can go to a grocery store, and you can get local apples, you can get locally grown pumpkins, but you can't get the experience of the beauty of an apple orchard that overlooks a river or overlooks the bluffs. You don't get the experience of taking your kids out into a pumpkin patch and letting them find the pumpkin that you're going to carve as a family.”
And increasingly, tourists want to know what life is really like on the farm. “People don't always want the entertainment version,” said Thilmany. “They want the authentic, what's it like to be a farmer or rancher for a weekend.”
Thilmany initially had a hard time understanding that concept. She grew up on a soybean, corn and pig farm in Iowa. She couldn’t wait to head to the big city and leave farm chores behind.
"But to anyone who didn't get that or didn't have a grandfather or grandmother still on the farm, they just want a touch of Americana.”
While the agritourism sector is growing rapidly, still only a small number of producers actually participate. The USDA estimates that five percent of farmers have some sort of farm tourism venture, although Thilmany believes the actual number could be closer to 20 percent.
Andrea Simek and her husband first welcomed guests to their pumpkin patch and corn maze on her husband’s family farm in between Duluth and the Iron Range in 2012. At the time it was still an operating dairy farm.
“Who’s going to drive out to the middle of nowhere to see our farm?” she remembers her husband’s grandfather asking, incredulously.
That first summer, she said, cars were lined up down the dirt road. Grandpa Johnny would drive by in his Carhart overalls to wave at the kids.
2020 was their busiest year ever. They welcomed more than 1,000 people a day over six fall weekends. Now they also offer live music and educational field trips, and host parties.
Both her and her husband have full-time jobs off the farm. “It adds a little bit of extra income for us at the end of the year,” Simek said. More importantly, it keeps their family’s farming tradition alive.
For Jason and Lucie Amundsen, their vacation rentals have helped the bottom line. But it’s also reawakened their enthusiasm for farming, to see how their guests respond to their chickens.
“We've been doing this for 10 years. It's our anniversary. We kind of needed a little fluffing to get excited about it again.”