Heading to the farm: why more and more people are taking working holidays

More and more travelers are ditching the traditional vacation in favor of staying on a working farm. Rosie Paterson investigates why and where to find the best.

“It’s funny how these things come back with a different label,” muses Julian Matthews, the founder and managing director of Real Wild Estates. He talks about agritourism, the meeting of agriculture and tourism, a growing global trend based on an old idea. For much of the 20th century, farmers routinely invited families onto their land to help harvest crops in exchange for free housing, he points out.

Today, although examples of agritourism can be found all over the world, it is most closely associated with Italy. It began to gain prominence in the Mediterranean country in the 1950s, as traditional and small-scale farming became increasingly unprofitable. Farmers were forced to diversify, so they opened the barn doors, welcoming foreigners, urban Italians and international tourists, who learned how to milk cows and prepare produce, like cheese and wine , and picking vegetables and herbs. Free labor turned into paying customers, and over time some agritourisms became more and more luxurious.

Perhaps the best high-end example in Italy right now is Borgo Santo Pietro in Tuscany, a 300-acre estate 40 minutes from Siena (www.borgosantopietro.com). Spear-shaped cypresses, so tall they seem to pierce the bright blue sky above, line the long gravel driveway. They are a common feature on the exterior of hotels, farms and homes in the region, a symbol of welcome. Behind are stone dwellings with soft colors and terracotta roofs – with rooms of various sizes – and, at the top, the central house, more than 800 years old, all soft corners and in ruins, the wisteria crumbling and linen curtains waving lazily to new guests through open windows.

On the smartest of farms: High-end agritourism reaches its peak on the 300-acre Tuscan estate of Borgo Santo Pietro. Credit: Stefano Scatà / Borgo Santo Pietro

The Borgo estate includes several gardens, an organic farm, a spa, a fermentation laboratory and a cooking school. It’s the latest iteration in a long line of uses, lazzaretto, or quarantine house, used by medieval pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena, to house local farming families. During World War II, partisans took refuge in nearby caves.

Claus and Jeanette Thottrup bought Borgo Santo Pietro in 2001 and originally planned to live in the house full time. When that proved impossible, they set about creating a village-style hotel, starting with just a few rooms. The rest followed piece by piece. All who visit are encouraged to take a tour of the farm, to help familiarize them with all that is on offer.

Parts of the hotel are deeply personal, such as the pond, a gift from Mr. Thottrup to his wife on the occasion of the birth of their son. The same son insisted on buying a rabbit, probably for the cutting board, at a local market a few years later. Somewhat inevitably, one rabbit led to quite a few rabbits and, after many years of waiting, the chef finally got his way – rabbit is now a standout ingredient on the restaurant menu. The rabbits live alongside a herd of free-range chickens that at night retreat to a row of candy-colored chicken coops. Nearby is a herd of adorable alpacas – there are tentative plans to turn the wool into slippers – and the newest addition to the Borgo experience is a wild swimming spot, a 20-minute walk across fields of sheep closely guarded by a Maremmano-Abruzzo Shepherd.

Cooking school pizza making classes are rightly popular. ‘Dry yeast?’ joked the chef with a worried look on his face, when I told him about my culinary exploits in England. Apparently fresh is always better. I topped off my pizza with milky mozzarella, plump caper berries, herbs and vegetables from the extensive vegetable garden.

At Glebe House in Devon, guests can learn how to make pasta with owner Hugo Guest.

Agritourism is also on the rise in the UK: in the summer of 2020, holiday booking website Farm Stay UK reported a 200% year-on-year increase in traffic. According to VisitScotland, agritourism will add £250million to the country’s economy by 2030. “It’s huge now: staycations, nature outings,” reveals Mr Matthews, who credits some of the growing interest in Covid. His company helps landowners facilitate large-scale nature reclamation, while producing viable financial returns. “Tourism is a really essential element because it is not only vital as an economic means, it also provides access to lands that historically have not been opened up.”

For some landowners, the journey has only just begun. In Beaminster, Dorset, Luke Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, has given over 450 acres of his Mapperton estate to nature restoration projects since 2020. This figure is expected to rise to 1,000 acres in the coming years. He is not the only one. According to Coutts’ research, nearly a quarter of wealthy young landowners plan to make lasting changes to their estates in the next few years.

Lord Hinchingbrooke’s children inspired him to initiate the changes. “They are more driven by environmental concerns and obviously with an estate in the countryside you have to think about priorities for the next generation.”

The future Earl of Sandwich turned to Knepp in West Sussex to realize his vision and that of his children: “It must be said that they [Knepp] are the pioneers. They have had such a positive influence on us and many others by being so open with their data.

Harvest of fresh produce from the vast vegetable garden of Borgo Santo Pietro.

A brand new herd of 25 White Park cattle now grazes on an area once populated with up to 200 animals, in partnership with regenerative organic dairy tenants Tom and Sophie Gregory (2021 Dairy Woman of the Year winner ). This summer, a herd of Exmoor ponies, two beavers and a drift of Iron Age pigs (a cross between wild boar and Tamworth) will join the Mapperton sheepfold. ‘They [the pigs] are the animals we need the most because they uproot pastures in areas where we have fairly species-poor grasslands. Pigs can come in and stir up the soil and make it available for other species to germinate and provide an environment for invertebrates and so on.

Volunteer opportunities are ongoing, but, for now, interested foreigners can rent an old farm building or join an eco-tour with Mapperton’s ecology manager, Tom Brereton.

“It was one of those decisions that was right at the time and has been proven more and more right over the months,” enthuses Lord Hinchingbrooke, “particularly because you work with so many interesting and compassionate people: the experts, but also the kind of visitors we bring in. In terms of impact, we have already started generating additional revenue to support the estate through eco-tours.

In the first year, he adds, “we saw a big increase in the number and abundance of different flower species. This has led to an increase in the population of invertebrates, insects, and this has led to the doubling of some of our main bird species, such as the stone cat and the willow warbler”.

In the South West – Launceston, Cornwall, to be precise – Coombeshead Farm is leading the charge for small agritourism (www.coombesheadfarm.co.uk). Visitors to the 66-acre working farm and guesthouse are likely to wake up early, thanks to the morning call of the resident rooster and the tantalizing smell of fresh bread from the on-site bakery. There is also a superb restaurant (popular with guests, day-trippers and locals), a farm shop and workshops on pig farming and butchery.

In Devon, Phil Heard offers Dartmoor cattle drives (www.dartmoor ridingholidays.co.uk). Trips range from three to six nights, from May, the “spring outing of cattle”, to September, the “gathering of cows and calves”. Cattle, led by a lead cow, usually an older matriarch, respond well to being moved by horses, according to Heard, who will teach you how to team up with other riders by flanking the herd.

Further east, a 15-acre smallholding called Glebe House, set on a scenic hillside three miles inland from Devon’s east coast, is making waves, in part thanks to its interiors inspired by Bloomsbury Set (www.glebehousedevon.co.uk). After a stint in Italy, owners Hugo and Olive Guest purchased the former Georgian presbytery from his parents. There is a swimming pool, cutting garden and vegetable patch, temperature controlled deli room and an excellent walk directly from the property. Chickens strut about undisturbed by the comings and goings and two pigs have claimed the forest as their own. Ms. Guest, an artist whose colorful works hang on the walls of Glebe, also plans to install locally made cabins in the park. It may conjure up images of East End kids picking hops in Kent, but agritourism is very much in place in the 21st century.

Castello di Reschio leads the way in agritourism-inspired travel. Phoebe Hunt and Rosie Paterson check in.

Mary Miers teamed up with an old friend as she toured one of Italy’s most enchanting regions.

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