Back to the farm
At one of Indiana's first farm-stay inns, you can gather the eggs, milk the goats and rediscover the rural side of life.
Tucked away behind Richard and Ashira Young's residence, more than 50 chickens freely roam with a few cats and dogs mingling throughout. As Ashira and I walk their way, the chickens know what's coming, and they run to congregate near our feet. The frenzy begins as I throw handfuls of feed at them. I feel bad about accidentally pelting some in the head, but that disappears inside the coop as I hold a freshly lain lukewarm egg for the first time.
For the Youngs, running Blue River Valley Farm is a full-time job. Someone must be there at least twice a day to tend to the chickens, goats, dogs, bees and various other animals on the 120-acre land. But they don't just operate a working farm; they share the experience with paying guests.
"This place is a refuge, a refuge from the worries of everyday life," says Ashira, "and to be able to offer this to people is wonderful."
You might know agritourism as farmers markets, u-picks and local wineries. It is what it sounds like - combining tourism opportunities with agricultural activities. But farm stays are an up-and-coming segment of the tourism industry. And Blue River Valley Farm is one of Southern Indiana's few farm stays - an overnight destination away from urban life and onto rural farmland.
Scottie Jones is the founder of Farm Stay U.S., a national website offering resources for farmers to develop an overnight destination on their land as well as an extensive list for tourists. She says the growth of farm stays has stemmed from farmers wanting to diversify their income and families wanting to get back to the countryside.
All you need is the view driving up the bumpy gravel road to know you're there. The picture-perfect white house on the hill, the wide-open pastures and the barns scattered throughout welcome you to Blue River Valley Farm.
The Youngs' farm is located in rural Milltown, about 40 minutes north of the Ohio River.
The land has been in the family of Richard Young, a state senator since 1988, for more than 50 years, and the farmhouse on the property for over 100. After Richard's parents died in the late 90s, the house fell into disrepair. As the Youngs' current residence was right down the road, they thought they'd repair the farmhouse for suitable storage space.
The termite-eaten joists, garbage cans catching rainwater from holes in the roof and invasive ivy were the least of their worries. The house had no cooling system and a 50-year-old heating system. They put in new duct work just to protect the stored furniture. To avoid heating and cooling the outdoors, they installed new insulation, doors and windows.
One thing led to another and before they knew it, they had a complete renovation job on their hands.
"I said, 'My goodness, this is the most expensive storage facility in the state of Indiana,' " Ashira says.
Richard suggested turning the two-story house into a vacation rental, and in November 2009, marketing for Blue River Valley Farm began.
In addition to attending county tourism meetings and distributing brochures, Ashira developed visitsouthernindiana.com. An advocate for tourism in the 812 area, she wanted to provide a comprehensive regional website for visitors. She uses the site to endorse Blue River Valley Farm and other small businesses in the area.
With only six Indiana farm stays on Jones' national Farm Stay U.S. website, Blue River Valley not included, our state isn't the largest tourist destination for this new kind of travel. But with Southern Indiana's history and geography, the region is ripe for agritourism opportunities.
"We use agriculturally based activities to attract visitors, to get Hoosiers to experience Indiana in other ways than they have before," says Mark Newman, the interim executive director of the Indiana Office of Tourism Development. "It's something so naturally and distinctively Hoosier, that we should be doing what we can to use it to our advantage."
Past visitors to Blue River Valley Farm include six sisters converging from different parts of the country, honeymooning couples, and family reunions. Although their farthest guests came from the United Arab Emirates, Ashira says most visitors are from other parts of the state or urban communities.
Newman isn't surprised at that. "Intrastate tourism is as important as interstate tourism. We want Hoosiers to know all the great things their state has to offer."
Working closely with the Department of Agriculture, the Indiana Office of Tourism Development is trying to increase the state's agritourism destinations. They have developed an annual Indiana Agritourism and Farmers' Market Directory, working with local business operators and hoping to provide a comprehensive handbook to bring new visitors in.
Like many farm-stay homes across the country, Blue River Valley Farm gives visitors the choice as to how hands-on they want their farm experience to be.
Families can stay at the farmhouse, milk the goats and feed the chickens. There is plenty of room to fish in the nearby Blue River and miles of mowed walking trails along the property. Five thousand square feet of garden just beyond the back deck of the house are available for picking vegetables during the growing season. Even the original outhouse is available for use for those who so desire.
Ashira and I sat at the kitchen table tucked away in the corner, as the background noise of Richard mowing the lawn - a weekly eight hour job - fluctuated between loud and soft. We skimmed the guest book, looked at pre-renovation photos and soothed dachshund Patchy's cries for attention.
The farmhouse felt like home. With a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and 52" TV, it has all the comforts of the modern world. Upstairs, the original hardwood floors remain, and there is a slight southwestern feel to the decor. A hot tub awaits visitors on a concrete slab that used to house the outdoor kitchen. Needless to say, if I didn't feel like milking the goats that day, I knew where I was heading.
While England has 7,200 farm stays and France has another 5,000, the United States is gradually catching up. Farmers have started to realize the added revenue benefits of sharing their love for the land.
"This is an alternative that doesn't rely on the weather, on things they can't control," Jones says. "It's a way to diversify the income stream."
The Farm Stay U.S. website has over 960 farm stays and adds about 2-4 more each month.
"We're just not quite there yet in the U.S. It's a much bigger country to bring on board," says Jones, comparing it to Europe. "We'll get there, one overnight at a time on a farm."
Ashira and I head down to the Blue River along the mowed path, following the gang of dogs through the open hay field. Charlotte - a black lab - took a quick dip and Patchy dipped his feet in. The Youngs' property ends smack dab in the middle of the calm Blue River, an intimidating steep hill on the other side of the bank signifying the neighbors' land. After an unexpectedly close-by shake from Charlotte, we slowly make our way back to the house.
A sudden burst of goats galloped and 'baa-ed' toward us, strikingly similar to the chickens, as we approached the barn. Among them was Momma, Ashira's 'baby' milking goat who is pregnant. Momma can give up to a gallon of milk a day, which Ashira uses to make cheese and ice cream, skills she learned from books. Some bearded and some horned, the 20 goats curiously poke their heads through the rusty metal gate, yet shy away from any camera attention.
The Youngs have no plans to sell the business, or the property, anytime soon. Blue River Valley Farm has only been in operation for two and a half years, but they are already at 50 percent occupancy throughout the year. But Ashira knows more can be done for both Blue River and our region's agritourism opportunities.
And Scottie Jones doesn't think farm stays are just a trend either.
"I don't think it's just a fluke. I don't think it's just going to come and go away," she says. "I see this as becoming permanent, a new travel niche"