A Farmstay Getaway
The case for agricultural tourism- in Italy and Wisconsin
A couple of years ago, our friend Rossana suggested that before we attended the biennial Terra Madre Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy, we spend a couple of days at the farm and vineyard of her uncle’s wine producer in the Piedmont near Alba, just an hour or so from where the conference is always held. The drive took us through some of the most beautiful countryside we’d seen in Italy, including small villages nestled into the mountains where you could see for miles.
Franco Conterno’s farm was both humble and industrious. He had converted an old stable into two modest but comfortable bedrooms and rooms in adjacent buildings into an evening reception and wine tasting space, and created a dining room where breakfast was served. The place was bustling with activity: grapes being tended to, fruit being preserved, bread being baked. At night we tasted Franco’s wines made from the region’s famed nebbiolo grapes, and for breakfast we had his wife Laura’s freshly baked breads and cakes, homemade preserves and local meats and cheeses. We talked for hours about farming and wine making, local foods, politics and the economy. All under the watchful eye of Scott, the friendly, “I’ve seen it all” golden lab. All for about a third of what we would have paid at a hotel. It was warm and generous, quiet and soothing and it made us feel like part of the place.
That was our introduction to the Italian agriturismo. We’ve been to almost a dozen more over the last two years, in Tuscany and Sicily, and they’ve broadened and deepened our knowledge and appreciation for Italy, its food and its people. We bring it up here because the idea of agricultural or culinary tourism is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and holds great promise in Wisconsin.
To a degree, it was born of necessity in Italy. Italian farmers sought new income streams to cope with the unpredictability of the farm economy. The most recent estimate we’ve seen is around 20,000 farms now housing and/or feeding guests, and they range from the rustic to the whimsical to the stylishly modern. Interestingly these “tourists” are for the most part Italian. Germans and other Europeans are second, and there is a growing business with U.S. bicycle tourists. But for many living in Italy’s cities, a weekend at the cottage is likely a stay at an agriturismo.
We can see the appeal. Each is different, from the degree of involvement of the family to the amenities offered to the products featured. We’ve stayed at places producing wine, saffron, olive oil, nuts, truffles and more. And while activities may include horseback riding, biking, hiking, tennis and more, the activity we’ve enjoyed most is getting to know the farm and family, seeing the wine being produced and the crops being cared for, just being close to food and the people who produce it.
Which brings us back home. Wisconsin is exploring agri-cultural tourism, at the state tourism level, the regional economic development level and the local, small business level. Nothing approaches the infra-structure-and strict guidelines-of Italy’s system yet. But there’s interest here and it’s growing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded a $42,000 grant to start a website, Farm Stay U.S., that maintains a listing of farm stays in the country.
That very topic will be part of an August 13 conference, “Telling The Driftless Food and Farming Story.” The event, at The Old Oak Inn in Soldiers Grove, is described as a chance for people to tell their personal stories around regional food and farming with an emphasis on getting the word out on sustainable food and farming. Agricultural tourism can and should be part of that story, and every bit the genuine article it is in Italy. For details, visit driftless.wisc.edu.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to email@example.com.