June 15th, 2017

Franny’s Farm was a great spot for our June CRAFT Twilight Farm Tour on Agritourism. We gathered in the early evening, Franny welcomed us, and quickly we set off on a tour of their operation. Franny explained that she and her partner Jeff bought their land in 2012 with help from a USDA Farm Service Agency Loan and set to work establishing Franny’s Farm along with their son. They kicked things off with a barn raising and have continued to build all of the infrastructure on the farm themselves.

They own 33 acres total. They’ve downsized the garden and are able to market their produce and meat to a few restaurants and to guests through the farm store. This year they are growing two acres of industrial hemp as part of NC’s Industrial Hemp Commission Pilot Project. They also raise livestock—sheep, goats, and two Red Wattle pigs named Dumpling and Donut—and breed Heritage Barred Rock poultry that Franny ships as chicks all across the country.

When they first started, they planned to make produce and livestock their primary enterprises; however, the opportunity to host the Barnaroo music festival arose shortly after. Their agritourism enterprises have continued to grow ever since. “Agritourism is our bread and butter,” Franny said, “plus I love to party, have a good time, and listen to music so having it as a part of the farm made sense for us.”

Of their 33 acres, 5 acres make up their Event Venue for weddings, lodging, summer camp, and the music festival. Barnaroo is their biggest event by far. While it’s not the biggest money maker and does take a good amount of time to plan and put on, Franny feels like the partnerships they have formed and how much it gets the word out about their farm makes it worthwhile. They will host 8 weddings this year, as well as several weeks of summer camp. Additionally, folks can rent the space on the farm for bridal or baby showers, book clubs, spring breaks, meetings, or even yoga with goats!

They have been using Air BnB to offer on-farm lodging for three years, and it is what drives the farm financially now, Franny explained. Franny and Carissa, the full-time manager, are the key staff day-to-day. For lodging, they have two eco-cabins, four permanent camping tents, and a living space above the barn. All of the campsites and cabins are off the grid using only solar power. Guests share a community kitchen, bathroom, and utility room. The camping tents are utility tents that cost about $800 retail and sit atop a wooden platform they built for about $300. They are unfurnished and cost $35/night.

The eco-cabins are 10×12-ft. buildings with loft space, costing about $10,000 to build since they did all of the labor. Although you are not required to have a permit for any structure 10×12 ft. or smaller, all of their cabins are permitted. Both cabins have a queen and twin bed available and cost $65/night on weekends and $55/night on weeknights. Guests can acquaint themselves with the farm through self-guided tours, but all the gates to pastures say “Employees Only” in an effort to keep them away from the animals. Camp kids, however, are allowed to visit the animals with supervision as a learning opportunity.

Franny also talked about how much thought and time she put into market research and setting their prices. She checked out the prices of camping sites, cabins, and accommodations in the area and figured out her costs ahead of time before building. This research gave her a better idea of how long it would take to earn their money back and helped them decide what was worth doing and what wasn’t. When they started to host weddings she learned that there are 185 farms with wedding venues in Buncombe County as well as 300 venues in Asheville alone. Franny stressed that putting it out there doesn’t mean it will succeed. “We have to build it. We’re farmers, we plant seeds,” she said enthusiastically.

Another key idea that Franny stressed was communication. While effective communication can be challenging, it’s imperative to communicate clearly and often with your guests, campers, interns, etc. They installed plenty of signs across the farm directing folks where it’s okay for them to be and where it’s not, how to get around, and any liability concerns (which the insurance company likes to see). She also makes an effort to interact with the guests at some point during their stay. If they are unhappy and they meet her, they aren’t going to leave angry.

Other practical tips:

  • Get keypads for the cabin so guests can let themselves in with a key code.
  • Hire a cleaner for the house and cabins.
  • Install solar lights along the drive, pathways, and community buildings. It’s easier for folks to get around and feel safe.
  • It’s okay not to do everything yourself which is where strategic partnerships can come in. For example, Asheville Bee Charmer manages their beehives on the farm.
  • If you’re planning to do more than one cabin, only build one at a time. Then, you can improve upon your design as you learn.
  • Try to have something interesting to see or interact with wherever you look. That’s where friendly pigs like Dumpling and Donut come in. Give them something they will remember. It’s part of creating an experience.
  • A good philosophy is to “under promise and over deliver” so that people are pleasantly surprised.

The most sage advice that Franny shared is to be true to who you are and start small. Much of Agritourism, especially if you’re looking to have vacation rentals on your farm, is a hospitality job. That can require being available 24/7 and dealing with people who don’t know how to be on a farm. For Franny, her passions are working with kids, education, farming, and having a good time. Shifting her enterprises to concentrate on agritourism as a way to support her farming enterprises and promote community was a natural fit. If venturing into agritourism is what you decide to do, don’t wait until you have everything figured out to start. “Roll with it as you go,” said Franny, “and start small.”  They started with campsites at Barnaroo, upgraded to permanent camping tents, and finally built eco-cabins. It’s a series of trials and errors, learning by making mistakes. Build your market and skills and determine what works for you as you grow.

Our thanks to Franny and Jeff for making time to host us on the farm and share insights. It is always such a pleasure to see a farm from the farmer’s perspective. Thanks again! Hope to see you at the next one.

Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2017! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or cameron@organicgrowersschool.org

 

Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.