Rural Living March 01, 2021
Farm Fresh Air
Tourists come to sleep with the cows.
The directions don’t exactly say to turn off the pavement and take the next unmaintained road to a vacation unlike any other, but that is what you’ll get when you book into the New Day Dairy GuestBarn outside Clarksville, Iowa (population less than 1,500).
Lynn and Dan Bolin saw an opportunity to offer the public a view of their 120-cow commercial dairy farm in a different way when they designed a new freestall barn to accommodate robotic milkers in 2015.
Where a traditional parlor would have been, they built living quarters.
“On a super basic level, we needed a place to live as a family,” Lynn says about the practicality of building an apartment in the barn. They were building the new barn in part because they were coming back to help run Dan’s family’s farm. “But then we decided to design it to eventually become an Airbnb.”
This was a natural diversification route for the Bolins because they love travel, having already been around the world.
“We look at travel as something that is enriching to life, not just an escape,” explains Lynn. “Hospitality fits the strengths we bring to the table.”
Open for business. Fast-forward to 2019 when their plan had become reality: the timing of adding agritourism to their operation seemed right. Milk prices were still not great, and farm stays were starting to trend as unique tourism opportunities.
They had worked with Iowa State University Extension and other tourism organizations to make sure all their Ts were crossed and Is dotted with things like zoning regulations, fire code, and proper insurance.
They had decorated all three en suite bedrooms with bright, crisp décor and filled the loft overlooking the pens and robot with modern agriculture and dairy information.
They were ready, and the timing was right. In fact, Airbnb reported more than 19,000 guests rang in 2020 on farms like Bolins’.
Their goal was to reach 30 percent occupancy through 2020. It looked attainable, and then the first wave of COVID-19 forced everyone to stay home.
But it turns out, farm stays are just what people are looking for during a pandemic. Airbnb reported their financials went down 80 percent when the stay-at-home orders hit, and by late summer they were back to 2019 numbers in the United States. There was one big caveat though: the bookings were in different locations. Americans were opting for rural places instead of the usual cities.
For example, their data shows reservations to stay in barns were up 60 percent year over year in July, and rural destinations accounted for 30 percent of Labor Day 2020 bookings, which is double that of 2019.
This was true for Bolins, too. They have had more bookings than expected.
Enriching experiences. “I tell my clients location is important. The setting you provide is important. But, your personality as business owners is equally important,” says Diane Van Wyngarden, tourism specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “You need to love to host people, and you need to teach people about modern agriculture.”
Guests coming to farms are looking to learn about farm life and food production as much as they are looking for fresh air and space to wander.
As they had hoped, Bolins are finding that hosting people on their farm is much more than having ‘heads in beds’. Their farm stay is unique because it is on a working farm, not a hobby farm.
Guests spend hours gazing out the picture windows into the barn, watching the family do chores and developing deep curiosity about the cows.
“One guest asked me about the cows’ eyesight, and another asked me about their thyroids,” says Lynn.
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