Visitors who make the trek to Bonnie Blue Farm aren't drawn by roller coasters or water slides. They're more likely to be looking for a rustic retreat or wildlife, which includes one mule, three Great Pyrenees dogs, a Jersey cow named Eileen, and goats. The kids scamper too fast to be counted. In a clean, tiled studio guests mash their noses against the windows and spy on Gayle Tanner as she makes the farm's signature goat cheese. Gayle's been making cheese for 35 years and has the expert's knack for making it look effortless. Nearby is a recently built, state-of-the- art cheese cave, guarded by a suit of armor. A short hike away, two forest streams converge to create an inviting place to splash and play. "It used to be the country swimming hole," says Jim Tanner. "There's no long distance swimming, but you can get in here, sit in cool water up to your neck, and feel the minnows nipping at your toes."
As far as vacation destinations go, the Tanners' Bonnie Blue Farm is about as far from Dollywood as a family can get. The farm is located in Wayne County, one of Tennessee's least populated counties. On-site is a small log cabin, near the goats' barn, that the Tanners rent to guests for $95 a night. Visitors who feel panicky about being isolated can access wireless Internet or be awoken by the call of the resident rooster.
Welcome to farm tourism. Dozens of small farms throughout the region offer the opportunity to stay overnight and participate in day-to-day tasks. And it's catching on. Pamela Bartholomew, Tennessee's State Coordinator for Agritourism, points out that most people who visit are three or four generations removed from a farm and the day-to-day chores such as working the cattle or gathering eggs.
The broad label "agritourism" encompasses all the activities small farms offer visitors. These options run the gamut of corn mazes, pumpkin patches, markets, bed-and-breakfasts, wineries, festivals, petting zoos, snack bars, markets and pick-your-own berry fields. Some are more unusual than others.
Ten minutes from downtown Nashville is A Cowboy Town, billed as a "farm theme park" where Tourists can ride horses, catch fish, join a campfire cookout and watch a staged shoot-out. At a Dude Ranch outside Chattanooga each guest is assigned a personal ranch horse at check-in. (See http://www.tnhorsevacation.com/)
"Agriculture is Tennessee's biggest industry," says Bartholomew, "with tourism coming in second." The combination of the two makes agritourism a natural fit. In the last decade, the state has funded an agritourism initiative to assist farmers who develop and market new ways to attract more visitors and their money. In Tennessee, more than 600 small farms offer some sampling of activities. Although the term agritourism dates back only a few decades, tourists have been escaping to Tennessee farms as rural retreats for more than 100 years.
The additional activities provide a way to boost income and meet the rising costs of keeping a small operation in business. Many small farms have remained with the same family for generations and the farmers hope that by diversifying their income they'll be able to pass the property to their children and grandchildren. Bartholomew says innovative offerings appeal to younger family members who want to find their own way to contribute to the farm. "Mom and Dad have the cattle and raise corn and soybeans," she says, "but the younger generation is trying to find their niche. They want to stay and farm. Agritourism is a good fit for young people."
Not everyone who spends the night on a farm is looking for a slice of country life. In the 1980's, John Looney and his family bought a 700-acre farm on the Cumberland Plateau, along with a beautifully crafted lodge. "All the rooms, including the insides of closets and the garage, are paneled in full-thickness hardwood milled here on the farm," Looney says. "You open a door and are astonished by the smell of cherry."
Looney's farm earns income from two main sources of income - beef cattle and on-site pheasant hunting. Pheasants are raised in the barn and released on the property. Looney, a professor of psychiatry at the Duke University Medical School, originally rented out the lodge. When the tenants moved out, however, "we decided it was too beautiful to rent to one family," he says. They renovated the building, and in 2005 opened it as the Cumberland Mountain Lodge, a high-end retreat that can house up to six adults. Looney spends about 10 days of every month at the lodge. He works at a clinic in Crossville, treating children with psychiatric disorders or those children whose parents are in prison for methamphetamine.
In addition to a location where "you can't see other properties from ours," Looney says, guests enjoy spa services like massages and pedicures. They have access to a nearby country club. Two gourmet chefs are available for catering. One previously worked on Air Force One specializing in American cuisine. The other, a Swiss native, specializes in gourmet continental fare. Visitors to Looney's lodge are more likely to be looking for a quiet, luxurious retreat than a place to learn how a farm works, though some people do pitch in with the chores. "Most agritourism venues in the state are for children," Looney says. "We love kids, but we think farms can be a little dangerous. Our agritourism is for upscale adults who want to get away." Children are welcome at the lodge as long as they're well- supervised.
Bartholomew says agritourism is "a growing field," largely because farmers are getting creative in attracting tourists. But the industry gets an additional boost from consumers who want an education about where their food comes from. "It's very important that we let the younger generations know exactly where food is grown and how it's grown and how much time and effort goes into that" she says. "It's not just as simple as going to the store and picking up a gallon of milk."