By Sophie Quinton on Dec 9, 2010

Agritourism Gets Interactive With Rent-a-Cow Programs

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If you’ve ever toured a winery, spent a few weeks at a dude ranch or even taken the kids apple picking, you’ve been an agritourist. If you left yearning for a more hands-on farm experience, well, you’re not the only one.

As the buzz around sustainable farming grows, interactive agritourism shows no signs of slowing down. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Cgoodwin

In part inspired by the sustainable food movement, tourists are lining up to help with the milking, hoeing and harvesting, and farmers are taking advantage of the boom in volunteer labor.

For those who dream of working the land, farmhand vacations and livestock rentals could be the next big thing.

The Rent-a-cow concept made headlines back in September 2010, when an article from the Inter Press Service profiled enterprising Swiss farmer Michel Izoz. Izoz rents his cows out to local urbanites for up to a whole season. The cows remain on his picturesque alpine farm, and customers pay to visit ‘their’ cows cows and perform manual farm labor.

Chores include preparing cows for milking, clearing pastures and cleaning out barns, and the experience comes at a cost of 380 Swiss Francs (385 U.S. dollars) for a season’s rental. Yet the program has become hugely popular and has even inspired similar programs at neighboring farms.

“I think city people need nature, not necessarily cows, but nature in general and everything that goes with it,” an AFP video quotes Izoz as saying. “The cows are an excuse, and I provide people with that excuse.”

Farm animal rentals and hands-on farm experiences are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. A recent spread in Our Iowa magazine promoted a rent-a-cow package as a holiday gift. Renters get a humorous “Cowlender,” a sample of cheese and an invitation to travel to the farm to meet their cow (all cows in the program are known as ‘Bonnie’).

The rental doesn’t include a laboring agreement, as the ad points out with a wink.

“This rural rental agreement lets the lessee enjoy a sense of dairy farming for a full 12 months without having to get up before daylight to do the milking, clean the barn, fork hay or haul manure,” the ad states.

Some farms and agricultural consortiums, like Vermont’s Rent Mother Nature program, use cow rentals to connect customers with delicious, farm-raised treats. A cow rental with Rent Mother Natures guarantees that three brie or cheddar cheeses, made from your cow’s milk, will arrive on your doorstep in the fall. The program also offers foodies the chance to rent maple syrup trees, honey-bee hives, fruit trees or even a wheat field.

If renting an animal isn’t enough to fulfill your agricultural dreams, you can always take a working vacation, either at a farm that hosts volunteers or through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Farm stays can provide non-farmers with a way to put their eco-friendly principles into action, or simply get in touch with a lifestyle most of us no longer experience.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, better known as WWOOF, connects volunteers with work on organic farms all over the globe. WWOOFing has become an increasingly popular option for college students looking for a creative way to spend a summer or a gap year, and for those of all ages who have a passion for sustainable agriculture, local food or nontraditional travel.

Is a cow rental or a farmhand getaway a perfect (or hilarious) fit for someone on your Christmas list? Check out your state’s agritourism division, ruralbounty.com or farmstayus.com to learn more about opportunities in your area. What you find may surprise you.

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