Long-term readers may remember the Sleep Cheap in Europe series that appeared just weeks after I started this blog. This three-part series covered youth hostels, bed-and-breakfasts and camping, and I've had a great response to these articles - they've even been republished, in a slightly adapted form, on Yahoo. Well, a few weeks ago, I was reunited with my beloved Budget Travel magazine (wouldn't you know the one issue I missed was the Food Issue!) and I realized there's another budget-friendly option I've overlooked - farmstays.
This option not only offers the local exposure and unique locations of the other accommodation choices, but also enables you to get even closer to nature, by pitching in on a working farm! Agrotourism has long been popular in Europe (remember, the original youth hostels were designed to help German youths get close to the land), but these days the opportunities are truly global - from apple orchards in the American northwest, to vineyards in the sunny south of France, or sheep farming in verdant New Zealand. Whatever your interest, there's a location to suit.
What can you expect? Well, your experience will vary greatly depending on the type of farming, and even the individual location you choose. Some farms are designed as luxury, 'fresh-air' retreats, where guests can pitch in little or as much as they desire. Other sites are geared toward the younger crowd, offering a chance for kids to try their tiny hands at milking lessons or egg-collecting. Other farmstays emphasize the farm, rather than the stay: workers sleep in basic, dormitory conditions and put in a full day's work, regardless of weather. One thing most farmstays have in common is excellent food - when you're that close to the source, the food is just about as fresh as it gets!
To find a farmstay in the States, check out Farm Stay U.S. an excellent website, launched just last year, that matches wannabe farmers with locations tailored to their interests. According to Budget Travel, there are currently more than 5,200 farmstays in France (which you can search here), and about 1,600 in Italy (find one here). You can also find stays in Argentina, Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The non-profit organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms offers an even more budget-friendly option, matching travelers with farms, ranches, vineyards and other sites that allow workers to work in exchange for free room and board. The U.S. branch boasts 10,000 members and more than 1,700 participating farms.
Sadly, I don't have any personal experience with farmstays, but it's something I'd love to rectify in the future. For a more personal account, Budget Travel recommends Brian Bender's Farming Around the Country: An Organic Odyssey, which relates the experiences of a year spent at 12 farms across the country.