We’ve got a new favorite book! Country Grit, A Farmoir of Finding Purpose and Love by Scottie Jones, executive director of FarmStay USA, Hipcamp host, and self-made farm owner. We wanted to hear how living so connected to the outdoors changed her life, and how hosting – sharing her farm with others – became not only her means, but much more. So here it is.
HC: Your book, Country Grit, starts with your husband, Greg, getting into a terrible car accident. From there you decided to retreat from suburban Arizona to rural Oregon – what was your thinking behind making such a big move?
Scottie: We had been looking to move out of Phoenix for about 5 years but hadn’t really settled on where. The accident brought everything to the fore. If we were going to make a move it was going to be scary no matter where because we had lived in Phoenix for 20 years so it was time to make a decision one way or the other. Now, such a ‘big move’? Ha, I don’t think we understood the full scale of what we were taking on by moving to a farm. The reasoning? We had successful white collar careers and were coming into the top of our game. How hard could farming be? Plus, the romance of living on acreage with trees and sheep, with a historic barn and house, AND an hour from the ocean, and two hours from skiing, two hours from Portland, outside a college town, yada yada yada. You can put all that together with a romantically deluded, idealized vision of the farming life and voila, it’s not a ‘big move’, it’s escaping the city for a rural life of quiet contemplation and a healthy lifestyle.
HC: And what did it bring you?
Scottie: Well, I could be funny here and say that farming is only quietly contemplative as you are trying to figure out how to fix something that is broken and the healthy lifestyle can actually be a bit grueling although it does have the added benefit of building your biceps. What it brought us, to start, was a farm with lots of deferred maintenance, and every fencing repair made with baling twine (it took me over a year to get all the orange baling twine replaced with correct repairs). My husband luckily, when he was 16, had been sent down to the old family farm in southern Arizona to move irrigation pipe one summer so he understood how the large 3 and 4” irrigation was supposed to work. This didn’t keep it from blowing every joint and valve it could the first summer, but he was relentless at fixing it. We also discovered I had bad water karma because I would just be near a pipe and it would blow. This meant I was off irrigation duty in a very short time, and instead started to learn about sheep. Our first years were filled with lots of mistakes, classes through our Extension about everything from livestock to pastures, neighbors who helped where they could, and learning to live in a community of 300 families which was far smaller than anything either Greg or I had ever experienced.
What it brought us in the end was an appreciation for the entrepreneurial spirit that farming small acreage requires; an appreciation of the natural world and how a walk in the woods or time with animals can bring some peace and quiet from the outside world; an opportunity to imagine a new travel niche with the success of our own farm stay; an adventure we never imagined.
HC: What were your largest challenges in obtaining this 60 acres of land?
Scottie: As most rural farm owners know, it is all but impossible to get a mortgage on a farm…something we didn’t realize when we first decided we wanted to buy the farm. The former owner probably knew this and offered to carry the mortgage for us until we could pay it off. A challenge we didn’t realize until we actually arrived with our family and a moving van was buying from out-of-state. The owner, the realtor and the home inspector were not actually in our court, so we were surprised by repairs we didn’t know about and last minute negotiations of the deal that followed us for years and ultimately required a lawyer. In our defense, we had visited the property 3 times. We just didn’t know what we should have been looking for both in land and rural construction!
HC: What are your greatest joys?
Scottie: I love lambing time because of all the new life. Lambs have that wonderful milky smell of babies and are quite fun to watch play. Our forests are ephemeral and mystical with moss and ferns and green everywhere you look, and our Honey Grove Creek brings salmon to spawn in the fall and it’s fun for our grandson, especially in the summer when he’s on the lookout for craw dads. We know our neighbors and enjoy their company and support, something we never really experienced in Tempe. Our spring water is clear and tasty. Our animals have a good life here.
HC: Tell me the story of deciding to share your land as a Farm Stay and Hipcamp?
Scottie: It took us about two years to realize that we were spending our retirement to be farmers. Greg already had a fulltime job teaching at the local community college and I had thought I would pick up a job in Corvallis after finishing my MBA (which I had to do online for the last year because we moved before I had completed it). However, it became apparent someone needed to stay on the farm and while I had brought a livestock gate latch to market and was selling it to local feed stores. We were not getting rich on the idea any time soon! I was familiar with the concept of farm stays from living in Europe and had always felt our place should be shared with others. We had built a little cabin for our daughter to return from college and help on the farm. When she informed us she was going to vet school we approached our county abut converting the use of our cabin to a farm stay. Not familiar with the concept, I pitched them a more complete picture and we were granted a Conditional Use Permit in 2006 to see if it would work.
The farm stay took off with the help of a small mention in Sunset magazine our first year. I think we were also lucky to be only two hours from Portland and to be located in Oregon where foodie culture is alive and well. As for Hipcamp, that story is a bit more circuitous! I am the founder and executive director of the U.S. Farm Stay Association and run the Farm Stay USA website. We were looking for a like-minded company to share a strategic partnership, since we are a non-profit trade association and don’t offer a booking engine. Hipcamp offered to be our ‘engine’. I signed my own farm up with the site, partly so I could explain the process to our members, and also to give my farm another outlet for marketing. The partnership has worked well and many of our farms have reported great success with their Hipcamp listings.
HC: What did this choice change for you?
Scottie: Well, besides raising sheep and farming hay and veggies, we now raise families on the farming lifestyle. I share my farm over 200+ days per year with ‘strangers’. But, as I say in the new Postscript to my book Country Grit, which is coming out in paperback this spring, our guests aren’t strangers once we have stood side-by-side scooping poop or carrying baby lambs in from the field. We now have guests returning 4, 5, 6+ times, so they are more like family and I am often more like Nana.
This does mean that our privacy is limited to those times of year when we aren’t so busy. Here in Oregon that would be November through February. It works for me because I need down time after being present daily in the spring and summer. Still, I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories. I also enjoy giving their kids a place to be kids where they can play in the grass and the creek, brush the donkey, and cuddle with the goats. I know the parents unwind, and families have time to bond as families, which is often an unexpected bonus for them. Then I send all home with a better understanding of the challenges to small-scale agriculture, and the prices in their farmers’ markets make more sense. I never came to this farm with an agenda of teaching others, but there is it!
HC: What have you learned in opening + sharing your land with others?
Scottie: I have learned something I already inherently knew, because once we were in the shoes of our guests (and I think it is what makes me a good host). It is amazing what most of us no longer know about farming, livestock, growing things, or the natural world – other than seeing it on TV. The top question I get is whether the eggs collected will pop out baby chicks into the frying pan! Apparently no one paid attention in 7th grade biology. Same goes with why the ram isn’t in with our ewes all the time. (Answer to chicken question: hen needs to sit on eggs for 25-27 days for them to hatch and reason we collect them every day. Answer to ram question: ewes are only pregnant for five months before delivery which means they can have lambs twice in a year. We only want lambs in spring). I also let our guests know that no question is stupid because how else are we going to make that connection to farming and nature?
And from all this opening and sharing I have learned how inquisitive and respectful our guests can be, almost like they see us as farming gods…because of information that everyone in this country knew and lived back at the turn of the 19th century, but that has been lost in our modern age. I have learned this sharing has its own rewards to me in the form of thank you letters from parents and drawing from kids that sometimes make me cry.
HC: What do you love about where you live?
Scottie: The quiet, the crow of the rooster or the baa of the sheep, the constant sound of water from our creek, the primordial forest of our ‘back 40’, neighbors who are there to help, stars and the Milky Way I had not seen since I was a kid, the lush green and water.
HC: What’s one thing you want for visitors to take away from your property?
Scottie: A calmness in the soul – if only until they hit I-5! Stories to recount on the ride home, and for years to come. A better understanding and appreciation of the rhythm of country life and the importance of small-scale farms and their diversification strategies in relation to our large industrial farms that feed the world. Okay, that’s three!
HC: Tell me about how the land has changed since you first bought it. What are your dreams for your property?
Scottie: No more orange baling twine holding things together is a big one! We have more infrastructure in: drip systems for our gardens, additional greenhouse/high tunnel for ripening of tomatoes and chiles, electric fencing for rotational grazing, predator guard lights, a farm house that is remodeled and open for larger groups to stay.
We are looking for farm/host managers to help us with our farm. I have done my part with the farm stay, but could see this property hosting retreats and events, being a location for movies and commercials, just about anything a new set of eyes and energy could imagine.
HC: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about becoming a camp host? And for someone who is a camp host?
Scottie: Generally, guests looking to book with you have already self-selected by using the Hipcamp (of FarmStayUS) site and will be respectful of your land and your lifestyle. Using online booking will free you from a great deal of time spent on reservations. You are in the hospitality business when you become a host so need to wear a different hat than your farmer hat or your country hat and be open to guests ‘interfering’ with your personal space from time to time. If you are a camp host already, I think you know all this. I do try to go above and beyond, but the reality is that our land already does a lot of that for us. I often find that guests’ expectations have been exceeded as soon as they drive into the driveway. Phew!
If you are new at this, do your research from a business perspective so you know what to charge and what to offer. Get proper liability coverage from your insurance agent. Maybe speak to your lawyer about business structure. Know the zoning regulations in your area and what you can and can’t do from a Dept. of Health perspective. Talk to other hosts in your area to get a feel for business flow. Make sure you are collecting lodging tax if that is something required in your area since Airbnb has now put all lodging on the radar for local communities (especially when they aren’t getting it!)
HC: Anything else you’d like to share?
Scottie: We are always looking for working farms offering lodging to join our association as we are only as strong as our members and this is a newer travel niche in the US. With the launch of our redesigned website, we will be promoting ourselves as The Best Authentic Farm and Ranch Stays in the U.S.A. and will be an elite group, only for paid members. Farms will need to make application and attest to our Accreditation standards. That said, we are excited there are a growing number of farms adding lodging to their operations. It’s a great diversification strategy for the farms and a wonderful opportunity for our guests.
Oh, yeah, and I wrote a book that you can find at your local bookstore or online! It’s called Country Grit, A Farmoir of Finding Purpose and Love. For anyone thinking of making a huge change in their life, to a farm or something else, it’s a good read. And, as mentioned above, coming out in paperback April 1st. What I didn’t mention is that it will have a Foreword by Joel Salatin!
We love this all so much – we want to share it. So, we’re doing a giveaway of a sign copy of Scottie’s book, Country Grit, A Farmoir of Finding Purpose and Love!