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Stretch your horizons

Here’s why taking an agri-tourist vacation might be your business’ best investment all year

“If you don’t get out and see what the other guy is doing, you won’t know if you’re behind them or beside them or in front."

Many farmers — because they prefer being busy, productive, active and physical — steer clear of the beachy, all-relaxation style of vacation, knowing it will leave them feeling more frustrated than rejuvenated.

But don’t let yourself off the hook so fast. Not going on a beach vacation is one thing. Not going on a vacation at all is something else, and it’s much worse. Giving yourself a break from the everyday is healthy and necessary.

Luckily, piles of vacation options exist that offer a wide variety of learning, doing, experiencing and growing.

Richard Buck, president of AgriTours Canada Inc., has specialized in creating customized group agri-vacations for Canadian and international farmers for the past 36 years. Each trip is completely different, uniquely tailored to suit the priorities and needs of the specific farmers involved. There’s always a dose of pure vacation in the tour: as much as 80 per cent or as little as 40 per cent, depending on the participants.

“We like to push people just a little, just gently, outside of their comfort zone so that they have those new experiences,” says Buck. Depending on the country visited, that usually means new foods, new sites, new cultural experiences.

Each tour also prioritizes plenty of time on-farm, seeing how agri-businesses operate.

“If you don’t get out and see what the other guy is doing, you won’t know if you’re behind them or beside them or in front,” says Buck. But it’s about much more than just comparing; it’s about learning from and connecting too.

“It’s amazing when I’m with these groups to just stand back and watch the interactions between farmers. Once farmers start talking shop with other farmers, there’s never a problem to fill in the time. I have to drag them off the farm. They are really interested in learning from each other,” he says.

Buck thinks there’s value in the connections to the individuals but also to the wider world.

Buck believes travel isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.

“Psychologically, you need a break from your job. If you work 24-7, say, during harvest in the fall, you get pretty exhausted. There’s more chance you’re going to miss something, more chance you’ll hurt yourself. Your mind can’t keep working at 100 per cent all the time. You need to get it off topic.”

That need to rest and recalibrate is only growing as agriculture consolidates and farms become bigger and higher pressured, he points out.

There can be multiple benefits to travelling with an agri-tourism company: the companionship and friendship of like-minded co-travellers; the convenience of someone else handling all the arrangements and navigation; the safety, comfort and insiders’ view provided by a knowledgeable host; the invaluable memories of new tastes, sites and experiences. Buck also points to a lesser known benefit: a portion of a farmer’s agri-tourism bill may be tax deductible, so long as a tour operator writes a confirmation letter outlining the technical elements of the tour.

Speaking of dollars and cents, if you’re not feeling flush enough with cash to afford an agri-tour, there are other options.

WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) is a worldwide “voluntourism” organization that connects travellers with organic farmer hosts in more than 130 countries. The concept behind WWOOF is to promote awareness of ecological farming practices by providing travellers with opportunities to live and learn on organic properties, says Becky Young, executive director of WWOOF Canada.

In exchange for a set amount of voluntary labour (usually about four hours per day), the guests, also known as WWOOFers, are provided free accommodation and food by the farmer host, as well as education in the farm’s farming practices and an insider’s entry into the surrounding community.

“If a farmer works 24-7 on their own farm, probably the last thing on their mind is to think about going on a holiday and volunteering on another farm,” says Young.

But, she says, it’s worth considering.

“All farmers need a break. WWOOF is a great opportunity to get that break while travelling to different parts of the world and learning directly from other farmers.”

WWOOFing is a great way to travel very economically and to immerse yourself in a different culture via a local family. There are as many different WWOOFing experiences as there are WWOOF hosts and WWOOFers. Some farm stays are very short (certain countries even offer “taster” afternoons of just a couple of hours), other stays last for months and months. Some farm accommodations suit just one WWOOFer inside the family home, others offer purpose-built accommodation for a dozen or more WWOOFers.

While WWOOFers are, indeed, free labour, the vast majority of participants do so in good faith, says Young.

“Is there some exploitation out there? Possibly and probably. But, WWOOF is based on trust. There are 8,000 individual WWOOF stays in Canada. In terms of complaints, we get a handful.”

If you’re a conventional farmer, you might wonder what an organic farmer can offer you in terms of practical knowledge. In fact, while you might never opt to practice organic yourself, you may find real benefit in the creativity, integrated pest management practices, and niche/targeted marketing that many organic farms rely upon.

“I get so excited to hear about conventional ag going WWOOFing,” says Young. “We want farmers to be sharing knowledge.”

WWOOF was founded in 1971 in the U.K. and came to Canada in 1985. Currently, there are 20,000 WWOOF hosts.

Regardless of how you choose to travel, be gentle on yourself if travelling is brand new.

“I always suggest a shorter trip the first go-round,” says Buck. “Don’t go on a 14-day cruise on your first go; try three or four nights to see if you’ll like it. Same with agri-tours: try the first one somewhere close, maybe California for five days, not China for three weeks. Then push a little farther afield.”

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