Is Agritourism Dead — Or Just Different?

Italian agriturismo properties have begun to feel more regal than rustic (Source: iStock / Fani Kurti)

If you trek far enough into the wind-swept fields northeast of Florence, you’ll stumble across something undeniably magnifico: a regal 17th century estate. Echoes of its original century ripple across the property, dotted by curly-cue ironwork and stone façades, while in the distance, olive groves and vineyards blanket acres of farmland.

This aged rusticity has its limits, however; vivid green lawns, a crystal clear pool, and onsite spa paint the picture of an anachronistic 20th century retreat — complete with personal chefs, massages, and WiFi.

So what is the Agriturismo Fattoria I Ricci exactly? A retreat or an agriturismo property with an identity crisis?

To answer that question, we need to take a trip back to 1965, the birth year of Italy’s now wildly popular agriturismo industry. At the time, Italian farmers were struggling mightily with a recently-changed agricultural system that reallocated nobles’ arable land to peasants for cultivation. In theory, this was a welcome reform, but there was a problem: Untold hundreds of plots were too small to be farmed, while upland properties suffered from soil resistant to planting. Fortunately, the government jumped in to help, providing aid for the development of irrigation and guidance on successfully growing crops.

It wasn’t enough, however. To boost both productivity and revenue, poor farmers began turning their farms into lodging for travelers willing to pay top dollar for rural accommodations. Some farmers even opened their fields, kitchens, and farmhouses to volunteer workers. The work certainly wasn’t back-breaking; labor often involved cooking communal meals, preparing small goods for shipment, and maintenance of facilities. The draw for tourists: An eminently affordable, remote getaway that provided a true sense of local culture.

More than 50 years later, the once-quaint version of agriturismo that reigned in Italy has become an EU-endorsed industry of epic proportions. By some estimates, global agritourism will reach more than $54 billion in revenue by 2023. Put in perspective, the renewable energy industry is only worth $1.35 billion — a mere 2.5% percent of the projected revenue for agritourism.

This dizzying growth has come with some changes: Namely, that agritourism properties in Italy and beyond are less about the farms and more about resort luxuries. It’s also more of an international play than an Italian one. A visit to Agritourism World, a clearing house of agritourism properties, reveals hundreds of potential stays on six continents. Many are unassuming at first glance — capturing the cozy-quaint allure tourists adore — but on closer examination, feature decidedly luxe amenities: private restaurants and wine tastings, guided horseback riding, and satellite TV among them.

U.S. farm stays often provide guests with more time on the farm than villas in Italy (Source: iStock / Kirkikis)
U.S. farm stays often provide guests with more time on the farm than villas in Italy. (Source: iStock / Kirkikis)

Interestingly, though, U.S. “farm stays” are often more in line with agritourism’s origins; guests stay on functioning farms and have a hand in gardening, feeding animals, gathering eggs, or planting crops. At Willow-Witt Ranch in Ashland, Oregon, for example, visitors are invited to spend their vacation in farmstead accommodations (with the most modern amenities), rise at dawn, and herd animals to pasture. Willow-Witt’s counterpart in northern Italy, on the other hand, is a lot more about convenience and pampering. If you scope out agriturismo.it, for instance, you’ll see a roll of gorgeous estates marked by shimmering pools and beautifully manicured lawns — not a patch of farmland in sight.

So is agritourism dead? No. Yes. Well, sort of. The first iteration of this now-booming industry is certainly waning, but the industry itself is exploding. With this boom-and-shift, tourists need a measure more insight into a property’s operation before booking a stay. Are they targeting a rural escape, complete with animal herding, or an opulent stay at a countryside villa (spa often included)?

While the resources available to agritourism devotees are still fairly limited, there are a few websites worth checking out. If you’re Italy-bound and want some pampering, check agriturismo.it — but be sure to select “Educational activities” under “Holiday type” if you want a more active, work-adjacent experience. For clearly articulated “work adventures,” take a look at workaway.info, where you can find farm hosts in dozens of countries who need eager volunteer field hands. And for those interested in staying in the good ol’ U.S. of A., check out Farm Stay USA.

Two final pieces of advice: If you book a stay at an agri-heavy property, make a point to truly experience life on the farm; it’s part of the package and will make your stay 10 times more memorable. Also, if your impetus for booking an agritourism vacation is to support struggling farmers, choose a property on an active farm with modest accommodations. It’s likely the hosts at a property like this need your money far more than the AgriRitzes of Tuscany.