SANTA MARGARITA, Calif. — For all the talk about sustainable agriculture, most small farms are not self-sustaining in a very basic sense: they can’t make ends meet financially without relying on income from jobs off the farm.
But increasingly farmers are eking more money out of the land in ways beyond the traditional route of planting crops and raising livestock. Some have opened bed-and-breakfasts, often known as farm stays, that draw guests eager to get a taste of rural living. Others operate corn mazes — now jazzed up with modern fillips like maps on cellphones — that often turn into seasonal amusements, with rope courses and zip lines. Ranchers open their land to hunters or bring in guests to ride horses, dude ranch style.
Known as agritourism, such activities are becoming an important economic boost for many farmers.
Early each morning, Jim Maguire milks the sheep and goats and feeds the pigs on his small dairy farm here before heading off to his day job as a public defender in San Luis Obispo County. His wife, Christine, makes cheese and tends the animals.
But in recent years, Ms. Maguire has added some new chores: changing linens and serving food to the guests who stay at Rinconada Dairy’s two bed-and-breakfast units, one in a private wing of the farmhouse and the other in a remodeled corner of a barn. Money from the paying guests is now enough to pay for the animals’ feed, one of the farm’s biggest expenditures.
“The whole idea is to get the farm in a productive state so that it carries itself, so that it pays its own way,” Mr. Maguire said early on a recent morning as he watched sheep file onto the raised stainless steel platform of an automatic milking machine. “The farm stay is an important economic portion of that.”
The United States Department of Agriculture predicts that this year the average farm household will get only about 13 percent of its income from farm sources. Agritourism is appealing because it increases the family’s income from the farm, potentially reducing the need for off-farm jobs.
The U.S.D.A.’s census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years, estimated that 23,000 farms offered agritourism activities in 2007, bringing in an average of $24,300 each in additional income. The number of farms taking part fell from the previous census, in 2002, but at that time the average agritourism income per farm was just $7,200.
California, the nation’s largest farm state, was among the leaders in agritourism, according to the census, with nearly 700 farms averaging more than $50,000 in agritourism income.
The agritourism movement is fueled by city dwellers who want to understand where their food comes from or who feel an urge to embrace the country life.
Scottie Jones, who raises sheep and runs a farm stay in Alsea, Ore., received $42,000 in U.S.D.A. grants to start a Web site, Farm Stay U.S., which maintains a listing of farm stays around the country. The site began last June and now includes more than 900 farms and ranches, with about 20 listings added each month.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms acts as an online clearinghouse for people who want to trade labor for lodging on a farm, with stays ranging from days to months. Ryan Goldsmith, who manages the group’s branch in the United States, said that interest had grown strongly. Currently more than 11,600 people are registered as members of the American branch, with access to a database of about 1,300 farms, in all 50 states.
Even the corn maze, a staple of rural tourism for decades, is becoming more popular.
Brett Herbst, the owner of The Maize, a Utah company that designs and creates corn mazes, estimated there were more than 1,000 mazes around the country each year, from simple versions to complex behemoths that include games for visitors, with clues delivered by text message. His company expects to build about 220 mazes in the United States this year, about 20 more than last year. Ten years ago he created about 130 mazes.
“It’s virtually impossible to make a living just off traditional farming on a small farm,” said Mr. Herbst. “This really provides an opportunity to keep the land, keep a family farm existent, even amongst urbanization, and allows someone to depend less on an outside job for their income.”
Still, there are hurdles. For example, many farmers complained about insurance costs, which rise with the number of farm visitors.
For years, Christine Cole has charged for tours of her farm, in Sebastopol, Calif., where she keeps horses, raises vegetables and chickens and has three farm stay units.
At the end of April, her insurance carrier dropped her, although she said she had made no major claims. She began looking for new insurance, she said, but was repeatedly turned down. She said insurers seemed unwilling to cover the broad range of activities on her farm. Finally, she found a policy that cost her almost $9,000 a year, about triple the cost of her previous coverage.
“That is more than 10 percent of my income,” Ms. Cole said. “I broke down and cried.”
Some states have acted to make it easier for farmers. Next month, a new law will go into effect in Indiana to limit the liability of farmers when someone is injured on their property while participating in agritourism activities.
Although many farmers said they enjoyed the city-country interaction at the heart of agritourism, it takes a particular type to pull it off.
“If you’re not a people person, forget it,” said Vince Gizdich, who runs Gizdich Ranch, in Watsonville, which includes a “Pik-Yor-Self” operation with berries and apples. The ranch also has a farm stand and a pie shop. As Mr. Gizdich talked with a reporter on a recent afternoon, he was interrupted repeatedly by people popping into the shop or customers calling to ask when his boysenberries and olallieberries would be ripe.
Bonnie Swank, of Hollister, Calif., runs a corn maze and haunted house each fall on land that grows vegetables the rest of the year. At a recent agritourism workshop for farmers sponsored by the university extension service, she explained the extensive planning that goes into the annual six-week extravaganza, which can draw up to 30,000 people and brings in about a quarter of the farm’s annual revenue.
“People look at what we’re doing and they say, ‘We could do that and make a lot of money,’” she said. “It’s not that easy.”
Kim A. Rogers understands the hard work. For seven years, she and her husband ran a farm and orchard in Templeton, Calif., along with a busy bed and breakfast.
Finally she had an epiphany: farming was exhausting work and the bed-and-breakfast was providing an increasing portion of their income. So last year she and her husband pulled up their 700 fruit trees and became full-time innkeepers, with a cottage and a bungalow that rent for $150 to $285 a night.
They still have a few sheep, hens and a large vegetable garden — enough to maintain the farm feel.
“A lot of people just want that rural farm experience,” she said.