Vacation rentals like Airbnbs can be controversial in cities — they take business away from local hotels, evade occupancy taxes and are often linked to gentrification, for instance. But in rural economies in Maine, vacation rentals provide extra revenue for farms while also providing much-needed services.
The income from farm-related agritourism in Maine nearly quintupled between 2012 and 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vacation rentals are a big part of that.
For farms like Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro, vacation rentals are providing a steady, stable income boost that especially helps when other streams of farm revenue run dry. Platforms like Airbnb allow its hosts to rent out a house or a room to tourists. A survey conducted by Airbnb in 2018 showed that 51 percent of rural hosts surveyed said that the income from the platform helped them to stay in their homes.
“It’s a real asset,” Cynthia Thayer, who has owned the farm with her husband since 1976, said. “Our income is really enhanced by [our vacation rental]. Farm income isn’t always great and farm expenses are really high. It’s a really good revenue. I can’t think of downsides.”
Thayer said that her vacation rental, which they market through Airbnb, makes up about 10 percent of her farm revenue. She is even considering converting another building on her property to an Airbnb unit.
“I know a couple of farmers in the area who have [Airbnbs] when 10 years ago there weren’t any [Airbnbs],” Thayer said. “It seems like we can’t get enough of them. They fill up right away.”
Farm to Airbnb
Thayer said that she was never interested in running a hotel, but offering a vacation rental through a service like Airbnb is doable for her as a working farmer. Even before she joined Airbnb, she had people asking to rent a room in her house for a week in order to visit Maine.
“People wanted to stay, they wanted to see a farm, they wanted to see the area and there were only a few places on the [Schoodic] Peninsula,” Thayer said.
Getting started took a bit of elbow grease and planning — painting, replacing beds and dishes — but overall, it was pretty simple, Thayer said.
Effectively running her Airbnb on top of making sure all the farm duties get done has involved some troubleshooting — once, their farming partner moved a whole herd of sheep right next to the cottage in the early morning which Thayer admitted was probably not the most welcome wake up for the guests — but on the whole, Thayer said that there haven’t been many difficulties.
“Sometimes if they say they’re going to be here at 3 p.m. and then they don’t show up until 6 p.m., that’s kind of a challenge because we’re all so busy,” Thayer said,” [but] almost all of the people we’ve had over all these years have been really wonderful people.
Still, it can add more onto the farm’s already busy chore list.
“The farmers remain on site and the farm life carries on as normal, sometimes even providing a firsthand look about the value of appreciating the spaces farmers care for to support their business,” said Anne Trenholm, promotional coordinator for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
For some other farmers, the vacation rental now makes up the primary source of farm income.
Karl Schatz and his wife, Margaret Hathaway, opened an Airbnb on their Ten Apple Farm in Gray about six years ago, after Margaret’s father passed away and left the guest house where he used to live vacant. They also started hosting hikes and workshops through Airbnb Experiences, which is another element of the company’s online platform.
“We’re only in year two as a full-time business and there was a pandemic in the middle of that so we’re still kind of figuring that out,” Schatz said. “We’re hopeful that this can more or less be a full time income for us and support us, but it’s a little bit hard to say right now.”
The farm experiences generate more revenue for Ten Apple Farm than its agricultural products but Schatz said that they have a farm stand, sell milk locally and their daughter sells granola at the farmers market. To them, they are still a farm.
“We didn’t start as a hospitality hotel with a farm on it,” Schatz said. “We started this as a farm. The hospitality piece has grown organically because that’s where our interests were. We milk goats twice a day, whether there are guests here or not.”
What makes a farm Airbnb experience in Maine
There is a wide range of guests who are attracted to farm vacation rentals in Maine. Darthia Farm, for instance, draws guests from around the country and as far away as China. But it still gets locals as well.
Schatz said that most people come from cities and are looking for a place to stay where they’ll get “more of a flavor of the local community.” But others are just staying for a wedding in town — Ten Apple Farm is one of the only places to stay in an area with a number of wedding venues — and barely interact with the family at all.
Farms in Maine are uniquely suited to be good vacation rentals, since many are smaller ventures with a lot of nearby natural beauty so it’s been good for stabilizing farm income, which is season dependent.
“I think Maine is well known across the country for having a lot of small organic farms,” Thayer said. “I think Maine is a destination place and people kind of combine having the [Airbnb] on a farm and also being able to visit Acadia and being able to visit the mountains or whatever.”