Small producer case study: Creating an organic agritourism experience (Part 1)

When Jamie and Lara McCall followed their dream and moved to the ‘country’, they started a journey that would lead to running a thriving organic farm and farmstay business.

They've diversified their farming enterprise to include bungalows and organic products (e.g. fruit, vegetables, honey, olive oil, wine) that are sold through local farmers' markets and to visitors.

Their venture provides the opportunity for visitors to experience an organic farming system and to learn about the importance of knowing where your food comes from.

In the mid-1990s, Jamie and Lara McCall made the decision to leave their ‘city’ life behind and head for picturesque Margaret River in Western Australia's south-west.

With Lara’s stockbroking career proving incompatible with children and Jamie’s desire to expand his furniture business and leave his journalism job behind, they bought a 15 hectare property with a house and two bungalows already in place. So was the start of Burnside Organic Farm.

“Because most of Jamie’s furniture was selling to galleries in Margaret River, we decided to move to where the market was,” Lara said.

Lara and Jamie soon began renting the two bungalows to visitors who wanted a quiet and peaceful holiday. They also started planting fruit trees and planning what other products would complement their farm business.

“We had always been ‘permaculture inclined’, so we started doing the research straight away.

"We chose fruit tree varieties that suited the Mediterranean climate and the ones we hoped wouldn’t need nets to protect them from the birds. We followed these with avocado and olive plantings and a small vineyard. We have also successfully introduced the first commercial crop of capers to the area.”

It was not long before the McCall’s added macadamias and a small vegetable garden to the mix. The vegetable garden has since grown to accommodate the bungalow visitors and a thriving car boot venture, as well as the family’s kitchen.
Cost of setting up 
After the first 12 months, the McCall’s decided to expand their farmstay business.

“Sixteen years ago we had two bungalows on the property. We operated with those for a year and then built two more. But the two new bungalows back then only cost $100,000 each - today you couldn’t build one in that style for less than $250,000.

"A lot of people think that having accommodation is quite sexy and they would like to try it. But all costs and activities associated with running a farmstay need to be taken into consideration. We were the right age, in the right location, at the right time. It has been a good business for us because of the timing.

"For us, it has been a good source of income, if the capital costs are not taken into account. To start today in the right location, which is essential, would be prohibitive for us.”

If you were to start from scratch costs would include:
bungalows/cottages (building costs and furniture/linen/etc.)
access roads
water tanks
power to the buildings
your residence (if not already on-site).

How the bungalows work 
The four bungalows have been built in the secluded bush sections of the property, leaving the best soils for agriculture. In keeping with environmental principles, the bungalows are a solar passive design built from natural materials.

The bungalows also utilise a 5kW solar power system, which produces 30% of their power. Water for domestic use is supplied from nearby water tanks.

“Two of the bungalows are constructed of rammed earth, while the other two have been built from limestone. They are not air-conditioned and do not use gas or electric heaters, as their warmth is supplied by wood fires and natural cooling with strategically placed breezeways and windows.”

Two bungalows are suitable for families or small groups, while the other two have been designed solely as couple retreats.

Other farm activities 
As well as providing environmentally sensitive accommodation, the McCall’s also provide a breathtaking rural setting where guests can be educated on how their food is grown and produced from paddock to plate.

“The farmstay bungalows are not a standalone business. Burnside Organic Farm is a full-time working farm that showcases our permaculture methods.”

When developing their farm, self-sufficiency was at the centre of their plan. Crops were chosen for their ability to survive and thrive without serious intervention. The animals and poultry were added for their ability to deal with any pests or weeds that affected the crops, without Lara and Jamie having to use chemicals.

The bees were initially employed pollinating the avocados, but the apiary was expanded with the co-operation of a nearby beekeeper and it now provides a regular supply of honey for sale.

“Provided you have the right mix of plants and the right animals, permaculture and organic farming is not too hard.

"Our three boys help and we also have Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFers) at the busiest times of the year.

"In the beginning we talked to a lot of neighbours to get a better understanding of what was suited to the area and to discover any hidden pitfalls we might have missed. We read and researched everything we thought was useful.”

To complement their farmstay operation Lara and Jamie conduct farm walks for visitors wanting to learn more about Burnside and the food they produce. These walks usually take 1.5–2 hours and take in the whole farm, their activities throughout the year and how permaculture is applied on the farm.

“This allows visitors to experience animals in a happy organic environment, their importance to food source.”

However, Lara says it is imperative to put a price on the time it takes to conduct any extra activities for guests and to charge accordingly.

Burnside Organic Farm also produces wine from their biodynamic vineyard that is available for sale to visitors, over the phone and through orders placed on their Facebook page.

There is also a 35 minute walk trail through the adjacent Bramley National Park for those who just want to relax without structured activities.

Providing farmstay visitors with extra activities and opportunities to learn about your farm, can be a great way to teach others about agriculture and where their food comes from. It can also provide them with an experience they will never forget – making your farmstay stand out from the crowd and have visitors coming back for more.

Part 2 - work timetable and diversify your marketing.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to our friends at DAFWA - small landholder service for allowing the re-publishing of this article.
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