Don and Dorothy Harms reinvented their farm to add a bed and breakfast, allowing them to continue farming in the manner that they wanted, without having to look at expansion. 
Don and Dorothy Harms reinvented their farm to add a bed and breakfast, allowing them to continue farming in the manner that they wanted, without having to look at expansion. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
    REEDSBURG, Wis. – Don and Dorothy Harms were looking for a way to continue to make a living on their family’s dairy farm as they began downsizing their herd. With three children grown and leaving them with three empty bedrooms, Dorothy decided to put her hospitality and love of cooking to use, turning their home and Valley Springs Farm into a bed and breakfast venture.
    The Harms milk 30 cows near Reedsburg, Wis.. They have downsized their milking herd from about 70 head. They are also in the process of transitioning to beef production and have been building a herd of Red Angus cows, working with direct marketing of beef.
    “We believe that small farms can and will continue to exist,” Dorothy said. “You just need to be willing to reinvent yourself. For a long time, we focused on high production. But today, we aren’t interested in getting better. In order to continue to farm, we have to become entrepreneurs.”
    Finishing their fifth season as a bed and breakfast, Dorothy feels their foray into agriculture tourism and hospitality has not only benefited her and Don, but has created a connection between consumers and the family farm.
    “Lots of families want the experience of a farm,” Dorothy said. “So many people are so disconnected from agriculture and where their food comes from.”
    Each guest receives a customized stay, giving them as much access to learning about the farm as they wish. They share about the heritage that is involved in family farming, with their own farm having been in Don’s family for over 130 years.
    “We really let them detail what they want from us in terms of their experience on the farm,” Dorothy said. “We offer short tours of the farm. We show them the calf barn and how we care for calves. They can feed a calf if they like. They can watch us milk the cows. We explain how we work with our nutritionist and our veterinarian regularly. We really want to have that conversation with them about how farmers care for their herds. We stress that there is no dumb question, and we try to give them facts in ways that they can relate, like explaining our TMR mix as being like a cow casserole.”
    Dorothy said many of their guests are from the Chicago area.
    “They really think it’s a change to come to Wisconsin,” Dorothy said. “They like having a relaxing place to stay, and being on the farm is so different from their daily environment.”
    Michelle Stockinger, of Bloomington, Minn., learned of Valley Springs Farm through a friend and booked a stay with her daughter, Caroline. After learning about the dairy industry in school, Caroline became interested in the idea of a future career in the dairy industry.
    “Caroline has been an animal lover since birth,” Michelle said. “It was neat to be able to see the source of our food that we buy in the stores and to see how the animals are cared for. It really gives you more trust that the food we eat has been lovingly sourced. The Harms have done a great job explaining how the animals are cared for. It’s really amazing to realize how many hats a farmer must wear to run his or her farm.”
    During their stay, Caroline experienced farm life first-hand.
    “This morning I got to feed a calf with a baby bottle and last night I got to watch how the cows get milked,” Caroline said. “I didn’t really know how the milk got out of the cow. It was cool to watch how it went through the tunnel into the big tank.”
    A variety of guests come to the Harms’ home, ranging from retired couples, families with kids and millennials. Stays typically range from one to four nights. Dorothy works hard to keep their life segmented, allowing her to care for the needs of her guests while maintaining a private life, including having a private area of the house. She keeps set check-in hours and a set breakfast schedule, making sure her guests understand that morning chores and caring for the cows comes first.
    Don’s role in the hospitality venture is to keep the farmstead neat, making sure the lawn is mowed and the barn and farmyard is tidy. He enjoys being able to connect with those so far removed from agriculture and sharing the daily occurrences farmers often times come to take for granted.
    “There was a boy that I took with me once to go check the beef herd this summer,” Don said. “For me, it was just my daily job, but for him it was a once in a lifetime thing. There was another boy that experienced seeing stars for the first time in his life while he was staying here.”
    While the Harms enjoy opening their home and farm to guests, Dorothy cautions those considering a similar agri-tourism venture to consider the implications.
    “You really have to maintain a happy face on the farm, even on the days when things aren’t going well,” Dorothy said. “People are paying to stay with you. You have to keep the drama in the barn.”
    Offering the connection that changes a person’s perception of animal agriculture is something the Harms consider to be the greatest compliment.
    “We had a guest who was originally from India and after her stay here, she told us that after seeing how our cattle were cared for and treated, she was OK with the idea of eating meat,” Dorothy said. “We were able to change her past cultural perceptions by showing her the truth of what we do on a daily basis.”