Mike Gilles checks on a water barrel at one of the campsites on his family’s land near Ridgeway, Minn. 
Mike Gilles checks on a water barrel at one of the campsites on his family’s land near Ridgeway, Minn. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
    RIDGEWAY, Minn. – The Gilles family has such a love for the land that they could not keep their 230 acres to themselves.
    “We have the most beautiful woods, and I love to share it,” Mike Gilles said.
    Mike and Joan Gilles have two campsites for rent and over 7 miles of hiking trails on the wooded acres of their 110-cow dairy in Winona County near Ridgeway, Minn.
    The couple listed their first campsite two years ago and added a second site last fall.
    “We have a deep valley here,” Mike said. “We own land on both sides so it’s secluded.”
    With no electricity and no running water, the Gilles family’s campsites are listed under the primitive category.
    “It’s nothing fancy,” Mike said.
    The sites each have a structure for sleeping with plenty of space for extra tents. There are also large picnic tables, outdoor fireplaces, outhouses, firewood and barrels of water the Gilleses provide for their guests. They are in the process of making one of the campsites ADA accessible.
    The first site, which they call The Wooden Tent, is a small A-frame structure that is large enough for a mattress.
    “We built it because we camp down there,” Mike said about the wooden tent they built 10 years ago. “As we got older, we thought a mattress would be nice along with not having to set up a tent. So we built a small wooden tent.”
    This site is the most popular and includes a natural jungle gym the Gilleses created out of fallen trees.
    Since the wooden tent is not insulated, the Gilles family does not offer it for camping during the winter; however, many people inquired about cold season camping on the dairy. This is how they decided to open a second campsite.
    The Rock Bottom Cabin is insulated with two sleeping areas and a stove.
    “The snowshoeing was great this year,” Mike said. “We had lots of snow.”
    No matter the season, the main reason people book their camping trip at the Gilles family’s dairy is to use the trails, Mike said.
    Over half of the farm’s 230 acres is wooded. Within those woods, the Gilles family has created and maintained over 7 miles of trails, complete with trail names and signs to mark the way.
    Campers are not the only ones allowed to enjoy the hiking on the Gilles property. The trails are open to the public, and the family hosts a hiking club in September and October for elementary students from the nearby charter school.
    “Kids don’t get out in the woods much now,” Mike said. “That’s what I want. I want them to get out and enjoy the woods. If they do it when they’re kids, they’ll go out as adults, too.”
    They also have a cross-country ski club that uses the trails in the winter.
    The first generation farmers bought their farm in 1996 after working for or renting dairy farms for 15 years prior. With Mike’s previous work as a forester, it was important to the couple to have wooded acres.
    The trails were first created out of necessity.
    “I do salvage logging,” Mike said. “I wanted to be able to reach all my trees. It goes back to me wanting to manage my woods.”
    But, it soon turned into a way for the whole family to enjoy the land. Campers since their childhoods, Mike and Joan shared their love for the outdoors with their 10 children.
    “It doesn’t take much effort to get me to drop what I’m doing if I can go to the woods,” Mike said.
    The campsite was first created as a place for their family to enjoy during the summers.
    “It was a way to get away from the farm because most dairy farmers don’t get to take a vacation,” Joan said.  “It was a vacation at home – a staycation.”
    Now, their children are adults and have moved off the farm, although their daughter, Nancy, still works as an employee on the dairy.
    “We haven’t been down there as much anymore,” Mike said. “We thought we should share it because it’s sitting there.”
    The campsites are listed on hipcamp.com, a website similar to airbnb.com that promotes camping areas. Hip Camp charges a commission, but takes care of all booking details and provides insurance for the guests along with protection against damage; however, Mike and Joan said all their guests have been respectful.
    While the venture started out as donation-only, the Gilleses now charge as a way to try to bring in extra income on their farm.
    “We thought we would just see what happens and put in a rate,” Mike said. “There is definite investment and maintenance cost. We have not made any money yet, but feel we can as it grows.”
    This year, they hope to double their income from the sites. Since the Gilleses do not plan to expand their dairy, they needed other ways to add value to their farm.
    “We’re most efficient at a certain number of cows,” Mike said. “To get bigger would make us less efficient and take away what I call our edge – the grazing. It’s the only way we can compete with 500-cow dairies – to keep our cost low with grazing.”
    All non-wooded land on the dairy is used to rotationally graze their herd of cows.  
    “It’s ideal grazing country,” Mike said. “It’s the best use and where we want our cows to be.”
    Before other farmers offer campsites on their dairies, Mike and Joan offer advice.
    “You have to have the same passion for people and woods or land as you do for milking cows,” Mike said. “Passion is more important than making money. That has to come first because we aren’t making money yet.”
    While the Gilleses admit having the campsites and maintaining the wooded acres on their farm takes extra work, they like that other people can see the natural beauty of southeast Minnesota.
    “We want to share it,” Mike said. “We encourage as much use as we can get.”