Our Side Hustle with the Harvest Host RV Camping Network
By Michelle Marine It all started with a visit from dear family friends who showed up at our little farm in the summer of 2019. They were heading west on an epic family road trip with their four kids and a pull-behind RV. As the kids emerged from their vehicle and ran off with our own four kids to take in all our animals, my friend said, “Have you heard of the Harvest Host program? You guys would be the perfect hosts! You should sign up!” I had seen a few ads on social media, but we didn’t really know that much about it, so we investigated the idea. What started out in jest, has turned out to be a nice little side hustle for our farm.
The Harvest Host program is a membership network for self-contained RVers (dry camping with no hook-ups). It’s made up of over 3,100 farms, wineries, distilleries, golf courses, and attractions that allow Harvest Host members to stay overnight at their locations. Because campers are not charged nightly fees to stay at member sites, Harvest Host campers are strongly encouraged to support their hosts by purchasing products or making a monetary donation in exchange for unique, off-the-beaten path places to stay. With an annual membership price of only $99, it’s a great way for RVers to save money, it provides scenic and unique alternatives to crowded campsites, and it’s a way for vacationers to support family farms and local businesses. Honestly, it’s been a win-win for many people across the lower U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Baja California!
Initially, we discounted the idea of signing on to be a host. We live in the middle of nowhere Iowa, and we don’t reliably sell anything. Who would want to stay with us? How would it benefit us? Our main business is homebuilding so there isn’t a tangible way for Harvest Host members to support us. However, after a fun evening sitting around the fire, watching eight kids have the best night of their lives, and (I’m not going to lie) drinking a few drinks, my husband signed us up to be hosts. If nothing else, it would be good karma, he said.
We’re now in our fourth year as hosts with the Harvest Hosts program, and all in all, it’s been very positive! Our experience started slowly at the tail end of the 2019 camping season. We had a handful of RVers stay with us as summer was drawing to a close, and everyone raved about our little farm. The next year, the world shut down thanks to Covid — and included in that shut down were local parks, state parks, national parks, and RV parks as well. Initially, people weren’t supposed to be traveling but there were a lot of snowbirds trying to get home and we were able to help quite a few. It turns out that our location just off I-80 happens to be very handy for people traversing the country.
In 2020, we hosted more than 200 Harvest Host families, including multiple stranded snowbirds, and one RV on a rescue mission to collect family members stranded by canceled airline flights. And when restrictions loosened, a lot of people gathered their families and headed out on camping vacations they sorely needed! We thought 2020 was busy, but we hosted even more campers in 2021, with over 300 RVers staying with us!
Our highlights with the Harvest Host program include:
- Holding an Olympic silver medal from Olympic athletes who stayed with us on their way to a new home across the country.
- Seeing people spot fireflies for the first time.
- Teaching people about Iowa agriculture, growing our own food, and our menagerie of animals.
- Looking for constellations, meteor showers, eclipses, and Starlink flyovers with guests.
- Watching city kids get up-close and personal with chickens and ducks for the first time in their lives.
- Enjoying fires, s’mores, and drinks with travelers.
- Hearing updates on families after our kids became fast friends.
- Having families pitch in and work with us on tasks like mulching and branch clean up after a terrible derecho storm destroyed so many of our trees.
- Rescuing a few curious cats and goats from the RVs they climbed inside.
- Finding random shoes our dogs ran off with and buried under trees — months later.
- Earning money for our own family vacations through the donations RVers make when they stay with us.
The compensation we’ve received from being a host has been primarily through donations. We were able to install electrical hookups that many guests are excited to use, and most campers compensate us for that use. We also sell products seasonally. Things we’ve sold include chicken, duck, and guinea eggs; honey from our bees; home-baked sourdough bread; surplus produce from my garden; peacock feathers; postcards made from my photography; and my book: Raising Chickens for Meat.
We really thought that nothing could top meeting Olympians and holding a real Olympic medal (women’s beach volley from the 2012 London Olympics, if you’re curious!), but the truth is, the rewards of being a host for the Harvest Host program are not tangible. Connecting with people from different countries and states, talking with people who share different views and values, and seeing kids’ eyes light up at so many new experiences has been so rewarding. In this day and age of strife and ugliness, connecting with people face-to-face has been good for our souls. We can all benefit from learning how other people live. Turns out, our little homestead is quite unique, and campers really enjoy our little slice of country living. Karma has been good.
MICHELLE MARINE is an Eastern Iowa-based freelance writer, photographer, and digital content creator living on five acres with her husband, four teens, and a menagerie of birds, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, and cats. She publishes the eco-friendly lifestyle blog Simplify, Live, Love, and is also the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat (Skyhorse Publishing 2020).