Tips for hosting country weddings, with advice from others succeeding with rural weddings
A growing number of engaged couples appear to like the idea of “going home to a farm” to get married. Even if they’ve never been on a farm before, there’s just something about returning to America’s agrarian roots that has become appealing.
Think it might be profitable to host weddings on your rural property? Some farmers and other rural folk love hosting them as an income stream. More than one of those started just for fun when a close friend or relative asked to use their property for their ceremony. And this led naturally into a new profit-making business for the farm.
It's not for everyone. But if it's for you, an agritourism venture in the form of rural weddings can have many themes from hoedown to Victorian, and there can be plenty of romance as well.
Loren and Carolyn Wohlgemuth own TerraBella, a two-plus-acre farm in Washington State’s Skagit Valley where they grow apples, plums, grapes, raspberries, peaches, and blueberries. They also produce perennial and annual flowers including hydrangeas and lilies which they offer as bouquets at a reasonable cost to the wedding parties they host on their farm.
“At dusk,” said Carolyn when describing a particularly memorable wedding on their property, “with our bride still in her wedding dress and the groom in his tux -- along with all their elegantly dressed guests -- climbed the dike across from our property and walked a quarter of a mile down to the river where their romantically adorned canoe awaited them to take them away toward their honeymoon escapade. It was so romantic....and creative. Guests then returned to the reception and continued celebrating. It was very fun.”
An on-farm marriage ceremony can also furnish plenty of memorable country-style whimsy. Susan and Bill Fletcher own Turtleback Farm Inn which is situated amidst their 80-acre working farm on Orcas Island -- one of the USA Pacific Northwest San Juan Islands. When asked about unique activities for guests during weddings on their farm, Susan replied, “Children often help (with adult supervision) with the animals -- feed the chickens, gather eggs and spoil ‘Chompers,’ the one very tame ewe of our flock who loves bread.”
But as fun and festive as they are, marriage ceremonies are loaded with deadlines and emotional people who are often newbies at organizing group events. However, they want it all to turn out perfectly with no second chance to do it over again. So here are some basics to help the joyous occasion run smoothly.
How much involvement?
Whether the farmland is rolling with lavender or lowing with cattle, in some cases when it comes to the actual ceremony, the bride and groom who choose the rural site provide their own decor and wedding coordination which they bring to the countryside location. The landowner doesn’t do anything more as far as atmosphere is concerned. In other cases, rural landowners may want to add even more special touches to their property specifically for weddings.
In Odebolt, Iowa, Jane and Jack Hogue were happily operating their seven-plus-acreage Prairie Pedlar agritourism farm which offers display gardens and nursery crops. When their daughter wanted to marry her high school sweetheart on the farm, the Hogues were inspired to add weddings as another attraction, and have since added a wedding chapel, a terrace garden with a fountain, and even moved an old ten-sided granary onto their property which they transformed into an old-fashioned bandstand.
Engaged couples may also ask if the farmers themselves offer wedding planning, site coordination, or other ceremonial touches along with the rental or for an extra fee. Some options other farmers offer include setting up a formal photography area with an arch that reveals an especially stunning background, or an appropriately adorned tractor or flower strewn hay stack. One rural wedding venue with a large historical structure offers tours to the guests. Similarly, guided nature walks or farm tours are another option. Some set up an animal petting or close-up viewing area or offer to provide wedding favors.
Favors that have proven popular and are especially fitting for country weddings include potted blossoming flowers to plant outdoors, wildflower seeds, organic garden starts, and goodies baked or preserved containing locally farmed ingredients. At Porcupine Hollow Farm of Central Lake, Michigan, couples can purchase tree seedlings as wedding favors, including blue spruce, white pine, and many others.
Wedding party and property owners both need to know upfront what role the hosts are playing in the event. “On the day of the event,” said Carolyn of TerraBella described above, “know when to be there and when not to! We've experienced most clients welcome our help and invite our suggestions while others prefer to do it themselves. We look for what level of involvement they want from us. We recognize that it is their wedding, their special day. We assure them that we are here to fulfill their dreams and accommodate their needs any way we can.”
If land owners are going to get involved in the ceremony itself, they should determine one person who will make the final decisions for everyone else, which could be the bride, or even a professional planner. No host wants to get stuck getting a phone call from the bride’s maid of honor saying to prepare a flower-strewn outdoor canopy for the wedding cake next to the pond, and another call from the baker saying she won’t set the cake up unless it’s indoors, with a comment from the groom that he wants the cake displayed on the tractor -- leaving the farmer to settle the arguments.
If your septic system can't handle the number of guests expected, someone must either arrange port-a-potties or the more luxurious and more expensive trailer portable bathrooms. Make sure you know who is arranging and paying for any bathroom extras.
If a rural land owner prefers not to get involved with the wedding arrangements but finds himself continually asked to do so, he can instead put together a list of other service providers which may include wedding planners, site coordinators, bakers, musicians, photographers and other farmers who provide unique locally produced and farmed wedding favors. He needs to make sure, though, that the people he recommends will produce high quality and in a timely manner with attention to detail. After all, it’s the farmer’s property where the distraught newlyweds will be dealing with only 25 wedding favors when they’d ordered 250.
Build a confidence foundation by starting smaller scale at first
With any group event held on private property, there’s nothing like starting out small and working up gradually to create a well-rooted sense of confidence and experience. It’s amazing how many kinks can be ironed out that no one ever knew would appear until attempting a smaller version of the actual event.
To illustrate, a dairy farm owner who wants to eventually open up tours to large public crowds may first want to just invite a local scout troupe for a Saturday afternoon. From that point, she could work up to weekday tours for larger groups of classrooms. After that, she could advertise her tours to the general public.
Likewise with weddings, even if a rural property owner hopes to do full blown marriage celebrations for income in the future, he would most likely do better if he started out with less pressure in the beginning if possible. Volunteering to host the ceremony vs. charging a fee automatically takes pressure off the host. So holding a wedding for a family member or close friends as a gift to them can be a good way to start out.
Other methods for starting out gently to build up strong wedding-hosting muscles include accommodating just the pre-wedding dinner, hosting a handmade country wedding invitation workshop, or holding only the post-wedding barn dance reception on the property.
Yet another great idea comes from Turtleback Farm Inn described above. Along with hosting larger weddings, they offer a charming “Elopement Package.” For a pre-determined set fee they offer a ceremony for just the bride, groom and two witnesses. The package includes a non-denominational minister, a location near the pond or hearth, a small beautiful wedding cake decorated with fresh flowers, bride’s bouquet and groom’s boutonnière, either champagne or non-alcoholic sparkling cider, and a professional photographer.
Though large, bustling traditional wedding events continue to be popular, many others today are opting for small and very unique marriage ceremonies that are eco-friendly and easy on the budget, especially those held for older couples. Rural property owners may want to start out just offering a location for very small gatherings -- settings in an herb garden or a rural porch with a beautiful distant view -- always with an option for uncooperative weather, of course. Then if the owners want to expand from that point, they’ll have more experience and more unexpected little surprises sorted out.
Did the dog try to sample the cake? Did hoards of yellow jackets swarm the cider during the after-wedding dinner reception? All issues that are far easier to solve at first with six adults to deal with rather than a crowd of a hundred that includes children.
Determine the details upfront
Whether the wedding is for the farmer’s own family or a professional agritourism event, the property owner should organize and write down the details they are responsible for upfront. For a personal wedding, the pre-wedding details can be called a checklist or to-do list. For paid events, it’s a contract.
But whatever it’s called, get it in writing. “The most important aspect of hosting any event is to have a contract that includes -- in detail -- all that will be provided and at what cost,” said Susan of Turtleback Farm Inn. “Do not leave anything to chance or expect that there will be any interest in negotiating after the fact. In addition, do not exceed the number of guests that can be comfortably accommodated in your space. We hosted a wedding with a sit down dinner for 20. As we are not a dinner restaurant, all the supplies were purchased for this specific event - eight steak and 12 king salmon. As dinner approached and the tables set, we were told there were 22 guests. 16 wanted steak and 6 salmon. Quite a challenge and one we learned a great deal from.”
What to charge?
The range of possible fees is as huge as the number of wedding styles and locations. A casual afternoon garden gathering of eight people simply taking and witnessing vows after a quick half hour rehearsal beforehand would cost far less than one for 200 guests attending the wedding, dinner and dance reception that calls for a long pre-wedding rehearsal and provides on-property changing rooms.
Rural wedding hosts would also want to consider who is their target market? The budget-minded? Those who live over the top? Somewhere in between? One can feel overwhelmed when deciding what to charge, because of all the variables grabbing at the mind when trying to consider costs and profits. Included, for example, could be their own higher insurance costs, their time to set up, their time in clean up which can include fees paid to haul away trash.
Costs can involve the host’s time if caterers, musicians, bakers and so forth need to visit the event site other than during the designated hours set aside for the wedding and rehearsal. There could be extra housekeeping, and even extra septic pumping or maintenance. On the other hand, there may be hidden monetary gains as well such as promotion generated for the farm’s brand or value-added products.
One of the best and also money-free ways to not only feel confident and organized about hosting, but to then discover the perfect fee for any individual event project is to write up a custom business plan for hosting weddings. Even if the owner already has an overall business plan for her farm, and weddings are just an add-on, consider a micro business plan within the larger one. If writing business plans is unfamiliar, the non-profit Service Corps of Retired Executives (S.C.O.R.E., see Contact Resources) offers free online tutoring and online or in-person mentoring on creating business plans and making micro and small businesses -- including rural businesses -- succeed.
Remember insurance and local regulations
Farmers need to check with local authorities to make sure weddings are allowed on their property, including what, if any, time restrictions apply for noise or arrangements for the extra traffic . If they plan to prepare food for guests, all local health department regulations need to be met and likewise for liquor licenses. And, rural landowners who host weddings have come up with numerous ways to make sure the beginning of a couple’s life together isn’t the end of their farming career because of a lawsuit.
When Tony and Carol Azevedo held a private wedding on their ranch, the Double T in Stevinson, California, guests of the wedding asked if they, too, could hold events on the farm, and a wedding farm business was born. On top of their own insurance, the ranch owners learned to have the bride and groom provide their own insurance for the event in the form of a one-time insurance rider off the couple’s own home owners’ policy, stating that in the event of an accident, the couple’s policy will pay first. This can create an extra buffer of protection, and just the psychological understanding that the couple is liable can be an added cushion of protection against wedding attendees misbehaving or wanting to sue.
But they were smart to also have their own coverage. “It’s not a bad idea for the wedding party to have insurance as well,” said Rich Schell, an Illinois attorney with extensive farming and agritourism experience. “However, this does not mean the premise’s owner is off the hook. In fact, the wedding party's insurer could well pay the claim, and then sue the farmer/owner to recover the money it paid out. I think weddings are tricky,” Rich continued, “because they usually have liquor, they are a one time event (no do-overs) and they have a lot of moving parts,” he said. “By that I mean there is the potential for a lot of risk--slip and fall, liquor, fights, and food borne illness to name a few.”
Although in some cases of allowing groups to gather on the farmland for free presents less liability than when charging a fee, Rich warns against being lax about that. “If you offer hunters the chance to come on to your farm for free, then a lot of states have recreational use statutes that make it harder to sue the owner,” Rich said as an example. “But if you charge a fee, then these advantages go away for the owner. However in the case of weddings, I think the safer course is to assume you may have the potential for liablity regardless of whether you charge a fee or not. BUT, and it is a big but, if you are doing this for money you should consider having a written disclaimer of liability and hold harmless agreement like many fee hunting operations do.”
So where does the farmer begin when it comes to making sure he is protected? Rural land owners should first check their current policy. “With blanket insurance a key issue needs to be addressed,” he said. “Farmers need to look at their farm insurance to see what is covered or not. In addition, they may have commercial general liability coverage which might cover premises liability. And last but not least, the farmer might look into purchasing a special events policy if they were only going to occasionally host weddings. But if it becomes a business, then somebody needs to think through basic risk management issues. How can the risk be minimized, shifted or contained? This usually means insurance agreements and possibly forming a limited liability entity such as a corporation or limited liability company.”
Remember to enjoy
Hosting marriage ceremonies, like marriages themselves, takes foresight and dedication to reap those rewards that no other endeavor can offer. A favorite reward beyond monetary gain and farm promotion among rural wedding hosts seems to be they are reminded of how beautiful their own home is.
“Our guests are continually telling us how beautiful our property is,” said Carolyn of TerraBella. “They love the lavish, rustic elegance of our gardens, grounds and outbuildings: there's the rustic, quaint 'Groom's House' and 'Nest' (once a grainary) that delights our brides and her bridesmaids.” The Turtleback Farm Inn owners enjoy comments from their guests as well. “The most often heard comment,” said Susan, “is ‘the inn is much nicer than we expected, the valley more beautiful and Orcas Island more spectacular.’” So, for the farmers and other rural folk who enjoy hosting, and even profiting, from weddings, there’s nothing like the added bonus of being reminded that there’s no place like home.
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