BRANDON, S.D. — They call them Harvest Hosts — the latest wrinkle in agritourism that brings recreational vehicle travelers to their venues, often as a way to add value to their specialty crop or value-added ventures.
Victoria Wilde and her husband, Jeff, operate Wilde Prairie Winery near Brandon, S.D. They say the Harvest Host program brings two or three customers per night, about eight miles northeast of Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Wildes are cooperators with the membership organization that was created in 2010 and expanded since 2018 when it was purchased by Joel Holland, a technology CEO based in Vail, Colo. Today, the organization lists nearly 2,500 hosts, including dozens in the Dakotas, Minnesota and surrounding states.
Visitors using Harvest Host are all “boondocking,” a term that’s come into vogue for RV campers that are completely self-contained — equipped with electricity, water and sewage capacity. Most campers can go two weeks before refilling fresh water or dumping holding tanks.
“With limited international travel options pushing Americans toward more domestic vacations, Harvest Hosts not only offers out-of-the-ordinary RV stays, but it also helps members avoid parking issues in a now more crowded landscape,” said Travel + Leisure, a travel industry magazine.
Campers become members and pay a fee to the organization.
They receive a listing of Harvest Host venues — wineries, breweries, alpaca farms, even city halls or pioneer museums and lavender fields.
On July 1, 2021, the Wildes hosted three visitors, ranging from the East to West coasts.
From the East were Liz and Steve Madison from Delaware. They are retired from the Department of Defense and were on a 10-week trip in their 39-foot rig. They swung through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and turned north and east into Utah, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
Liz said she learned about Harvest Host a few weeks ago.
“Very inviting,” she said, between visits with neighbors and photography. Wilde Prairie Winery’s setting is a farmstead with a large white, dairy barn built in 1911 as a centerpiece. The former hay mow is now a grand tasting room.
“It’s beautiful here — the fields behind, the grapes beside,” Liz enthused. “Everywhere you look, there’s beauty.”
The Madisons bought six bottles of wine, which would equal the cost of camping in other places.
“It’s so worth it, and we’re certainly not obligated to do that,” she said. She said she was already looking for the next place, in Kansas.
From the West Coast were Seth Hughes, his wife, Mary, and daughter Isabel, 14, and son Ethan, 12. They were traveling in an Airstream camper from Sammamish, Wash., on their ways to visit family in Ohio and Michigan. Seth works in the recreation equipment business and Mary is a teacher.
“A co-worker told me about Harvest Host,” Seth said. “They said it was a fantastic opportunity to get out and meet other people and stay in non-normal RV parks and go and meet people across the country,” he said. It typically costs $50 to $100 per night (or more) to camp in standard commercial campgrounds, if there are a “ton of amenities.”
“Coming here, meeting people at this establishment and spending time and money with them feels — I don’t know — feels better than spending money at some public water park or place that has RVs,” he said.
Harvest Host way
According to Harvest Host website, memberships are $99 per year, although occasional discounts or sales occur. They run 365 days from joining. The organization has a free mobile app, interactive maps, detailed trip routing and planning, and search tools to find hosts near a destination.
Each host has an information page with contact details. Reservations are made 24 hours to two weeks or even months prior to a stay. About 45% of the sites are not alcohol related. Most of the wineries and breweries have food, gifts and other options. (The Wildes offer snacks — cheese, bison sticks — made in South Dakota.)
The organization publicly shares general locations but not particulars to avoid the awkward situations of hosts having to turn away people who aren’t in the program, or somehow think they have full hookup RV locations.
Most don’t have electrical hookups. Visitors can use generators with permission when making reservations. All RV classes (Classes A, B and C) and motorhomes are allowed. Wilde Prairie Winery had three 45-footers on an evening when they had seven all together. “Thank goodness we have a lot of space,” she said.
Pop-up campers and tents are prohibited. Camper vans, clamshell and teardrop trailers are allowed, but with no outdoor cooking. Toilets must be interior and gray water dumping is prohibited.
A Wilde ride
The organization suggests that their traveler-subscribers spend money. The Wildes charge nothing for people to park, but there is an assumption that they'll spend money.
In this case, that’s wine.
The Wildes don’t see the “helping” as a big part of the Harvest Host experience. Once in awhile, someone will pitch in.
There are a few who don’t spend money. But there are others who “go out with cases” of wine, so it “averages out really well,” she said. “I think the average is about $40 to $50, if you average out all of our sales for Harvest Host.”
The Wildes’ capacity is up to eight units.
“We take three (reservations) to start with and start watching the weather,” she said. “If its muddy, some of the heavier rigs sink into our field.”
Jeff Wilde was born in South Dakota and moved to California. Victoria studied business in college, but took grape growing and wine making. Jeff was an engineer. After college, they both worked at a company that makes pumps for the oil industry.
In 1991, Jeff moved back to the Brandon area and took a job as a plant manager for the city of Sioux Falls, S.D. Victoria joined him in 1992 and worked for Sanford Wellness Center as a fitness instructor, where she still works.
They lived on a 75-acre former dairy farm.
In 1997, they planted some grapes. In 2004, they were licensed in South Dakota and federally to start Wilde Prairie Winery. There were five licensed operations in the state, some with two licenses. Today they there are 25 licenses throughout South Dakota.
The Wildes have about 3 acres of grapes — about 2,000 vines. The Wildes' two seasonal employees work the vines and store. They grow varietals including Marechal Foch, Marquette, Valiant and Frontenac for the reds, and Brianna and LaCrescent for their whites.
The former milking parlor now is a modern winery with impressive open-top fermentation tanks, pressing, closed-top tanks, with sophisticated equipment for filtering, bottling, corking, capping and labeling. The winery is not currently open for public tours during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our honey, grapes, our fruit — everything is from South Dakota,” she said. “We support the local growers.”
The Wildes host a number of events through the year — live music every Sunday from June to mid-September. They host “Evenings in the Vineyard” one Friday a month from June to September with a food truck and live music. They have a spring open house and will have a fall harvest festival on Oct. 2.
“People wanted to get out,” she said. “We have a lot of space so people could come and social-distance easily.” And that’s a benefit.