by Kathleen Conti
For many millennials, barn weddings are as ubiquitous as avocado toast.
The quest to find off-the-beaten-path locations that can be personalized — and won’t break the bank — often brings couples to the doors of rural independent farm owners like Jim and June Wolfe, who run Wolfe Spring Farm in the Berkshires.
To offset the cost of keeping their farm running, the Wolfes have considered hosting weddings on their 54-acre Sheffield property — which affords views of the mountains — but between their day jobs and tending to their farm they are too busy to handle the phone calls and e-mails necessary to coordinate such a complicated event.
“There are months in the summer when we are not human,” June Wolfe said of the work load during growing season.
Now a startup launched by way of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology accelerator is hoping to be that go-between for couples dreaming of that perfect locale and land owners seeking extra revenue to keep their farms running — and reduce the pressure to sell to developers.
Mayflower Venues, the brainchild of Sam McElhinney, 29, and Wesley Ripley, 26, is kind of like the Airbnb of nontraditional wedding venues, but with an added mission to preserve undeveloped space, not create “wedding factories,” McElhinney said.
The typical farm owner Mayflower works with doesn’t “want to sell a huge chunk of it for a subdivision,” McElhinney said. “Farms go out of business and apartment complexes go up. Every single day, farm land is lost in New England.”
After completing MIT’s delta v accelerator last year, the startup launched full time in June 2017 and has so far raised $175,000 from angel investors. To date, about 45 rural properties throughout New England have signed up with the company, which recently moved into an office in Charlestown and hired a third employee.
For couples, Mayflower provides a one-stop online shop for nontraditional venues like farms, orchards, or summer camps, where they get to be as creative as they wish — something that McElhinney wasn’t able to be for his own wedding to his childhood sweetheart last December. The couple wanted to pay homage to Winchester, where they met in the fourth grade, by hiring a local Italian caterer and featuring locally grown Christmas trees. But after putting down a required 50 percent deposit for a traditional venue, the couple learned that outside caterers and live Christmas trees were not allowed.
“All of a sudden, thing after thing constrained our vision,” he said.
Through Mayflower, couples can put down a $150 deposit to tour a property, which is folded into the booking fee or refunded if they don’t choose the site.
The company, which is named after the seasonal bloom, not the Pilgrim ship, allows landowners to list their properties for free and host no more than 10 weddings a year. Properties rent for just under $4,000 to more than $6,000. Mayflower makes its money by keeping a percentage of the booking fee — it declined to say how much.
The Wolfes already take advantage of home-sharing platforms like Airbnb and VRBO to make extra money from a house on the property that they renovated. They’re also trying to save up to restore a barn on the site. When Mayflower called last fall to see if they’d be interested in listing with them, June Wolfe said, “it seemed like a fantastic partnership.”
“To have somebody take care of all those details: insurance, marketing, and screening is better — we’d rather focus on farming,” she said, adding she’d like to host three to four weddings a year. “It’s going to help out with the bottom line, but also it’s a really beautiful lot.”
Hosting weddings also seemed like a good idea for Kim Martin, 53, who along with his brother runs an eight-generation family farm in Cheshire that has morphed from cow-milking to raising hay to producing pork and grass-fed beef. The brothers have side jobs — in carpentry and for an oil delivery company — because the farm alone doesn’t bring in enough income, Martin said.
He paid $400 to have his 410-acre property overlooking Mount Greylock listed on a popular national wedding site directory, but was overwhelmed when he received hundreds of e-mails from people wanting more information. He said none of those many inquiries led to bookings. When Mayflower Venues reached out with the promise of taking care of all the work, Martin said he readily signed up. He estimates he could make an extra $18,000 to $35,000 a year hosting five to 10 weddings.
“That’ll be Mayflower revenue that would keep us above water,” he said. “I want to look at anything that will generate money that will keep us farming.”
Julie Moir Messervy, a noted landscape designer whose daughter is friends with McElhinney, said she decided to list her 260-acre property on the site because she liked that the idea was rooted in land preservation. Messervy also uses Airbnb to rent a cottage next door to her property, a former sheep farm in Saxtons River, Vt.
“Preserving large properties in Vermont is hard work — the taxes and keeping up with it all,” she said. “The other big thing for us is to support our local economy. It’s wonderful to have people go to the village market and the restaurants.”
McElhinney said that with spring here, couples looking for outdoor locations have found the website and begun booking sites. The properties belonging to the Wolfes, Martin, and Messervy, however, have yet to be booked.
For June Wolfe of Wolfe Spring Farm, the hope is that exposing wedding parties to the area will translate to future revenue that will sustain local farming for the long haul.
“Even though we’re in a place where people value locally raised and organically grown, people don’t spend enough of their income on real food to make it feasible for farmers to survive,” she said. “We have demanding jobs, because we can’t afford just to farm to make a living. We’d like to be able to give up those jobs. If not this generation, we’d like to have the next generation make it work.”