A vineyard of one’s own! Harvest Hosts offer low-cost experiential camping across Michigan, and beyond. From Brengman Brothers in Traverse City to Boyne Valley Vineyards in Petoskey, here’s where to stop and what to expect during your stay.

You couldn’t feel more at home than we do as we pilot our RV around the back of the winery, past harvest equipment and a sheep barn and into the vineyard.

My husband and I situate the camper on a flat ridge with views of both sunrise and sunset, then wander down the country lane to a light-filled tasting room. The day is still warm, so we pick an outdoor table surrounded by fragrant lavender and share a bottle of pinot noir, a house-made pizza and a fancy charcuterie tray with friends.

We’ve joined a program called Harvest Hosts for precisely this kind of experience: the chance to call this vineyard our home for the night, and to walk out our camper door the next morning, with puppy in tow, and wander between dew-covered vines with a steaming mug of coffee in hand.

Harvest Hosts is a membership program that pairs RV travelers with host businesses or properties in beautiful and off-beat destinations, where guests stay for the night; support their host with the purchase of goods, a tour, or a meal; and enjoy a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life at farms, wineries, museums, galleries, distilleries and more.

At Brengman Brothers on the southern edge of Leelanau County, owner brothers Ed and Robert Brengman signed up as hosts to expand the winery’s visibility to guests, sell a bit more wine and grow the brand through the resulting word of mouth.

After pondering the winery’s odd slogan, “Truth in Dirt,” we learn how glaciers left behind the sandy, rocky soil that forces vines to struggle a bit—and how that’s a good thing for the resulting wines. This spot on the 45th parallel also offers long summer days like the one we’re enjoying, helping to render wines similar to those in Grand Cru areas elsewhere in the world such as Alsace, Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Photo by Tim Hussey

Photo by Tim Hussey

Photo by Tim Hussey

Photo by Tim Hussey

Winemaker Robert Brengman stops at our table and invites our small group to the barrel room to taste some vintages not yet bottled. We all toast to what he says has been a textbook-perfect growing year and sip a sparkling rosé that he has found to be a perfect match for the area’s growing conditions. We linger even longer over an ice wine that, in previous vintages, won a prestigious Jefferson Cup award. We declare ourselves in love with the nectar-like taste and surprising aroma, and sipping becomes a tasting class as Brengman shares what notes he’s picking up.

Back in the tasting room, more wine is begging for our attention, and as staff leaves for the day, we take our bottle to the Adirondack chairs situated around an outdoor fire. We’re like old friends now, so they give us instructions on how to turn off the fire when we leave, assuring us we have no need to rush. We sit and sip as stars begin to appear and eventually become brilliant overhead. And so it goes, with more tasting, toasting and laughing before heading down the lane to bed.

This is just the type of experience that Harvest Hosts CEO and owner Joel Holland says he was craving after selling a thriving technology business and traveling the country with his wife

in an RV. In their travels, he says, they spotted many cool farms and vineyards with space for RVs to park, and products that campers could buy, and thought it made sense to combine the two. When he learned that an Arizona couple had already done so through a program called Harvest Hosts, he and his wife signed up.

Few memories since have offered more fodder for dinner party conversation than that first stay did—at an alpaca farm run by a massage-offering group of nuns in their 80s. Holland saw a lot of potential in the program and made a purchase offer. Since that 2018 sale, the number of members has exploded, from 6,000 at the time to 208,000 today, and with a corresponding increase in hosts. His near-term goal is to raise that to one million members and 20,000 hosts without changing a simple concept that Holland describes as “rare, feel-good experiences where everyone comes out ahead.”

Photo by Tim Hussey

In contrast to sometimes sterile and bustling campgrounds and traditional parks, Harvest Hosts stays are in many cases private (or with just two or three other campers joining), and situated in memory-making spots like wineries and microbreweries, museums, fields or farms.

RV owners pay an annual fee to be a part of the program ($99 this past year) and get access to free host stays within the current inventory of 3,000- plus camping sites. Member-ship includes the use of a reservation system that lets guests, among other things, map out host options on a planned travel route. Campers don’t have to be fancy or of a certain length; they just must be self-contained (no tents), as host destinations are open during standard business hours and aren’t expected to have bathroom facilities in, say, their vineyards.

Guests are asked to buy something of roughly a $20 value from the host—a gift item, dinner, farm-stand food or attraction admission, for example, and to “treat the place like you would your grandma’s house.” Hosts pay nothing to participate in the program; they simply agree to offer a space or two for RV or camper parking, some pleasant scenery and ideally have something to sell.

The program has paid off monetarily for hosts who, on average, make an additional $13,000 a year in revenue, Holland says. The payoff for guests comes in other ways. One notable benefit is the increase in site options in a post-Covid travel era in which RV sales exploded, but site numbers in state and national parks and private campgrounds have stayed roughly the same.

Photo by Tim Hussey

The selection of host sites is varied, including 100 alpaca farms; museums dedicated to dinosaurs, planes and an underground salt mine; microbrewer- ies and wineries; golf courses; and even a growing list of churches with parking lots that have great views and often sit empty during the week.

“I’ve visited hundreds of sites,” Holland says, “and at every one of the visits, I get an authentic experience. In a standard winery tasting room, you get the restaurant experience. But when you stay, you get the behind-the-scenes look. You see employees go from, ‘I’m at work,’ to ‘Let’s have a drink together and chat.’ It becomes that authentic
human-to-human experience.”

Michigan has some 250 host locations—relatively high compared to other states across the country, Holland says. Throughout the state’s fruit-growing regions, there are many opportunities at farms and wineries, but there’s other hands-on fun that includes, for instance, a stay adjacent to a working blacksmith studio, L.L. Forge in Shelby. There, guests can pay extra to forge a knife of Damascus steel under the tutelage of a finalist from History Channel’s “Forged in Fire,” or just watch the process as crafted by bladesmith Mike Bailey.

The History Channel show spurred interest in Bailey’s Harvest Hosts destination, he says, as has a renaissance in blacksmithing. “It’s a totally unique experience, and it’s fun for me too,” Bailey says. “I’ve met Blackhawk helicopter pilots, NASA consultants, engineers, doctors and regular families with kids doing this.”

Photo by Tim Hussey

At Mshko’Ode Farm in Brutus, guests watch the sun setting over a pastoral valley, buy dinner from the farm stand and informally learn some of the Odawa cultural practices that go into the on-site growing of traditional corn, squash and pasture-raised chicken on the farm whose name translates to “strong heart.” At Iron Fish Distillery, a Harvest Host location in Thompsonville, guests have the obvious advantage of just walking “home” after tasting craft spirits. They’re guaranteed a table or tent for tasting and dinner, or they can buy a cocktail to go and enjoy it back at a campsite situated alongside beautiful woods with hiking trails.

“Everyone has been so kind and super excited to be here,” says Dominique Gentle, the distillery’s retail manager and Harvest Hosts coordinator. “They are people who like to explore new places, and first and foremost, they’re such nice people.”

If there is a downside, RV owner Judy Putnam of Lansing says she hasn’t found one, at least in stays so far at a Michigan winery and Upper Peninsula goat farm/art gallery.

“I’m very new to camping, but it feels like you really get somebody’s personal story,” she says. “It’s almost like you’re invited into their home or business for an inside look. It just feels like a real win-win. You go to places you are attracted to, and you get to spend the night with no extra fee.”

The morning sun takes on an ethereal glow as it filters through rows of lush grapevines at the crest of Leelanau’s Crain Hill Road.

Long summer days warming the breeze wafting from nearby West Grand Traverse Bay are key to the national awards garnered when these rolling acres of chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and more are crafted into estate wines. This morning, though, the vineyard rays are also our private wakeup call.

There’s total silence except for some lyrical bird calls and the inevitable whir of an approaching engine. Robert Brengman appears on the dirt path, clad in khaki shorts and rubber boots and riding a tractor toward an opening in the vines. My husband and friends who’ve parked their own camper near ours wander over, and we instinctively join in as Brengman stacks chairs left from a vineyard wedding the night before.

When he moves on to work down the rows, I follow behind, stripping the leaves and tucking the vines in the way he’s modeling. I’m slow enough to evoke some good-natured teasing but to also get serendipitously left behind, leaving me to an unexpected morning meditation in my own scenic row of tiny grapes.

I pull myself away for a last cup of coffee before packing up and making one last stop: a check of the winery calendar for the next chance to park on our special vineyard land.

Photo by Tim Hussey

More Harvest Host Locations in Northern Michigan

Much of the Harvest Hosts fun is in the opportunity to explore places you’ve perhaps never heard of—or always wanted to see. Here’s a peek at just a few Northern Michigan options.

During a stay at Pell’s Pie Patch & Family Farm in Gould in the Upper Peninsula, farm chickens are likely to meander past your camper. And the farm’s family members love explaining the philosophy behind raising grass-fed beef and lamb. There are just-made sourdough bagels to buy for breakfast and flaky pies for dessert.

Wellington Farm, in Grayling, lets you park under crab apple trees on the pleasant grounds of a living history museum showcasing life in the 1930s.

At AJ’s Berry Farm in Lachine, on the state’s east side, guests are pretty much expected to do a bit of sampling off the raspberry and Saskatoon vines. There are U-Pick options, fresh fruit scones, fall hay rides and a corn maze, and, according to reviewers, a great stargazing show from the aspen groves in which the campers park.

Northland Brewing Company, in Indian River, offers brews made on-site, yard games, dinner fare from rotating food trucks and a grassy parking area from which to easily explore the rest of town.

And at Boyne Valley Vineyards in Petoskey, you might opt to listen to live music (in-season weekends) from the comfort of your private wooded parking spot. Guests can go wine tasting inside the soaring barn-style tasting room or take their pour to an elevated treehouse-style seating area overlooking the vines.

Learn about more stops and adventures on the Harvest Hosts website.

Photo by Tim Hussey

Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”

Tim Hussey is the art director of Traverse Magazine. He is also a fine artist and photographer who enjoys shooting stories that speak to him. husseyart.com

Photo(s) by Tim Hussey