A holiday on a working farm, or agriturismo, is a bit like holding a friends baby: you can enjoy the good bits without any of the responsibility. You can eat locally-grown food without having to work the fields; enjoy the twitter of early-morning song-birds without having to get up at dawn; snuggle up to a roaring fire safe in the knowledge that it isnt your only form of heating. This idyll, coupled with Italys spectacular countryside and local cuisine, has attracted millions of visitors over the decades, making this form of tourism a popular sideline for farmers.

The new annual guide to hospitality on farms was presented in February by Agriturist, a part of Confagricultura, the union of agricultural enterprises. Page after page of rustic farmhouses and sun-drenched rolling hills fills the glossy book an overwhelming choice of thousands. In 2003, the sector grew by another 1,000 establishments, making a total of 12,500 farms offering facilities for tourists in Italy. This increase follows a trend of growth that has been going on for years.

Last year, however, was also the first year that the number of visitors, and especially the number of foreign visitors (which account for over 20 per cent of the total), declined, from 2.2 million arrivals in 2002 to 2.16 million in 2003. Agriturists president, Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, thinks this is the sign of a maturing market, and points out that the industry is attracting more attention that ever, and that farms are having to compete for visitors both with each other and with hotels, bed and breakfasts and holiday flats. Therefore, as this years Agriturist guide was presented the emphasis was on quality and certification.

Not that rules and regulations are a new thing in the industry farmers cant just rent out a spare bed in the hayloft. The web of laws that governs the sector is as dense as any in Italy. Farms have to comply with national and regional laws, as well as needing the approval of their local council. All aspects of the business are closely regulated: the number of days per year that it can be open; health and safety requirements (as tough as for any hotel); the proportion of money that is allowed to come from hospitality rather than farming (40 per cent or less); who can be employed (agricultural workers and their relatives). In addition to these regulations, farms can choose to meet higher standards in order to gain special Agriturist classifications. These include Agriturist Qualit, new this year for organisations that really embody the spirit of rural hospitality, and Ristoro Agrituristico Conviviale, for farm-based restaurants that are small and typical of the area.

Controls and inspections have become tougher recently, partly because at one point last year, it looked as though agricultural tourism was turning into an unregulated no-mans-land. The Italian federation of restaurateurs and licensed premises, FIPE, complained that many agricultural organisations were offering activities and food completely out of character with rural life. Land-locked locales had oysters and sushi on their menus; some offered discos and strip-tease dancers; many provided catering for hundreds of guests at conferences and weddings. According to FIPE, the proportion of home-grown produce on menus was generally so low that diners were more likely to taste locally-grown ingredients at a FIPE-certified typical restaurant than on a farm. But the main complaint from FIPE was that agro-tourist farms about 60 per cent of them have a restaurant were competing with restaurants under unfair conditions, because they enjoy significant tax breaks. As a result, checks have become noticeably stricter in the past 12 months.

Farm holidays are booming in the centre and south of Italy, and Tuscany and Umbria have long been the heart of the industry. In recent years Lazio has been one of the strong growth areas, in particular the provinces of Rome and Viterbo. The city (comune) of Rome, 40 per cent of which is farmland, is the most rural in Italy. There are currently 17 agro-tourist farms in the comune, and about 100 applications are waiting to be processed.

Mary Fort manages the hospitality side of the Tenuta Agricola Testa di Lepre, which is owned by the Doria Pamphilj family. The 350-ha farm is off Via Aurelia 22 km to the north-west of Rome, and the old grain barn has been converted to house eight self-catering apartments. Despite its proximity to Rome, the establishments licence comes from the Fiumicino town council, and health and safety inspections are carried out by the provincial police, but it is governed by regional laws.

Testa di Lepre is a relatively luxurious establishment, but at 90 per night for two people its still cheaper than most of the capitals hotels. We have one couple that lives in Rome and comes almost every weekend of the 270 days we are allowed to be open per year. The foreigners in particular like the combination of a rural setting with comfortable accommodation, says Fort.

Fort is not surprised at the increasing number of holiday farms in the area. Rome is big enough to support an agriturismo culture, she states. We hope to open a restaurant in the future, but I dont blame the restaurateurs for complaining.

While many agriturismi now offer activities and services such as horse riding, swimming pools and cooking lessons, Testa di Lepres proximity to Rome means guests never run out of things to do. According to the head of Agriturist, Curbastro, a wide range of extra services is the secret to winning customer loyalty and being competitive as the sector grows. The challenge therefore is to offer interesting services and activities, while maintaining that rural atmosphere that makes visitors want to pack it all in and live on a farm.