FEATURES


Get Ready for Agritourism

By Tamara Scully




At Retreat Farm in Brattleboro, Vt., visitors can participate in milking demonstrations, pet the chicks, and get up and close and personal with the livestock.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Chase.

Agritourism can mean different things to different people. Is it a petting zoo, a hay wagon ride to a pumpkin patch, or a tour of a working farm? Maybe it's a pick-your-own operation or community supported agriculture. Perhaps it's a farm stay, where lodgers help to feed farm animals. Agritourism can be all of these things and more.

"This isn't just about pumpkin patches. This is about sharing a way of life," said Laura Grey, heritage and agritourism program manager at the Colorado Tourism Office. Agritourism can be anything from "one-time events, such as concerts or festivals, to seasonal farmstands or self-guided tours." It's about more than the farm profit, more than the experience, and more than the impact of tourism on the local economy.

Agritourism in its many forms is all about telling the story of farming, whether it's dairy farming, field crop farming, livestock production, or growing fruits and vegetables. What role should agritourism play on your farm? Agritourism can be a complementary activity, a secondary activity, or even a primary activity of the farm. However, controversy can arise when the primary purpose of the farm is to entertain, and many states are grappling with best management practices meant to prevent the authenticity of the farming operation from being compromised by the entertainment aspects. While states differ in their regulations on this, the bottom line seems to be that the "agri" needs to be the focus of the "tourism." The common denominator: agritourism should be about the farm.

"It is absolutely critical to tell the story of agriculture and food production and family farming to the millions who no longer have a connection to the land," said Lorraine Garkovich, professor with the Department of Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky. "From my perspective, so long as some aspect of the farm is incorporated into the activity, [agritourism is about farming]." It's about "enhancing the income of the family farm so that there can continue to be a farm business."

Telling that story successfully is not only an asset to the farm, but to the community as well, and is rewarding and meaningful to farm visitors. Providing a positive agritourism experience takes planning. It should be tailored to meet the needs of your farm enterprise and serve to help keep you - and your land - in agriculture.

"Agritourism and farm-based education are some of the best ways to build public support for farming within the nearby community and throughout larger regions," noted Lisa Chase of the University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Tourism Data Center. Vermont is one of many states concerned about defining farm-based tourism as activity that "supports and complements core farming operations versus entertainment that takes away from authentic farming enterprises," she explained.

Beginning steps

If agritourism in some form might be right for your farm, taking the time to research, inventory and assess your needs is crucial. Consulting with professionals may be your best bet.

"The first step for a farm is to assess your goals and resources," Chase said. "There are several tools available to help farmers do that, along with extension and other service providers who can work with farms on an assessment."

Ben Amsden, professor and interim director of Plymouth State University's Center for Rural Partnerships, emphasizes the importance of self-reflection. "If you're a farmer, you need to ask yourself if you really want to host visitors on your farm. Are you a people person at heart? It sounds like a simple question, but it's often overlooked."

If you're more of a loner and don't want to interact with visitors, another family member may be willing to take on the responsibility, or you can hire someone. However, if visitors will be on the same farmland you're working, their presence will be felt in some manner. Will you need to restock a farm store multiple times each day or train employees in customer service? Will you be interrupted when visitors tour the field during harvesting?

Consider your farm goals, the daily workload, and whether or not hiring more employees is an option. What are your resources - natural, labor, equipment and capital? Planning also means assessing the market demographics to determine if you have a captive audience for your proposed tourism venue. Who will these potential visitors be? Will they come from the surrounding community or farther away? How much time will they spend on the farm? Will they become repeat visitors, or are you trying to engage them once a year? If you expect regular farm visits from the general public, are you ready to work hardest on the weekends, or do you want to cater to a different demographic?

"I think that one needs to start with an evaluation of the potential enterprises on the farm, and then determine if a market for that particular kind of activity might exist in the region," Garkovich advised. Whether you want to offer fall harvest festivals, spring planting celebrations, summertime pick-your-own, or an on-farm store and café, knowing that there are people seeking this activity, or maybe finding out that this is already a saturated market in your area, is necessary before you open for business.

Assessing your farm's resources also includes an inventory of natural resources such as views, water bodies, geological formations and wildlife presence. Negative issues, such as barns or silos in need of repair, a manure lagoon or other hazards, need to be accounted for as well. There are several assessment tools Garkovich recommends that can guide farmers in this process, including one from the University of Kentucky, which can be found at http://bit.ly/1a4KLhJ.

Infrastructure

If you really don't want to be people-focused, or don't have the infrastructure, time or capital to invest in certain activities, there may be other agritourism options that would work on your farm. Birding opportunities, pick-your-own wildflowers or nature-based photography can be offered for a small fee. Self-serve sales, and providing a place for these visitors to picnic, would be doable without much infrastructure.

"Some types of agritourism require little infrastructure, such as farm stays or small tours," Chase noted. When added infrastructure is required, don't plow over your prime soils. "Most farms have ample land to allow for necessary infrastructure without compromising productive agricultural lands."

Even if you decide to go minimal, finding a way to move forward without requiring new buildings, new equipment, more labor or intensive upgrades, there are some basic considerations that need to be addressed. A parking area and bathrooms, Garkovich said, are a must. Drinking water, too, is good to provide. "All of these can be provided without dramatically altering the natural landscape of the farm itself," she said.

Don't forget signs to identify parking areas, off-limits areas and trails, and to remind visitors not to touch equipment. Marsha Salzwedel is a youth safety specialist with the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. She said, "Signs are a very important method of communicating with guests and can be an inexpensive method of doing so. There are numerous signs on the Integrating Safety into Agritourism website [http://www.safeagritourism.com] that can be printed for free."

Infrastructure and traffic are two main concerns for neighbors when a farm adds an intensive agritourism component. "The conflict is often between the farm and its neighbors, the people who have a day-to-day interaction with the infrastructure," such as lighting, paved parking areas or picnic pavilions, Amsden explained.

Local zoning will play a role, and state regulations on agricultural tourism may also apply. If your land is under a conservation easement or a farmland preservation program, there may be a clause outlining acceptable practices. Also, creating infrastructure could remove land that needs to be counted as productive in order to meet farmland taxation standards.

Networking

"It is essential to determine if the type of enterprise you are considering adding is permitted in an agricultural zone," said Garkovich. "Farmers considering adding tourism experiences don't necessarily have to work with their communities, but they can enhance their visitation and minimize conflicts with neighbors and officials if they do."

An important step is "reaching out to others who have had similar experiences and seeing what they have learned, what mistakes they've made, and what they've done to be successful," Amsden said, adding that it's critical for farmers to work with local communities when developing agritourism venues. "There are resources to help farmers with this: farm bureau, local university extension, chambers of commerce, even the state office of travel and tourism."

Grey said, "From zoning issues to help with marketing or start-up funds, tourism is all about partners. In our state, farmers and ranchers had no idea how eager traditional tourism people were to work with them."



Agritourism can mean different things to different people. Is it a petting zoo, a hay wagon ride to a pumpkin patch, or a tour of a working farm?
Photo courtesy of Emergo Farms Bed & Breakfast, Danville, Vt.

Agritourism isn't only a farm affair. Think of wine or cheese trails, where producers work together rather than compete for tourists. Options include community farm tours, harvest festivals or other events. Involving other nonfarm businesses, such as restaurants and lodging facilities, other activity providers like outdoor adventure companies, and even museums and galleries, is a smart step toward meeting your goals as an agritourism venue. The more reasons a visitor has to come to your region, the more opportunities they have to experience your farm.

Don't overlook your neighbors as potential customers.

"You want people in the community to know you are there and what you are doing, so that they can come visit and tell others what you have to offer," Garkovich said. "Word-of-mouth is a great advertising tool." She suggests hosting an open house for neighbors so they can see firsthand what visitors will experience.

Safety first and always

"You do not want to lose your primary income and way of life because of an accident or mishap on the farm or ranch," Grey cautioned.

Salzwedel said, "It is extremely important that safety not be an afterthought when you are bringing visitors to your farm. Incorporate safety as a part of the regular business plan, including planning for it from the start."

While you know that equipment can be dangerous, assume that visitors aren't familiar with the hazards. Children are apt to climb onto tractors or to climb fences. Barbed wire and electric fencing are not commonplace for many people, and piles of sand or gravel may look like fun places to play.

"These visitors are not usually familiar with the farm environment and the hazards found there," Salzwedel explained. "It becomes the responsibility of the farmer to ensure the guest is safe when they visit." Safety training for employees is already required on farms. Training in emergency procedures, incident reporting and other areas becomes essential when the public visits the farm. Contact your insurance agent to discuss any increased coverage that will be required once visitors are allowed on the farm.



A roadside corn stand in Wallingford, Vt.
Photo courtesy of Mike Dresser.

"If you are going to have some type of food or drink available as part of the experience, check in with your health department to get a good understanding of health and food regulations," Garkovich advised. "Make your insurance agent your next stop, to be sure that your current coverage is adequate."

Make it meaningful

In addition to the traditional pumpkin patch and corn maze, there are many potential ways to share your farm story - and make a profit. Consider an on-farm café, educational classes and hands-on learning experiences, hiking trails, nature or hunting preserves, camping facilities or a bed-and-breakfast, or simple farm tours showing visitors how you produce their food.

"The traveler that is attracted to agritourism is well-educated and is looking for authentic experiences that teach them something, whether it be cheesemaking or putting in fences. One traveler told me she just loves sitting and drinking a glass of wine from a porch looking at the amazing animals the owner took the time to raise. We don't always have to be active," Grey said.

No matter what your main farming enterprises may be, get creative and show visitors the importance of the job you are doing. Dairies can offer milking exhibits, and a farm day camp can provide opportunities for farm guests to learn firsthand about the work entailed in farming. Get creative and make it meaningful and rewarding for you, your family, your guests and your community.

"I believe that if we develop agritourism with an eye toward education, conservation and preservation, we will develop amazing offerings that travelers will flock to and producers will benefit from," Grey added.

Whatever you choose, be prepared. Research your options, seek input from other farmers, agricultural professionals and community members, and research ahead of time the regulations that will impact your farm. This will go a long way toward building a successful agritourism enterprise, no matter how you define it.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.