If your dictionary doesn’t have a picture of Joe Bowen next to the definition of “Agritourism,” it should. If not a picture of Bowen, then it might have one of the bed and breakfast (B&B) operation he built and runs in eastern Kentucky.
Agritourism essentially is the place – typically on a farm – where agriculture and tourism intersect. It can be a B&B, farm, or ranch that opens its doors, barns, fields and more to the public so they can experience the out-of-doors, along with the slower pace and even the healthy produce that is best found where it is fresh-picked. By definition, agritourism is a form of commercial enterprise that links agricultural production and or processing with tourism to attract visitors onto a farm, ranch, or other agricultural business for the purposes of entertaining and or educating the visitors and generating income for the farm, ranch or business owner.
One of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry, agritourism includes visits to working farms, ranches, wineries and agricultural industries, Jane Eckert of Eckert AgriMarketing, St. Louis, Missouri, said. Back in 2007, National Agricultural Statistical Services reported $566 million in income from agritourism and recreational services; in the 2012 census, it was pegged at $704 million – roughly a 25 percent increase in five years.
The Bowen Farm Bed & Breakfast, near Stanton, Kentucky, is more than a rural retreat, or even a place where guests can pick (and cook, if they wish to) the fresh produce raised just outside the door. In Bowen’s mind, the farm functions as an agritourism incubator, a springboard for ideas to revitalize the economy of eastern Kentucky – providing a practical, working definition for agritourism.
Case in point: The “Rugged Red,” officially known as the Red River Gorge Trail Half Marathon, was the brainchild of Bowen. The Red River Gorge is in the Daniel Boone National Forest, and the race has already attracted large numbers of runners to the Powell County, Kentucky area. While those runners spend time and money in eastern Kentucky, they naturally provide an economic boost that is, in large part, a result of Bowen’s efforts to help his home area.
Bowen said when he was first planning the race, he sought information at stores that sold running shoes and had an athletic focus. They told him to expect 70-80 entrants. When the 2014 race started, the field numbered 380. The 2015 event (to take place September 12, 2015) has imposed a registration limit of 700! He recalled that after that inaugural race, his banker told him the area had taken in $210,000 during the two-day event and festival. It had filled all the possible hotels and inns in the area – and this on the weekend after Labor Day, a traditionally slow tourism time.
The Bowen Farm serves as the race’s headquarters but, typical of Bowen’s efforts to promote the local economy, the website includes a listing of all B&Bs, hotels and motels nearby. And for good measure, Bowen has garnered support from Kentucky’s Sports Authority, Morehead State University, and the tourism organizations of Powell County and the Red River Gorge itself.
A prime mover in SOAR (Saving Our Appalachian Region), Bowen has had a hand in raising about $2 million a year to help eastern Kentucky’s economy. He’s also started the Nada Tunnel 8K Footrace, named for a 900-foot rock tunnel that’s part of the course. (As that shorter race’s originator, host, and director, Bowen doesn’t use the term “marathon” because, he said, “We always called ’em footraces when I was a kid.”) The Bowen Farm website includes a video showing runners participating in the Nada Tunnel run – almost all are smiling.
Extending his efforts to aid his home area, Bowen has gotten involved with the Robinson Scholars program at the University of Kentucky, where he meets with scholarship applicants who are going through the program’s qualifying process. Bowen bases his work on a part of the Jaycee Creed which he learned years ago: “Service to humanity is the best work of life.” Always, as is the case with other farm/tourism businesses, Bowen promotes nearby attractions as well as his own B&B operation.
Insurance and other issues
All isn’t fun and footraces in the agritourism business, though. Bowen points out that the necessary liability insurance is “kind of expensive, but important” and he still works to find a lower-cost provider for his ventures. He originally researched insurance requirements for his B&B by the simple expedient of contacting other B&B owner/operators, along with B&B associations. That route was the one also followed by Maggie Myers, owner of Whistlewood Farm Bed & Breakfast, in Rhinebeck, New York.
Indeed, while many states have laws that protect landowners from legal action if someone is injured while walking around the farm or riding a horse across the pastures, those laws do not apply to landowners who accept payment from people who are on their farms. Be sure your insurance agent is well aware of the fact that you open the property as a Halloween pumpkin patch or a cross-country skiing site.
Myers has used as a rule of thumb what her farm’s income would support in terms of liability insurance. She has also found that being “diligent about maintenance and upkeep” of her property has been invaluable.
Another agritourism business, Ellms Family Farm in Ballston Spa, New York, operates just a pumpkin patch and corn maze – they don’t offer B&B – in the fall, and a Christmas tree cutting business from the day after Thanksgiving until December 22. Chip and Sally Ellms started their operation in 1983 and now have more than 200 acres, and four generations of the family are currently involved.
Sally Ellms pointed out that, with the family farm’s tree-cutting business, “We carry liability insurance,” since the farm offers bow saws to those who wish to cut their own trees, but chain saws aren’t allowed. “There are no state regulations or insurance guidelines that we have to do… it’s up to us and how much protection we want regarding liability,” she said.
Their popular corn mazes are designed by The American Maze Company out of New York City, Ellms said, “and this is our 11th year. Corn mazes have probably been around for 20-plus years in the United States.”
It pays in many ways. Yet the USDA definition of agritourism is extremely limited, including some recreational or educational experiences occurring on farms such as hay rides and pumpkin patches, but not explicitly including other major on-farm activities such as festivals, accommodations or direct sales of products.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture began collecting agritourism statistics. In 2007, 685 California farms reported a total of $35 million in revenue related to agritourism (USDA 2009).
Sampling farm life
In the Hudson River Valley Myers’ Whistlewood Farm opens up a variety of farm experiences (and animals) to its guests. The usual farm animals are present – horses, cows, and chickens – as well as hiking trails and riding for those who want some outdoor exercise.
There are free-range chickens that supply eggs as well as bug control. Myers said, “We have Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Cochin, a light Brahma, Wyandotte, Bantam and Ameraucana, which lay our green eggs. We love them all and guests enjoy feeding them some of our scraps and peelings from the fruits and veggies we clean to serve for breakfast.
“Guests are encouraged to fully explore our property,” she added, though to avoid liability issues, they’re not allowed in the pastures with the animals. “There are miles of trails with views of serene woods and scenes from our working farm.” There is an outdoor riding ring and trails that weave around and through the property. The farm’s trail links up with the Landsman Kill Trail system, where you must be a member to ride on it. Whistlewood doesn’t do a lot of advertising, she said, though she has brochures for her property and offers the brochures of other area attractions such as the Rhinebeck Aerodrome and the many historic homes as well.
Those animal residents offer unique experiences for guests, too: the cattle are Dexter cows, the smallest of the European cattle breeds. Dexters are about half the size of a traditional Hereford and about one third the size of a Friesian (Holstein) milking cow. They were considered a rare breed of cattle until recently, but are now considered a recovering breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The Dexter breed originated in Ireland, and Myers said their increasing popularity has been fueled by a desire for organic food, health concerns over factory farming and soaring food prices. Plus, she pointed out, they’re gentle and friendly – real guest-pleasers.
Across the country, USDA reports similar large increases in income in states like Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin with large increases in income per operation.
For the tourist really interested in getting involved in farm life, Nancy and Joe Petterson, owners of Airlie Farm, in Monmouth, Oregon, have turned their quarter horse breeding farm, with its 226 wooded acres, into a B&B (incorporating the farm’s original 1910 home). Working with suggestions from their guests, they now offer the opportunity not only for retreats and special events, but equine clinics as well.
Because Airlie’s home is in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Pettersons also let guests know about the surrounding wine country and an available beach rental for those who would like to go sit by the ocean. They’ll even babysit the guests’ horses while the guests take advantage of the sights.
Agritourism has many facets, as the various owners of these operations demonstrate. As long as innovators like Joe Bowen, Maggie Myers and others continue to develop and broaden this concept of tourism, guests will keep beating a path to their doors through the corn maze of competing attractions.
Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics. Ron Stevens is a freelance writer and contributer who is based in the Midwest.
Cover Photo courtesy of Joe Bowen and RuggedRed.com.