It’s a delicate balance to provide parking for farm visitors without disrupting farm operations. If you’re like most farmers, you may find yourself sending agri-tourists into empty fields, hoping the land won’t get too destroyed.

Depending on the size of your events, you may need to hire people to direct the flow of traffic, or you may need to offer a shuttle bus from an offsite parking lot. You may also need to find ways to accommodate people with mobility challenges. In Orange, Massachusetts, Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc, of Seeds of Solidarity Farm, host one major event per year – the North Quabbin Garlic & Arts Festival. When they started the festival in 1999, they hosted almost 1,000 visitors at their farm. Today, around 10,000 people attend “Garlic & Arts” (as it’s known to locals), which Habib and Baruc moved to a field at a much larger, non-working farm nearby. On-site parking is available for carpools of three or more and to people with handicap tags who require accessible parking. Garlic & Arts also rents golf carts and runs them between the onsite parking lot and the festival entrance for people who need extra assistance.

The festival’s main parking lot is located 1.5 miles from the festival site, and all other visitors are instructed to take the free shuttle between that lot and the festival. Shuttle buses provided by the county transit authority operate regularly throughout the day. Perhaps it’s the vibe of the festival (like a Dead concert but with local musicians, garlic-flavored ice cream and hundreds of local vendors selling everything from produce to pottery to solar panels), but Habib said visitors don’t complain about the parking. “As long as the shuttles run frequently, the lines are short, and the volunteers working the shuttle lot are welcoming, people are fine,” she said.

Designing the experience

Habib and Baruc didn’t have the option to design a parking lot for their event, but they did take proactive steps to design the experience festival attendees have. As an eco-conscious event, Garlic & Arts composts or recycles everything and generates only three bags of trash for 10,000 visitors. Thus, the fact that carpools of three or more people are welcome in the lot near the festival entrance is one aspect of managing the visitor experience. Whether festival attendees carpool or not, they know from the get-go that they are participating in an environmentally-conscious event.

At Bishop’s Orchards, in Gilford, Connecticut, pick-your-own has been big business for decades. In the last 10 years, Bishop’s expanded, building a large retail store with a paved parking lot. Still, the paved parking lot cannot accommodate all of Bishop’s visitors during the peak season. Fifth-generation Farmer Jonathan Bishop started offering tractor rides to the hilltop orchards as a way to get people to the apples and peaches they long to pick. Over the years, visitors have come to look forward to those tractor rides as part of the PYO experience.

Stone Barns Center for Food And Agriculture, in Pocantico Hills, New York, holds its Harvest Fest every year with 1,500-2,000 people. Since their paved parking lots support only 250 cars, attendees used to park in a pasture. “If the pasture’s wet, it destroys the pasture,” said Farm Director Jack Algiere. “So in terms of agritourism, we risked ruining the farm to get people to see the farm.”

Now for that event, the center hires buses to bring people between the farm and nearby parking lots. However, Algiere said many of their visitors don’t like bussing. Stone Barns, with a mission to create a more healthy and sustainable food system, is an oasis surrounded by 30 million people. Just 30 miles from New York City and 90 miles from significant farmland to the north, the farm is designed to be a stepping stone from the city and from rural to the city. Yet, Algiere, who co-designed the multi-species farm system, the greenhouse and the landscape, said some of the people who live in the suburbs around Stone Barns perceive the place as a botanical garden, a zoo or a park. “It [borders] a state preserve so there’s also access from every single direction you walk in. It’s entirely porous,” he said. As a result, Algiere and his colleagues recognized they had to be very specific when they set out to change weekend practices to improve the visitor experience. They didn’t want to exclude the people who live close by. Neither did they want people coming solely to picnic, wander and not be exposed to the center’s mission.

“It was one of the hardest things for us to deal with,” he said. “A couple of years ago, we switched to a much more curated design, where visitors pay an entrance fee on the weekends. Rather than coming in and doing an a la carte thing on the weekend, as they were used to, we just said: look you’re going to pay to get in, and it’s going to be totally curated. Now we can put all of our energy towards really paying attention to what your relationship is to this place. There’s tours available all day, hands-on activities, cooking – all this great education…” Weekday entrance remains free of charge.

Algiere thought limiting access would upset more people than it actually did. “Parking limitations led to a better experience for people,” he said. Generally the limit is 400 people at a time, because some come in carloads. Parking is run by radio, so once the lot is full, that’s broadcast to the people working at the entrance. As people leave, more are allowed to enter.

“It’s not slowed down. We have very full weekends,” said Martha Hodgkins, communications director for Stone Barns. “It’s really increased the quality of the experience and deepened it, because that’s a part of our mission – showing people what agroecological farming looks like, and how to eat to support that. To achieve our mission, we needed to be more than just a destination for casual day-tripping.”

Designing the landscape

Designing the parking lot may not be in your future, or even in your dreams, but if it is, the following ideas may help you keep the flow of agri-tourists moving at a comfortable pace on your farm.

Design for function as well as aesthetics. “We have these parking lots that have these cutouts with trees in the middle of the parking lot. First of all, there’s like 20 spots taken up by trees in the parking lot, but also it makes it pretty well impossible to snow plow, which I spent a lot of years doing,” said Algiere. “That matters when it comes to parking. I spent way too much time in a snow plow. [But] it’s so very beautiful from the top view.”

If you pave, pave only what you will use regularly. “If you paved everything you needed for [peak season], you’d have a big empty parking lot for many months,” said Jonathan Bishop. At Fort Hill Farms in Thompson, Connecticut, the Orr family keeps their parking lot (a strawberry patch-turned-lawn) unpaved in case they decide to do something different with it, like plant a new crop.

Assess your needs in advance. Try to get a true sense of how many parking spots you will need on a regular basis and for big events. Fort Hill Farms fits between 200 and 300 vehicles on their parking lawn. The Orr family runs about five big events throughout the year, operates a corn maze and hosts weddings. In 2017, they hosted a hot air balloon festival and were shocked when over 1,000 people showed up. “We ran out of parking spots,” said Kies Orr. “People were parking on the road. We couldn’t park like we normally do in the parking lot because the hot air balloon needed to take some space in the lot.” Orr used a pumpkin patch-turned-lawn for another 200 cars.

Choose materials that support the environment. “We’ve never had flooding, but they do get wet,” said Orr of the lawns they use for parking at Fort Hill Farms. In contrast, pavement parking lots are impervious, heat absorbing and collect stormwater on the surface, which causes both waterway contamination and parking lot flooding. Pavement does not allow water to filter into the soil, and so inhibits the natural water cycle. Paved parking lots have traditionally been built with gutters, drains and pipes to move stormwater into receiving water bodies as quickly as possible. As a result, runoff that is contaminated with petroleum residues, fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants from parking surfaces enters waterways without filtration and negatively affects water quality.

“We’re looking at green infrastructure – laying something that’s more porous, so it’s a functional parking lot with an environmental benefit,” said Anna Marshall, of Connecticut Fund For the Environment.

As part of her job, Marshall helps design and construct environmentally sound parking lots. CT Fund for the Environment often uses permeable pavers and porous pavement for parking lots. “We’re doing an installation right now at the Beardsley Zoo which has high traffic. We’re using a paver that has spacing between the pavers that’s a little larger – the paver is compact, but the spacing in between allows the water to infiltrate through,” Marshall said. “The ones we’re using are not petroleum based. They’re a concrete base and have interlocking edges that hold them together while allowing for space in between [the pavers]. It allows water to infiltrate through it in a rainstorm, it reduces runoff, traps a lot of the pollution and filters it out a little bit more, which is something that your typical pavement wouldn’t be doing.”

Marshall said there are many options for what can be done at a specific site. “I don’t see any limitations. I think there’s enough design variety in terms of figuring out what kind of paver you want for a specific application. There are certain pavers that work for certain sites better. For example, we have grass pavers that allow you to plant grass or sod right over them, but that wouldn’t work well for a high-traffic area. If you have a lot of freezing and thaw and ice damage, you might have issues with the spaces in a porous paver system. Porous pavement may work better. There are a lot of solutions that utilize the innovations to make it more environmentally friendly.”

Contaminants in parking lot runoff can originate from a variety of sources, including the paving materials used to build them. Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey pinpointed parking lot sealants as a significant source of non-point source pollution, specifically polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a known carcinogen that can be toxic to fish and wildlife. Automobiles are also a major source of pollutants in parking lot runoff, including antifreeze, oil, hydrocarbons, metals from wearing brake linings, rubber particles from tires, nitrous oxide from car exhausts and grease. If your parking lot is near your produce growing fields, runoff may also be contaminating your soil.

To determine whether your site is suitable for a permeable paving system, work with a professional to assess your slope, traffic volume, subgrade, land use, soil, infiltration and drainage characteristics, and groundwater conditions. Permeable pavement, when properly designed and maintained, can eliminate almost all surface runoff from low intensity storms.

Another advantage to installing eco-friendly parking at your farm is the business aspect. As consumers become more concerned about the environment (almost a guarantee after the weather patterns in 2017), they may be attracted to your agritourism events, not only because they want a slice of farm life, but also because they want to support a farm that is leading the way in environmental stewardship.