To some people, the term "agritourism" may summon images of white-collar tourists paying for the chance to do farm work, or perhaps the wacky television antics of beet farmers. However, more people than ever are jumping at the diverse opportunities provided by agritourism. Agriculturally-inclined tourists can vacation on an olive farm in Tuscany, pick grapes at a California winery, buy oranges from a roadside fruit stand and tromp through a corn maze.
Agritourism is the practice of attracting visitors and travelers to agricultural areas, generally for educational and recreational purposes. Due to economic hardships and changes in the farming and livestock industries across the globe, many farmers -- especially those with small, family-owned farms -- have found they must supplement their agricultural business model and explore new ways of generating income.
Likewise, as the distance between the production and consumption of agricultural products grows, so too does consumer interest in how crops and livestock are raised. People want to reconnect with the agricultural practices of the past.
These two needs come together in agritourism which helps rebuild a relationship between producer and consumer that has all but vanished with the rise of heavily-industrialized farming methods.
So what makes a farm an agritourism operation? In this article, we'll take a look at the different types of agritourism.
A farm's basic business has always consisted of growing crops or raising livestock that can be sold as goods to a consumer or as commodities for further processing -- like cattle sold to slaughter or grapes sold to a winery. However, in recent years, the input costs for raising livestock and crops have risen, and commodity prices have fallen.
This alone was enough to put a major financial strain on many farms. But two other factors also contributed to some farmers being forced to find new ways of making a living on the side:
Globalization: Farmers used to only have to contend with regional market competition, but improved means of transportation, communication and international trade have broadened the market, putting farms from opposite sides of the globe in direct competition with each other.
Industrialization: Smaller farm operations are now forced to contend with not only each other, but with industrialized agriculture as well. These large farming companies are able to produce more products for less money thanks to the use of large-scale facilities and modern technology.
Farmers struggling to get by have had to face the choice of leaving the agriculture business, finding employment on the side or discovering new uses for existing resources. This is where agritourism comes in. An added appeal is that, in many situations, very little additional investment is needed for farmers to begin reaping the benefits.
From a business standpoint, agritourism can play three basic roles for the farmer:
- As a supplementary enterprise, agritourism supports the farm's primary role as a farm. The production of goods and commodities still generates most of the income while agritourism, like a dairy offering tours to school groups, provides a little on the side.
- As a complementary enterprise, agritourism and traditional agriculture provide relatively equal profits to the farmer. An example of this would be a pumpkin farm where half the crops are sold to a wholesaler (who then provides pumpkins to supermarkets), while the other half are provided to paying guests who participate in a farm fall festival or jack-o'-lantern carving contest.
- As a primary enterprise, agritourism takes center stage on a farm. Any wholesale trade supplements the agritourism business. An example of this would be an apple farm that makes most of its money from guests paying to spend a weekend there, but still sells some apples to wholesalers on the side to boost profits.
These varying levels of involvement make agritourism an attractive possibility for farmers since the cost and scope of the investment can vary dramatically. Additionally, as with ecotourism, which involves marketing preserved, natural habitats to ecologically-minded travelers, agritourism operations tend to be small-scale with relatively little impact on the area. This means most farmers looking to get in on the agritourism business don't have to worry about their land and facilities suffering from a high volume of visitors.
Agritourism gives farmers the opportunity to educate visitors about their way of life and share their agricultural heritage with others. In the next section, we'll look at the various forms agritourism can take.
Forms of Agritourism
The scope of agritourism varies drastically depending on the type of farm, available land and how much of the business is aimed at the agritourism market. However, the varying forms can be broken down into three basic groups:
- Direct-market agritourism: If you've ever seen a roadside produce stand, you've seen direct-market agritourism in action. Farmers sell goods like produce, canned items and other organic products directly to consumers either at markets and fairs or on the farm itself, often alongside other agritourism offerings. Farmers may be selling an organic product similar to what consumers could find at a grocery store, but their product has the added appeal of coming directly from a local farm. To appeal to some consumers, the goods may be marketed as organic, all-natural, or the product of "old-fashioned" methods.
- Education and experience agritourism: This form of agritourism includes pick-your-own apple groves, farm tours, bed-and-breakfasts and packages aimed at giving guests a hands-on education in farm life. The farm itself is marketed as a tourist destination. Whether agritourists pay to pick their own produce, attend wine tastings at a vineyard or simply enjoy the farm atmosphere, the draw is first-hand experience. Once visitors are acquainted with the farm more closely, they may also be more inclined to buy its agricultural products.
- Recreation and event agritourism: While still considered agritourism, these offerings tend to involve using farm land for other marketable uses. Harvest festivals, corn mazes, haunted hay rides and country weddings held on farm land may draw heavily on the farm's atmosphere. Other activities like camping, archery and horseback riding are often less dependent on the farm itself. However, such forms of agritourism still draw in guests who may be tempted to buy goods.
Once a connection has been made between the consumer and the farm, long-term relationships can be forged. This customer loyalty and repeat business is key to the success of many agritourism businesses. In some cases, it takes the form of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). With a CSA, families and individuals interested in supporting local agriculture make a commitment to a farm in exchange for a regular subscription of produce or other goods. Some CSAs require payment while others actually require that subscribers partake in the care and harvesting of produce.
Agritourism and CSAs come down to the basic idea that food is worth more to some consumers if they have an emotional connection to where it came from.
But who are the agritourists? In the next section, we'll look at why agritourism holds such an appeal to many travelers.
Who are the agritourists?
Agritourism can take on many different forms but who signs up for a weekend of touring a farm or picking crops? Once you get past the idea that agritourism is more than just city dwellers paying to try their hand at farm work, it gets a lot easier to understand.
Just like an art museum or historic landmark, agritourism tends to offer visitors an educational experience. But instead of providing insight into art or history, the educational material deals with farming methods and rural farming culture. Additionally, just as sightseers and ecotourists seek out natural wonders and beauty, so too do agritourists seek out a chance to discover where some of their favorite foods come from or see people living off the land.
Agritourism often attracts urban and suburban baby boomers and senior citizens who may feel nostalgic about local farm life. And if they can trace their family tree back to agricultural activities, many even feel that they're learning something about their own past. Additionally, tourists visiting foreign destinations are often more interested in the country or region's agricultural history than its mainstream tourist destinations. One example of this is that, despite all of the beachfront glamour of Hawaii, the state's agritourism offerings reportedly generated $38.8 million in 2006 [source: Pacific Business News].
As more families move away from typical one or two week vacations toward shorter weekend trips, local or nearby agritourism destinations often offer a good value. According to a recent survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, outdoor activities ranked third for American vacation destinations, just behind shopping and family events [source: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center].
More Great Links
- Blacka, Aaron, et al. "Agri-Tourism." Virginia Cooperative Extension. November 2001. http://www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/agritour/310-003/310-003.html
- Che, Deborah, Ann Veeck and Gregory Veeck. "Demographic Characteristics and Motivations of Michigan Agritourists." USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station. 2006. http://nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs-p-14/13-che-p-14.pdf
- "Community Supported Agriculture (And Other Farm Subscriptions)." Local Harvest. http://www.localharvest.org/csa/
- Geisler, Malinda. "Agritourism Profile." Agricultural Marketing Research Center. March, 2008. http://www.agmrc.org/agmrc/commodity/agritourism/agritourism/agritourismprofile.htm
- "Hawaii's ag-tourism worth $38.8M in '06" Pacific Business News. Jan. 30. 2008. http://washington.bizjournals.com/pacific/stories/2008/01/28/daily35.html
- Humann, M.J. and Lee, B.C. "Agritourism Health and Safety Guidelines for Children." Marshfield, WI. Marshfield Clinic. 2007. http://agmarketing.extension.psu.edu/Retail/PDFs/agri_child_guide.pdf
- Nelson, Wes. "Agritourism boosts income of 52,000 farmers." Capital Press. Jan. 25, 2008. http://www.capitalpress.info/main.asp?SectionID=67&SubSectionID=619&ArticleID=38728&TM=35395.52
- Talbot, Matthew. "Rural Evolution: Experience the changing landscape of agriculture in the valley." Canadian Geographic. 2005. http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/SO05/indepth/rural.asp