“Agritourism” has become an increasingly common term in the ag world, but what is it exactly? Are all farm-based retail operations considered “agritourism,” or merely those which offer farm experiences beyond simply purchasing farm products? If a farm stand includes a petting zoo, should all revenue be considered agritourism-related, or just the fees generated by the petting zoo attraction? What about retail wineries, where the experience of visiting the establishment is a core part of the appeal, but is not directly monetized, instead being indirectly reflected in the sale of wine?
One of the challenges in discussing and measuring agritourism is defining it. A broad definition is “any agriculturally-based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch.” While this may be a good general definition, the boundaries of agritourism activities remains difficult.
Agritourism business models
In addition to challenges in quantifying the impact of agritourism, there exists a broad spectrum of agritourism business models. At one end of the spectrum are businesses that explicitly sell the experience of the farm. In some cases actually putting visitors to work on the farm, while offering meals and lodging as part of the experience. At the other end are farm retail type businesses. The experience and story of “going to the farm” are marketed as part of the appeal of the business.
In between are any number of business enterprises – petting zoos, corn mazes, farm tours, food/wine tastings, events and other experiential offerings – where the farm experience may or may not be directly monetized. Indications are that agritourism has increased significantly in recent years, and many credit the phenomenon with helping smaller farms near population centers, such as many in the Northeast, remain viable.
Pushing the boundaries
Despite the long history of people seeking authentic farm experiences, the emergence of agritourism as a business sector is a relatively recent development. And as with any change, some challenges have emerged.
Agritourism pushes the boundaries of what has traditionally been considered “agriculture.” Neighbor and community-based conflicts have arisen when formerly quiet wholesale farms start attracting large numbers of retail visitors. Special events, such as weddings, can be particularly problematic due to noise, alcohol consumption and timing outside of typical “business hours.” Some object simply due to the fact that agritourism businesses often don’t “look like” some people’s vision of agriculture.
For some businesses that have been particularly successful in marketing their experiences, the core, agricultural activity of the farm may be only a small portion of the enterprise, with a majority of their income coming from their experiential offerings. In other words, the “corn maze” may bring in a lot more revenue than the corn field it replaced. States and municipalities have therefore struggled at times with defining what activities are acceptable and permitted and which are not, as well as with how to define various activities as agricultural in nature or otherwise.
Another challenge has been the health and safety of visitors. Farms come with a number of inherent risks which may be magnified in agritourism cases. Visitors are often unfamiliar with the farm environment, so they may create unsafe situations or unknowingly exacerbate the exisiting risks.
Children can be a particular challenge, as they often do not know or understand the risks involved with farms, animals or equipment, and if injuries or contracted illnesses occur, those involving children can be especially concerning.
Several states and jurisdictions have responded by passing laws that provide limited relief from liability related to farm visitors and agritourism activities, but in most cases, the burden remains on the farm operator to exercise due diligence in providing a reasonably safe facility and experience to the visitor.
Despite the challenges of defining and measuring agritourism, some researchers have attempted to do so. A recent study by the University of Connecticut1 reported sales of agricultural products directly marketed to consumers totaled $74 million, and agritourism-related sales brought in an additional $16 million, in Connecticut alone. Other agritourism studies have shown similar, significant impacts. A 2004 study from Vermont2 concluded that agritourism-related activities on farms totaled $19.5 million, and that one-third of all farms in Vermont received income from agritourism in 2002.
A significant, yet difficult-to-quantify appeal of rural New England is related to the farms and agricultural businesses that dot the landscape. Agriculture generates significant positive externalities in the form of environmental stewardship, the maintenance of a working landscape and offering compelling destinations for visitors to rural communities. Therefore, virtually any study of agritourism-related impacts is bound to underestimate the significance of agriculture to tourism.
Selling an experience
“Sell the story, not the product,” is sometimes given as marketing advice to agritourism businesses. As we move toward an economy where experiences are valued just as much, if not more than tangible products, farmers have a remarkable opportunity to market their businesses not just as suppliers of goods, but as sources of authentic and unique experiences.
Our population has become increasingly removed from agriculture. While this presents a challenge for agricultural producers, it also brings opportunity. Consumers have shown great interest in learning about and experiencing agriculture first-hand, and are willing to pay for it. Many ag businesses find great success with agritourism activities or add value to their products by sharing compelling stories about themselves and their operations.
The Takeaway? There is a wide range of possibilities for ag businesses to harness the opportunity that comes with this growing public interest in agriculture.
1 Lopex, Rigoberto, et al. “Economic Impacts of Connecticut’s Agricultural Industry.” Zwickcenter.uconn.edu, University of Connecticut, Sept. 2017, www.zwickcenter.uconn.edu/news_59_1295854761.pdf.
2 USDA, NASS, New England Agricultural Statistics Service, Vermont Agri-Torusim 2002, April 30, 2004