An Introduction to Agritourism: A Power Tool for Storytelling and Revenue Generation

By Dan Moore, AIANTA’s Tribal Agritourism Consultant

 “With the cattle, we gained the ability to serve the best quality beef available anywhere at any price. [W]e spared no expense in setting up the perfect systems for our agriculture program.” Said Quapaw tribal spokesman Sean Harrison.[1]

Food is a powerful storyteller. It has the ability to connect people to a place or a culture in ways that words alone could never achieve. When food is paired with a glimpse into the passion and skills of those who produce, prepare, or share food it enriches the experience. Agritourism, a portmanteau of agriculture and tourism, is a fast growing subsector of the tourism industry. The origin of the word Agritourism is frequently attributed to Italy where in the 1970s and 1980s many “agritourismos” or lodging on farms, became a popular way to experience the countryside. This is similar in England, where nearly 20% of all farms provide some form of tourism[2]. We now use the term agritourism to describe many types of tourism involving working farms, ranches, and the food and products from farms and ranches. A commonly referenced definition of Agritourism is:  “Business at a working farm?or woodland, ranch or agricultural plant conducted for the enjoyment and education of visitors, while generating supplemental income for the owner.” (Agricultural master Plan for Clackamas County). Some extend this to include aquaculture, fishing and wild crafting or gathering that are reflective of a particular region or culture.  A closely related tourism subsector is culinary tourism: “The pursuit of unique and memorable food and drinking experiences.” (Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance).

Why invest in Agritourism? The economic impact of agritourism has not been thoroughly researched, however, between the 2007 and 2012 censuses, 10,249 farms grossing $546-million in income increased to 13,334 farms grossing $674-million.[3], and more than 75 million people (age 16 and over) visited a farm or agricultural setting from 2005 and 2009, a 28% increase from 2001[4]. A variety of state surveys have indicated an importance to the local farm economy. In California, half the operators responding to a state survey in 2008 reported less than $10,000 in revenues, 30% had annual gross profits of between $10,000 and $99,000, while 21 percent (55) had Agritourism revenues of $100,000 or more[5]. Harnessing this increased demand for culinary and agritourism is a great way to invest in local food systems, provide strong connections to land, and share an integral part of human culture.

But traditional Native American cultivation and harvesting has not been limited to farms and ranches in the modern sense. The vast prairies were the ranches for those who hunted bison. The lakes in the North Woods were the farms for those who harvest manoomin (wild rice). Lush meadows contain bulbs and tubers. The shores of the Salish Sea were dense with berry thickets. Fire was used to manage forests for acorn production in what is now California. The Tlinget practice of placing hemlock boughs in estuaries for herring to lay eggs upon is akin to building a chicken coop and retrieving the eggs laid. These practices live on today using a blending of modern and traditional techniques, and are the types of unique experiences that offer a connection to a place and a culture that travelers are craving. Of course many tribes and native entrepreneurs are also finding success with more classic culinary and agritourism.  

Examples of Agritourism

You-Pick

Perhaps the most common type of agritourism in the United States, A “You-Pick” operation has a dual benefit: the visitor gets to have an on-farm experience, and the farmer gets some help harvesting their crop. Common You-Pick crops include berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries), apples and other tree fruit, and pumpkins. The consumer usually pays by the pound and is directed to specific sections of the farm to harvest. Many farms charge an entrance fee to account for the consumer to graze while picking, and the fact that some visitors are primarily there just for the experience, and may not purchase that much food.

Lodging

Farms and ranches provide a unique lodging experience for visitors. They also help fill a need for lodging in rural areas where there often are not many choices. Overnight visitors add considerably more revenue to a community and can increase viability for amenities that locals will also benefit from such as restaurants, farm stands, and attractions.

Educational Workshops & Classes

People will often travel great distances and / or pay well to learn a new skill from an expert. Visitors for workshops and classes are interested in going more in depth on topics, and will have a greater appreciation for your perspectives and messaging. Choose activities unique to you or your area in order to create an element of exclusivity. Participants can also be great labor to complete a labor-intensive activity such as a construction project.

Petting Zoo

Even if your main operation doesn’t have anything to do with raising animals, having some cute animals for kids to pet is a great way to attract families to your farm. Make sure your animals are well cared for and their enclosures are in good shape, otherwise your efforts could backfire due to appalled guests.

Farm Stand

Without investing money in a retail location, a farm stand gives you an opportunity to sell your goods direct to consumers. Some locations have a pay by the honor system if labor is in short supply.  Location is very important for a successful farm stand. If your farm is not on a major highway or on the road to somewhere travelers travel to, you might consider partnering with other local farms that are. Farm stands work well when combined with other on-farm activities and attractions like tours or special events.

Farm Tours

A strong motivation for agritourism is the opportunity to connect urban dwellers to rural culture and lifestyles. Farm tours help urbanites, who often lack even basic knowledge about how their food and fibers are produced, learn the systems used to produce agricultural products. They are also a great way to get consumers for other farm products and services such as food subscription programs, gift shops, future events, and to make purchases at the farm store.

Festivals and Special Events

Festivals are a great way to introduce people to the products, services, and stories from your community. Examples include harvest festivals like the Wild Rice Festival in Park Rapids, Minnesota, organized in partnership with the White Earth Nation. There are also culinary festivals, and culinary demonstrations held in other festivals, such as powwows.

Additionally, rural landscapes, when well maintained for safety and aesthetics, are sought after locations for weddings and other special events. Weddings especially can be logistically intensive affairs, and often are in demand during prime growing season. It might be beneficial to partner with an event planner and hire specific staff for these events. 

Farm to Table Meals

A blending of culinary and agritourism, farm to table meals offer unique experiences because of the seasonal and site-specific foods presented. The presence of the farmer, though not required, can add to the educational aspect of these meals. Farm to Table can vary from the romantic image of a long table set up in the middle of the farm field to an existing restaurant sourcing the vast majority of its food from local farms. A key aspect is the transparency of where all the food is sourced. Just saying “local” is not sufficient.

Regulatory Challenges

A key impediment to the growth of Agritourism in many communities is variability in zoning and regulations. Agritourism experiences that are successful in some destinations might be illegal or require hard-to-get permits in your area. Because Agritourism crosses many different areas of regulation – food, farming, liquor, public spaces, lodging, land use, etc. – it may be difficult to know if the activity you want to offer is allowed in your area, and often requires working with many regulatory bodies. As sovereign nations, tribes can take advantage of creating their own regulations – balancing the health and safety concerns that regulations are designed to address, while facilitating growth for agritourism. Forming an Agritourism coalition with farmers, tourism professionals, and culinary purveyors could be a good way to tackle the issue together.

Agritourism is not for everyone. It requires charismatic individuals that are passionate about what they produce, and are passionate about sharing their land and the stories of how food is produced and prepared with visitors. While it can take a lot of work, and possibly add work during already busy times, the added revenue and ability to tell your story makes agritourism an attractive option for farmers, ranchers and rural communities.


[1] “Quapaw Tribe’s $1M Processing Plant Will Aid its Farm-to-Fork Goals and Economic Development,” June 21, 2017, Indian Country Today

[2] Rilla, E. 1999. Unique Niches: Agritourism in Britain and New England. Small Farm Center

University of California Cooperative Extension. http://sfp.ucdavis.edu/agritourism/unique_niches/ [accessed 6/2017].

[3] Agritourism profile. Ames: Iowa State University Agricultural Marketing and Resource Center. http://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/agritourism/agritourism-profile/, accessed 2017

[4] Cordell, H. K. 2012 Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futures: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 167 p.

[5] Rilla, E.; H. George. 2011. Agritourism and Nature Tourism in California, 2nd ed. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. 138 p.

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