EXTENSION IMPACT: Connecting Farms, Communities, and Consumers
- By Lisa Chase
Many farms in Vermont and throughout the Northeast are struggling to keep their land in farming and their families employed on their farms while sustainably managing resources for the long term. Suburban sprawl and second home development have led to increases in land values and property taxes, threatening working farms and available farmland. At the same time, tourism and culinary industries are expanding, providing opportunities for farms interested in diversifying and sharing their products, heritage, and landscapes directly with consumers. In Vermont and other Northeastern states, tourism is the first or second revenue-generating source and agricultural operations are in the top ten. The economic impacts of blending tourism and agriculture have significant potential.
Agritourism refers to enterprises and activities that are conducted on farm sites for the education, recreation and enrichment of visitors. Agritourism can take many forms including overnight farm stays, retail sales, hay rides, corn mazes, pick-your-own operations, and use of woodlands on farms for hunting, hiking, horseback riding, and other activities. There may be educational components including programs for schoolchildren and elderhostel tours, as well as exhibits and demonstrations tailored to specific visitor groups. In essence, agritourism is providing educational and authentic agricultural experiences that enhance direct marketing of farm products and improve public support for agriculture. Agritourism enterprises allow farms to diversify their core operations, add jobs for family members and others, and keep land in production while preserving scenic vistas, maintaining farming traditions, and educating non-farmers about the importance of agriculture to a community’s economic base, quality of life, history and culture.
Agritourism is growing rapidly in Vermont and other areas of the U.S., however the industry remains underdeveloped in many states, lacking technical assistance support, infrastructure, and networking opportunities to ensure best practices. To address this need, Extension educators and farmers in Vermont collaborated with other Northeastern states to develop agritourism training modules. With funding from a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Educations (SARE) grant and additional resources, 19 workshops were held between January 2009 and March 2010 in 10 states in the Northeast, and 763 farmers attended. The workshops were followed by technical assistance available to farmers.
A survey immediately after the workshops indicated that 97 percent of respondents increased their knowledge of income-generating opportunities for agritourism, 92 percent planned to assess their business to determine where improvements or new ventures were needed, and 84 percent planned to implement improvements or new ventures. A web survey one year after the workshops found that 81 percent of respondents had assessed their business to determine where improvements or new ventures were needed while 64 percent had implemented improvements or new ventures. To evaluate contributions to farm viability, increases in farm profitability as well as increases in quality of life of farmers were measured. Of farmers responding to the survey, 64 percent reported a positive impact on profitability and 79 percent reported increases in their quality of life as a result of changes made based on information received through workshops and technical assistance
Trevin Farms of Sudbury is one of the farms benefiting from the Extension program on agritourism. Visitors to Trevin Farms can learn about making goat cheese from the dairy goats on the farm, and they can enjoy a breakfast made from local ingredients when they stay overnight at the farm’s bed-and-breakfast. With assistance from Extension, Trevin Farms reports, “We were able to implement our business plan and reach our goal of increased profitability. Revenue was more than double our expectations.”
Beth Kennett, farmer and innkeeper at Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester regularly participates in workshops and programs offered through Extension. Liberty Hill Farm’s dairy business is complemented by a farm stay bed-and-breakfast and maple syrup production. With three generations of the Kennett family living on the farm, diversification is key for providing stability when milk prices fluctuate. Beth explains, “I am constantly learning and adapting my business. There are few opportunities other than Extension for business development relevant to agritourism, and the schedule of life on the farm precludes me from finding other sources of continuing education.”
One workshop stands out for Beth as being particularly helpful: Website Tools for Farms, a hands-on workshop held in a computer lab for farms interested in agritourism and direct sales. The workshop was partially funded by a grant from the National e-Commerce Extension Initiative. According to Beth, “I discovered that my website was ‘pretty’ but absolutely dysfunctional. Search engines were not able to read it and, therefore, not many visitors were finding my website and making reservations at the farm stay.” Beth worked with a web service provider found through Extension resources and quickly experienced a dramatic increase in her farm stay business reservations. Beth states, “You don't know what you don't know! I am so thankful that Extension offered this workshop and I attended. It made all the difference in my financial viability last year. Without the changes made, I would not have survived the downturn in the economy.”
Visit http://www.uvm.edu/tourismresearch/agritourism/ for resources to support farms involved in agritourism and direct sales.