by Bethany M. Dunbar, December 18, 2009
Agriculture and tourism have always gone together. People come to Vermont to see the beautiful working landscape. The farmers who are keeping it that way don’t necessarily benefit from tourism directly, but they might in the future.
That’s the idea behind agritourism. Keep the farms going so the tourists have something to see, fresh eggs and milk to taste. Give the tourists a more authentic cultural and culinary experience by making these connections.
I always thought the word meant something complicated like a Vermont version of a Dude Ranch out west. Tourists would stay at a farm and learn how to milk a cow, and pay for the experience, and stay in a bunk house and maybe help paint the fences?
But I’m learning that agritourism can be a wide range of options for farmers and for tourists. It could be something as simple as a visitor stopping at Parker Pie to get some pizza with sauce made out of Vermont tomatoes and cheese. Or stopping to see the llamas at a llama farm and maybe buy an ornament made out of their wool. Is wool the right word?
My very first blog subject was dairy farming, and Gloria Bruce of the Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association suggested agri-tourism as a follow-up. So here is the story I wrote about it for the Chronicle (see more related articles on the Chronicle’s web site). Of course there’s more to it and there will be more meetings, and more ideas, and so on. This is an area with huge potential it seems.
I didn’t get everything into this story that I had wanted to, but one thing I have learned in the newspaper business — there’s always next week.
This is a start. Here is the story I wrote about the meeting in Newport recently.
I’m a bit up in the air about posting something next week due to the holidays, so let me say right now, I hope you find yourself with family and friends to celebrate in whatever fashion you prefer.
Thanks for reading.
Agritourism trends create possibilities for farmers
by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, November 25, 2009
NEWPORT — What do farmers need in order to make agritourism work for them on some level?
That was a core question asked at a forum at the Gateway Center on Wednesday, November 18.
Answers ranged from money for a public bathroom to mixers — meetings where farmers might get together and figure out ways to connect. One woman wondered how to find people who might want the fiber from her llamas.
Many said they want to farm — not do marketing. But they could take advantage of a group web site or other group marketing activities.
Connections could be helpful for small regional groups, some suggested. For example, if a tourist comes to stay at a bed and breakfast they might wonder what to do in the area. A link could be made with a farm or two in the area to set up tours. Someone staying in Craftsbury or Hardwick could conceivably visit a worm farm, a llama farm, cheese caves, a vegetable farm, and cow and sheep dairy farms all within a close distance.
Agritourism includes wood products as well, including Christmas trees and people who make things to sell out of wood.
Bill Schomburg of Columbia, New Hampshire, said he made a connection with the Balsams Grand Hotel in Dixville Notch, and that has helped his Christmas tree farm tremendously. Visitors come to stay at the Balsams and get a tour of the tree farm. Each visitor can go out and pick out a tree and put a ribbon on it. That tree will be shipped to that person at Christmas time.
One suggestion was a passport program or a tour map similar to Open Studio Weekend for artists and crafts people. Farmers said one problem with tours is that they sometimes take time and don’t necessarily lead to income for the farmer. But if a more formal tour was set up with a cost, and that income was divided among the farms on the tour, it would be worth taking some time, some said.
“The goal for us with tourism is to protect and employ what we love about our home,” said Gloria Bruce of the Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association (NEKTTA) as she opened the meeting.
She said tourism can help the economy, but if it is done without forethought it can harm an area.
NEKTTA is working with the University of Vermont Extension, the Northwoods Stewardship Center and the Nulhegan Gateway Association on a regional agritourism initiative.
Agritourism does not have to be as formal as an overnight stay on a farm.
“Not all farmers are interested in tourism,” Ms. Bruce said in a telephone interview before the forum. They still might be able to take advantage of agritourism by finding local restaurants or bed and breakfasts that could sell or serve the products that they grow.
She said Jay Peak is linking with area farmers for two reasons — tourists come to Jay to see the dramatic scenery on its flanks, as she put it — and that scenery is farm land. The new hotel restaurant is going to feature black and white photographs of farmers who are providing food served at the mountain.
Agritourism is a growing phenomenon, Ms. Bruce said.
“It is on fire in terms of publicity,” she said. Tourists from Montreal and Boston are looking for an experience that will include dining on local foods and possibly visiting local farms as well.
The trend has generated phrases to describe itself such as “farm to table,” “pasture to plate,” and “culinary tourism.” Farm to table tends to be about vegetables while pasture to plate is about meat.
Whatever the phrase, Ms. Bruce says the trend is growing.
“The demand has risen exponentially.”
Area farms can take advantage of tourists’ desire to visit them and try their products, but there might be issues with visitors that a farmer hasn’t even thought about — for example, a five-year-old city visitor touching the electric fence.
Farmers who truly want to host tourists have to think about their facilities in a different way, she said.
“The first time that a traveler walks through your barn it needs to be kind of stage ready.”
Nancy Kish of Agape Hill Farm in Hardwick said during the Gateway Center forum that she is already doing agritourism.
She offers llama walks and birthday parties. People can buy fiber ornaments shaped like hearts and llamas.
“I have more ideas than I have time to develop,” she said.
But she said she recently learned how to put up a Facebook page and could mentor someone else who wants to do the same thing.
Her other problem is funding for a public bathroom. If the tour is short, the bathroom is not needed. But sometimes it would be helpful, she said.
Lynette Courtney of the Down to Earth Worm Farm in Greensboro Bend said time is a problem on their farm as well. She uses worms to make compost, and she has a nursery and offers gardening services.
“We do not have a day off between May and November,” she said. In the winter they have nothing but time — and no income.
Where she lived before, (ten years ago) she could get jobs going into the schools to do presentations about the worm farm and plants that they grow and sell in her greenhouse. These one-day jobs would pay $150. But in Vermont there is a master gardener program that offers the same thing for free.
After discussion in two smaller groups, a consensus was reached that the most important priority should be product development, then marketing. It would be a bad idea, some suggested, to market farm tours through some kind of passport program before the farms were really ready to host tourists.
Another forum on the subject of local farms and food is planned for December 3 at Lake Region Union High School. The Sustainable Agriculture Council, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, the Northeastern Vermont Development Association and the Center for an Agricultural Economy will host the meeting, one of a series of meetings around the state, to get opinions and create a ten-year plan to strengthen Vermont’s food system.