by Jack Petree
Jane Eckert, a member of the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame, says, "Agritourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry." And growth, Eckert contends, is likely to continue, driven by a number of factors, including increased interest in local foods, travel industry trends favorable to agritourism, and social change.
According to her website (www.eckertagrimarketing.com
), "People want a new experience--an escape from the stress of traffic jams, office cubicles and carpooling. Parents want their children to know how food is grown and that milk actually comes from a cow, not a carton. Families enjoy a drive to the country and spending the day together, especially in these times."
Eckert should know. Nationally renowned as an expert on agritourism and a sixth-generation farmer's daughter, Eckert grew up with her family's agritourism-focused apple orchard. After earning a degree in business administration, she spent 15 years in corporate America before returning to her roots as vice president of marketing for Eckert's Orchards in Belleville, Ill., some 17 miles east of St. Louis, Mo.
Today the farm is a popular entertainment and tourist destination, attracting more than 400,000 people per year, and Eckert has moved on to her own business, traveling worldwide to promote agritourism, consulting with clients about business and agribusiness issues, and writing articles about the nuts and bolts of agritourism.
What is agritourism?
On her website, Eckert calls agritourism "the crossroads of tourism and agriculture," the place where the public is able to visit working farms and ranches to "buy products, enjoy entertainment, participate in activities, shop in a country store, eat a meal or make overnight stays."
The range of opportunities that farmers, ranchers and others engage in is vast. A California survey based on participants' experiences in 2008 lists more than three dozen kinds of agritourism ventures engaged in one or more broad categories: direct sales, tours and/or lectures, demonstrations, lessons and the provision of other participant experiences, and the provision of special event facilities.
An undated examination of the agritourism phenomenon by Kansas State University expands on the definition of the sector: "Agritourism is one dimension of a broader global agricultural theme known as multifunctionality. Agriculture may be defined as multifunctional when it has one or several roles or functions in addition to its primary role of producing food and fiber. These additional functions might include agriculture's contribution to long-term food security, the viability of rural areas, cultural heritage, land conservation, the maintenance of agricultural landscapes and agribiological diversity. Policymakers across the globe are stressing the importance of multifunctionality as a social and economic goal, and the concept has become one of the most critical issues surrounding agricultural products at recent World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations."
Why consider agritourism?
"Agritourism is nothing new at this point," Eckert comments. "Most people engaged in agriculture are familiar with the various things others are doing, whether that be corn mazes, farmstands or something else." What is becoming more obvious to people engaged in agriculture is the potential agritourism has for improving the bottom line. "Everybody is looking at alternatives," Eckert says. "Today, most family farms face serious economic challenges from foreign competition and large, corporate farms. Their earnings on commodities and livestock may not even cover production costs. But farmers who sell directly to the public--through fruit stands and farm country stores--and also add special activities for visitors find they can continue farming and make a profit. Agritourism is actually saving thousands of small farms from extinction."
A growing interest in all things rural provides opportunities for economic enhancement, and more farmers are responding. Increasingly, the residents of urban or suburban areas are looking to locally grown foodstuffs for food security and quality, and they are willing to travel a bit to get them.
Eckert's website points to a number of trends, reported by the Travel Industry Association of America, that support the growth of agritourism:
1. Tourists are increasingly traveling by cars.
2. Tourists are taking shorter trips and planning at the last minute.
3. Travelers are looking for new experiences as part of their trips.
4. Families want to strengthen their relationships by being together.
As a result of those trends, by way of example, a University of California research article reported: "More than 2.4 million visitors participated in agritourism at California farms and ranches in 2008."
Room to expand
While well-established in the U.S. as an attraction, agritourism as an industry is just beginning to take off, so opportunities abound for new entrepreneurs to experiment. Eckert points out that U.S. agritourism has much to learn from other areas of the world that are heavily engaged in agritourism. To enhance the learning opportunity, she leads tours to regions renowned for their agritourism approaches, including, most recently, New Zealand and Hawaii, and next year they will visit Italy.
A number of studies in recent years have pointed to the fact that the U.S. is behind other areas of the world in promoting and expanding the farm-based tourism sector of the economy.
The Kansas State study found: "The U.S. is a laggard in the development of its agritourism industry, as this has been a major segment of the rural economy in parts of Europe and Asia for several decades, and in some cases, centuries. For example, agritourism and other forms of on-farm diversification have grown into an increasing requirement for financial stability in farm businesses across Western Europe. About one-third of all farm businesses in the United Kingdom are now engaged in nontraditional agricultural enterprises, and farmer involvement in agritourism in France and Italy is even higher.
"Within the U.S., agritourism has been an important source of rural economic activity in several areas, particularly in the West Coast and Northeast. Agritourism enterprises have typically occurred in small pockets of activity in agricultural production regions of close proximity to metro areas or other tourist destinations. Today, the industry is expanding in scope and scale and drawing significant attention in places like the High Plains and Upper Midwest."
How difficult is it to enter the marketplace?
According to Eckert, entry into the agritourism marketplace is relatively easy. "It can be done one step at a time," she contends. "An owner might have to spruce up the property a bit, but entry does not necessarily require a major financial commitment. You can grow the business over time."
What is necessary, Eckert notes, is to consider establishing an LLC or some other corporate entity; the purchase of liability insurance in an amount sufficient to cover the enterprise adequately; and, something many don't consider before jumping into the marketplace, a commitment to the enterprise.
"Agritourism definitely requires a mental shift," Eckert says. "You're getting into an industry where success is determined by how well you relate to and satisfy the public. This is something you really have to think about, because there are some people out there who really aren't suited for this."
On a family farm, the endeavor requires a commitment from the whole family. "Just one person can't do it," she stresses. "If there is a lack of commitment to welcome visitors onto the farm and make sure those visitors are treated to an experience they will remember and recommend to others, you will have a problem. If you can't all work together as a family, you need to take a close look at whether you ought to jump into the business or not. You need to find commonality, to find goals you can all agree on."
Is agritourism for you?
Industry professionals generally agree that agritourism offers a unique opportunity for farms, ranches and vineyards seeking to improve the bottom line. The economic sector is growing rapidly and appears to be poised for even more significant growth in coming years. Agritourism is an industry an existing agricultural enterprise can ease into, as long as everyone involved in the enterprise is committed to success. For the small farm, a venture into agritourism can mean the difference between continuing to live and work the farm and being forced to consider other ways of life.
The author is a longtime freelance contributor to Moose River Media.
Photos 1 and 4 courtesy of Eckert AgriMarketing; all other photos by Jack Petree.