Creating ways to fit tourism onto the farm can go a long way in increasing farm revenue. There are numerous ways of attracting people. Whether they are visitors, guests, members or tourists, the primary purpose of bringing people to the farm is ultimately to increase farm viability. These people are customers.
With today’s growing emphasis on agritourism and on-farm activities and events, it often seems like the idea of the farm itself is the product being sold: the barn; the rolling fields of crops; the livestock grazing on pasture; and the vistas. The serenity of farmland stretching on for acres is a hot commodity. That might fit well into the “tourism” part of agritourism. But forgetting the agricultural, working farm part of the equation shouldn’t be an option. Drawing attention away from farms as places that grow food while also protecting open, productive and attractive acres of land, can send the wrong message about the value of farmland and farming.
When the agricultural component is overshadowed by the entertainment factor, concerns with noise, zoning and neighbor complaints often arise. When farms are located in suburban areas, or close to population centers, revenue from non-farm production activities can be substantial, if not controversial.
For farmers seeking to explore agritourism options, defining whether that tourism component will be primary, secondary or complementary to actual farm production is an important clarification. Agritourism is a “completely different dynamic,” from production farming, Steven Komar, Agricultural Agent, and Department Head, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Sussex County, New Jersey, said. Farmer temperament, farm location, labor availability and costs, zoning issues, the farm’s mission and goals, and the time is taken from actual farming will all play roles in deciding what degree of agritourism is right for your farm.
But either way, many farmers today are “making a larger portion of their farm gross income on agritourism,” Komar said.
Touring to promote the farm
On any given weekend, bicyclists zooming along the narrow, winding back road on where LL Pittenger Farm, in Sussex County, New Jersey, is located just might be an annoyance. After all, livestock farmer Louis Tommaso is moving large equipment along the roadway, sometimes transporting animals, and those riders can interfere a bit with his normal routines. Sometimes getting the job done as efficiently as possible doesn’t lend itself to patience.
But on one particular September Saturday, Tommaso, along with a select group of other farmers in northwestern New Jersey, will be prepared for an onslaught of cyclists, as the annual Tour De Farms New Jersey has cyclists pedaling from farm to farm, with a final stop for an on-farm, farm-to-fork dinner. The tour route offers several bicycle touring options. This year, it is being held in several locations, on separate dates, offering participants the opportunity to visit farms spread across three rural counties. Participating farmers will be selling their products, offering samples, and inviting tour riders onto the farms to see farm life up close and personal.
As the practice of buying directly from the farm has changed some consumers’ shopping habits, there is some question over whether these types of events are a one-and-done deal. Event visitors enjoy the farm and the event activities, and perhaps make same-day purchases if they came prepared – or if tour organizers offer them coolers and purchase transport to do so. Getting them to return to the farm routinely to continue making purchases from the farm, however, isn’t always a given.
Tommaso, along with Doug Race of Race Farm, in Blairstown, New Jersey, are both participating for their second year. Race Farm hosts the event dinner as well as the starting point breakfast. They both give credit to organizer Mitch Morrison, of Economic Green Solutions, LLC, for making the event successful. Coolers, secure holding areas for purchases, and an emphasis on promoting the local farm products and tasting the food they produce helped to encourage event-day sales. Both farmers also feel that participants have returned to purchase their products, whether from the farm directly or via their farmers market sales.
The Tour De Farm’s farm-to-fork dinner was a success, and past participants are already signing up again for this year’s dinner, Race said. Learning from the first year’s experience, chefs and servers will not be event volunteers, but will be paid staff, keeping the event running more smoothly, Race said. Limiting the number of guest tickets to best fit the farm venue is another important consideration.
Race Farm, a diverse multi-generational family farm, also hosts educational school tours during the apple-picking season and offers other pick-your-own crops, including a variety of fruits and vegetables. They offer an on-farm stand and picnic area, an off-farm market, and participation in numerous local and New York City-based farmers markets. The farm also sells their its own value-added soups, as well as other prepared foods.
While events such as this, organized by an entity outside of the farm itself, are becoming popular, farmers are also organizing their own on-farm special events. At Race Farm, they’ve found that hosting other small on-farms events occasionally throughout the season are a viable means of attracting customers and increasing sales of farm products.
At LL Pittenger Farm, Tommaso has found success this season with a weekly event of his own: an on-farm open house evening. Tours of the farm via hay wagon are offered. A local mobile pizza maker has pizza for sale, topped with a variety of LL Pittenger Farm meats. The farm’s meats are available for purchase, and guests are invited to linger and enjoy the farm atmosphere. Tommaso has found that many customers attending are those who already purchase from him at farmers markets in nearby suburban and urban areas, and are eager to see exactly where and how the meat is raised and to connect with the actual farm itself. Turnout has been growing each week, with new faces and repeats visitors, he said, as word of mouth spreads.
Promoting the farmer, the farm and the food produced is the purpose and mission of Vermont Farm Tours (http://www.vermontfarmtours.com). Full or half-day tours, workshops, and on-farm events are all a part of the selection offered here.
“I aim to introduce both locals and visitors to the people, places, and food that define Vermont. I want my guests to become a part of Vermont’s evolving agricultural story,” Chris Howell, owner of Vermont Farm Tours, said. “Farm tours provide a vital bridge between food and the people who make it. When a guest experiences real food on the farm it comes from, she’s going to think differently about food at the grocery store from the area she lives in, and is more likely to seek out a relationship with nearby producers and share that connection with others.”
Howell doesn’t view the farm simply as a pretty site and a backdrop for tasting the food, but as a business that grows the food, acts as an environmental steward, and provides a living to the farmer. The underlying story of the farmer who grew the food being enjoyed on the tours is key, and serves as an impetus to increases local food sales, he said.
“Tasting real food on the soil it comes from, with the person who made it, will create a lifetime customer,” Howell said.
Finding the fit
Events of all types require various inputs of time and labor to organize and to run. Employees to meet, greet and direct guests, make sales, and answer questions are vital for anything beyond a small self-serve farm stand or u-pick venture. Signs directing customers to public areas posted farm rules and an emergency contact number is recommended at a minimum for visitor safety and farm liability reasons whenever visitors venture beyond the farm gate.
Howell prepares ahead of time with host farms, and safety is always a concern.
“Make sure the visit is structured such that guests avoid dangerous areas. Just be clear about what guests are supposed to do and where they are supposed to be,” Howell said.
Farmer temperament, staffing and labor concerns, farm location, zoning laws, farm liability insurance, and any infrastructure needed such as parking and bathrooms are some of the things to be considered before embarking on any agritourism venture. Hosting visitors takes time and effort. Doing so should reflect the farm’s underlying mission and goals and be incorporated into the overall business plan.
“The farms that I work with most often tend to be welcoming hosts, reliable communicators, great storytellers, located nearby to other farms for convenient driving or biking, and, most importantly, make quality products that highlight place,” Howell said. “I try to work with producers who benefit from my groups, whether by fulfilling an educational mission, through direct sales, or by receiving a powerful marketing opportunity. I aim for my hosts to get more than a good feeling from our partnership.”
Agritourism, even when events are organized by an outside entity, can take time and focus away from farm production. Although visitors are seeking a pleasant environment, working farms do have work to do, and having the picture-perfect farm should not be the priority.
“Presentation is important, but it is only a part of good hospitality. I think it’s important to visit working farms, and guests definitely ‘get it’ provided the farmer is a welcoming host,” Howell said. “A well-presented tasting (and flowers) also go a long way to creating a sense of safety and belonging. Time is better spent sprucing up the farm store and plating a good-looking tasting than moving supplies and equipment.”
For farmers seeking to connect with local customers on a regular basis, Community Supported Agriculture memberships are one way to bring paying customers out to the farm. While on-farm pickup of their shares is typically offered, many CSA farms also host workdays, pick-your-own options, or even cooking lessons for CSA members, increasing their members’ connection to the farm.
Offering farm tours, kids’ farm camps, or even hosting birthday party events on-farm, is another way in which farms encourage visitors. It combines farm-based fun with educational information and experiences, and farm product sales. From dairy farms to vegetable growers, offering community members a chance to experience a day at the farm, often for a fee, is one way of raising revenue, marketing the farm, and perhaps selling the product. Even those who don’t have a retail product to sell might see the benefit from connecting with the community, and providing non-farmers a look at some of the farm’s operations.
“I pay farmers to host my groups. In addition to a $50-100 stipend, producers should also derive an educational, sales or marketing benefit,” Howell said. “But at the end of the day, no one is getting rich from my type of small-scale, guided agritourism. Of equal importance to my financial relationship with the host, farmers is a shared appreciation for teaching visitors who and where real food comes from.”
While receiving a fee to use the farm does help offset agritourism costs and provide some revenue, Howell’s tours are meant to establish ongoing, meaningful relationships with customers who will purchase the farm’s products, and help spread the word about local foods. Farms with online offerings such as wine, cheese, or other value-added products, can even sell to long-distance visitors on a repeat basis, he said.
Agritourism that fits the farm doesn’t turn the farm into an entertainment venue. Instead, it offers customers – and potential customers – an opportunity to connect themselves to the farm, solidifying the relationship between the food they purchase from the farmer, and the farm itself.
Inviting people to experience the farm can be as simple as offering a CSA membership or u-pick operation, or as complex as organizing and hosting large on-farm dinners. Whether choosing to make direct revenue from farm-based events a part of your farm business plan, using farm activities to educate consumers and market your farm, or focusing on bringing customers to the farm to directly increase sales of your farm products, agritourism – done correctly – both enhance the customer experience and emphasizes the importance of actual farm production.