By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer, Colorado
Can inviting farm visitors fuel a successful money making agriculture business? It’s called agritourism and yes, it can!
The words, “fun on the farm,” were probably not coined by a farmer. After all, farming is hard work, but today, people around the country are looking to experience fun on a farm. Through agritourism activities, farmers are finding all sorts of ways to accommodate them, and in doing so, farmers are not only educating the public on their industry, but are running a money-making agriculture business.
Agritourism is a broad term covering a variety of activities that most Americans have participated in at some point, whether they have visited a farm stand or taken their child to a local pumpkin patch.
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Some states are proactively helping farmers add agritourism components to their farms, and one such state is Colorado.
While most people see Colorado as a ski and adventure destination, the state was built on agriculture and it is still a thriving industry. Tourism is Colorado’s second largest industry, and therefore, bringing agriculture and tourism together makes a lot of sense. Today, Colorado is the only state in the country that has dedicated funding for agritourism.
Once the Colorado Tourism Organization created the Colorado Heritage and Agritourism Program (CHAP), they realized that there needed to be another association that could handle things like legislation and fundraising. On January 31, 2014, the nonprofit Colorado Agritourism Association (CAA) was born.
“The Colorado Heritage and Agritourism Program does all the marketing and promotion and the CAA does product development; business planning, website development, legislation, insurance and issues related to sign code and zoning,” says Kelli Hepler, director of the Colorado Agritourism Association. “We are paving the way for folks to step into agritourism here in Colorado.”
Perhaps the most important item the newly formed CAA was able to check off their to-do list was the passage of Colorado House Bill 1280, signed by Governor Hickenlooper on June 6, 2014. The bill provided much-needed legal protection for farmers participating in agritourism by limiting the liability of farmers and ranchers in activities related to this money-making agriculture business.
Even prior to the passage of HB 1280, Colorado’s agritourism industry was growing. According to the 2012 US Census, the newest numbers available, out of 36,000 Colorado farms, 2.4 percent claimed an average of $33,000 per farm in added income from agritourism.
The Living Farm
Tom and Lynn Gillespie of The Living Farm are proof that agritourism isn’t new to Colorado. The farm, located in Paonia, has been in the family for four generations.
The Gillespie family built their first greenhouse in 1987, and in 1990 they started growing hydroponic tomatoes. By the early 90s, people wanted to see what the Gillespies were up to and Lynn started running tours. Today, the farm is a well-oiled agritourism machine and includes five greenhouses, chickens, pigs, turkeys and a large flock of sheep.
The family also owns The Living Farm Café in downtown Paonia, population 1,400. Operated by Lynn and Tom’s son, Chef Mike Gillespie, the café serves farm-to-table meals with almost 100 percent of the food served having been raised one-mile away on The Living Farm. The café also serves as an inn, renting the five rooms above the restaurant to hungry tourists.
The Living Farm also sells their goods at local grocery stores and through their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
In the beginning, Lynn Gillespie’s farm tours were free, but she quickly realized that she couldn’t get any work done with people popping in at all hours of the day.
“We’ve formalized the tours,” she says. “We’ve set up a program where people can drop in and tour at specific times or they can get online and request a group or VIP tour. Folks can go to www.thelivingfarm.org/farm-tours and see how we set them up.”
Gillespie also started charging for her tours; individuals are $6, groups start at $25 and a VIP package that includes an overnight stay at the inn and breakfast at the café is $160.
“If someone goes to the movies they pay $8 to $10 for a ticket,” says Gillespie. “Farmers need to know that they do not need to tour everybody for free.”
The Living Farm does offer one free program. Lamb Loving takes place Wednesday to Saturday throughout the spring lambing season. In the evening, from 7 to 8 p.m., guests may visit the barn and cuddle with lambs.
“When I set a lamb in a person’s lap, I don’t care what age the person is, their face beams like it is Christmas morning,” says Gillespie. “If I can give that kind of joy to someone for just 30 minutes, it’s totally worth it and I think that’s what this is all about.”
At the beginning of the year, Gillespie sits down and decides how much interaction The Living Farm will have with the public and she sticks to her rules. The farm comes first, of course, and she stresses that anyone interested in going this route with their farm or ranch must realize this money-making agriculture business is different than farming.
“You’ve got to greet visitors with a smile,” she says. “This is not making produce. It’s a service and your tour has to be well thought out. Your place needs to look nice and you have to be nice.”
The Horse & Hen
Ryan and Rachel Wattles joke that their foray into agritourism was an accident, although Ryan admits that for him it presented the opportunity to quit his day job and stay on the ranch full time.
Their family ranch is located in Hayden, Colorado, population 1,800. Just 20 miles west of Steamboat Springs, the ranch was bought by Ryan’s great-grandfather in 1935. Seventy-five years later, Ryan and Rachel, with their 6-week-old daughter in tow, moved from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Hayden to work the ranch.
In the beginning, the Wattles raised goats and hay, but have since sold the goat herd and are turning their attention towards cattle. The property includes three residences; two historic homes and a brand new country-style house. As soon as the big house was built the Wattles began hosting a steady stream of friends and relatives who wanted to have a farm experience.
“Everyone who visited had a ball and loved it here,” says Rachel. “That’s sort of what put the idea of starting a bed and breakfast in our heads.”
The Wattles decided to explore agritourism in Colorado and toured the areas where it was happening. After this tour, they assessed their ranch and their personal skills and decided that adding a bed and breakfast made sense as a money-making agriculture business.
Making the dream a reality, however, wasn’t an easy road. Rachel discovered that there were a tremendous amount of county government hoops to jump through, and finding insurance to cover the “farm stay” portion of the business was tough. In the end, they couldn’t afford an insurance package that would cover horseback riding, so they cut out that part of the original business plan.
While guests can’t ride any of the Horse & Hen’s horses, there are lots of other farm and ranch activities that they may participate in including milking Norma the cow, collecting eggs and helping in the garden. The area around Hayden is rich in birding and hunting so the Wattles are working to tap into that lodging market as well.
While the bed and breakfast is booked solid during summer weekends, the Wattles want ranching to remain their focus. For instance, every animal on their ranch serves a purpose. The chickens give eggs, the cow gives milk, the pigs are raised for meat and the Great Pyrenees dog watches closely over their few remaining goats.
“We don’t want this to be a horse and pony show,” says Rachel. “This is a real working ranch.”
Today, Rachel works one-day a week as an art teacher at the local school and Ryan spends his time working on the ranch where he occasionally uses a team of draft horses; an ode to the way his grandfather and great-grandfather worked the ranch in the past.
Ryan’s favorite part of running the bed and breakfast is watching guests’ children connect with ranch life.
“To me, it’s really important that kids have the opportunity to see this type of lifestyle because only two percent of Americans are in agriculture today,” says Ryan.
The Wattles now have two girls and believe the toughest thing about adding an agritourism component to their farm was determining their personal boundaries and meeting the expectations of their guests. Their home, for instance, is off limits to guests. Rachel has also turned off her online booking option because she likes to connect with people via phone or email when they book a room.
“A lot of people think that they are going to be staying in our family home or that they will be having dinner with us, which is not the case,” she says. “Having email or phone contact with them lets me explain what we are really all about here. It lets me set expectations in advance.”
The Mountain Goat Lodge
Nestled in the hills outside of the artsy community of Salida, Colorado, population 5,400, is a bed and breakfast with a goat twist. This unique lodging establishment is home to goats, chickens, ducks, dogs, a llama and a cat.
Gina Marcell ran a goat rescue outside of Seattle, Washington, for a number of years, but longed to be in the sunshine. She wanted a place where she could raise goats and run a money-making agriculture business, and in 2010 she found a bed and breakfast for sale in Salida. She moved her small farm to Colorado and opened the Mountain Goat Lodge.
“When I wrote my business plan, I wrote that goats were going to be an integral part of the business. To me, it’s all about the goats, and the bed and breakfast is just sort of a front for having them,” says Marcell. “I also stated in my business plan that I wanted to educate people and enlighten them on how wonderful goats are.”
Marcell is doing just that. Her bed and breakfast is busy year round with workshops on goat care, cheese making and raising backyard chickens. She recently played host to a yoga retreat, introducing her establishment to an entirely new demographic, as well as workshops on subjects like soap-making and canning.
In addition to the workshops and livestock, Marcell grows a flourishing garden despite her farm being located at more than 7,000 feet above sea level. She utilizes a large, round greenhouse that also serves as a cold weather getaway for her guests.
Thanks to the greenhouse and the chickens, Marcell’s breakfasts are farm fresh throughout the year.
Marcell has found the internet to be an invaluable resource for agritourism information and help.
“There are forums, Facebook pages, and associations,” says Marcell. “You can get a lot of help from people who are already doing this. When something weird comes up, you can go online for help.”
They recently just opened cute “glamping” cabins for the more modern tourist.
Connect, Connect, Connect
The Living Farm, Horse & Hen, and Mountain Goat Lodge all have one thing in common: their owners have made connections with their visitors and their communities.
The Wattles’ bed and breakfast stays full thanks to the personal connections they have made with their guests.
“Word-of-mouth has been huge for us,” says Rachel. “That’s pretty much all the marketing we’ve done besides the website and Facebook.”
As The Living Farm has proven, the farm-to-table, or farm-to-fork, movement is another way for farmers to get connected.
“With the farm-to-fork movement and the interest in local food, people are shopping at farmers markets and this has helped consumers get to know the farmer personally,” says Penny Leaf, agritourism coordinator in the University of California Small Farm Program.
Hepler, director of CAA, adds that consumers seem to care about farming much more than they used to and she points out that meeting a farmer often results in a willingness by the consumer to pay a higher price for that farmer’s product.
Lynn Gillespie thinks it goes even deeper.
“I think it’s important for farmers in agritourism to remember that people are coming to your farm to get connected and it’s important to connect them,” she says. “Whether you connect them through a cute little sheep or chicken, you need to fulfill that need — that hole in them that needs to be filled.”
The Rest of The Story
Colorado is not the only state where agritourism is flourishing. Colorado crafted HB 1280 on a successful Maine agritourism bill and agritourism success stories can be found in California, Vermont, New Jersey, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
A recently released study of Tennessee’s agritourism industry by researchers with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture estimates that the economic impact of agritourism in the state more than doubled between 2006 and 2012.
While states like Maine and Colorado have passed bills that allow farmers and ranchers to run their agritourism operations with some liability protection, not all states have passed such legislation. In California, a state that’s been involved in agritourism for more than 50 years, no such legislation exists.
“Every county has their own rules and California has 58 counties,” says Leff. “So in each county there is a very slow movement to revise their general plans and ordinances so as to loosen some of the regulations. But permitting is probably the biggest challenge and liability is also a challenge.”
Leff went on to say that most of the agritourism in California is organized on a local level with county associations, farm trail groups and groups of farmers who are doing collaborative promotions of their farms and region.
Cooperation seems to be a key factor to successfully implementing agritourism as a money-making agriculture business.
There are several national organizations that can help a business with agritourism. The North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA) is a “membership-based trade association dedicated to providing endless peer-to-peer learning opportunities, connections, and resources, for farmers who are passionate about the business of agritourism and farm direct marketing” (www.farmerinspired.com).
The National Agritourism Promoters Association (NAPA) works to create sustainable prosperity for agritourism venues through commitment to research, current information and personal mentoring.
The Gillespies, Wattles, and Marcell, stress the importance of taking small steps towards the agritourism implementation. A farmer may want to start with just one farm tour a month, in the beginning, to see how it goes.
“Hospitality is a big part of agritourism and it’s not for everybody,” says Hepler.
Leff urges farmers to check with their neighbors and county government before wading into agritourism waters. She warns that upset neighbors are sometimes the biggest barrier to a successful agritourism business.
For those who do take the plunge and do it properly, agritourism has many rewards, and the industry continues to grow.
“There is a big demand,” says Leff. “The tourism industry is very anxious for more places they can write about and more places they can send people. Right now, agritourism is really exciting.”
Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is a freelance writer from Loveland, Colorado, and specializes in travel and tourism.
Things to Know Before Starting Your Agritourism Business
Is It Legal?
It’s important to check with your county government before starting any agritourism business no matter how small. There may be county rules regulating what you can and can’t do on your land. Beware of the rules before spending any time or money on agritourism.
Will It Bother Your Neighbors?
Neighbors can be the biggest challenge to a farm that wants to start agritourism on their property. Will your neighbors mind the increased traffic? Will your neighbors mind the signage? It’s wise to chat about your agritourism ideas with your neighbors before moving ahead with any plans.
What Is Your Liability?
When you invite someone onto your land, you are subject to legal liability if they get hurt. While some states have passed legislation limiting liability for farmers involved in agritourism, many have not. However, there are ways to limit your liability even without legislation in place. Go online to see the “Top 10 Ways to Limit Your Liability When Visitors Comes to Your Farm” by Anita K. Poole, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Do You Understand Hospitality?
Hospitality is the friendly reception and treatment of guests and strangers. Hospitality is vital to a successful agritourism business, and while agritourism occurs on a farm or ranch it is very different from farming and ranching. Take an assessment of your personal skills and those of your employees before embarking down the agritourism path.
Author’s Note: “Biosecurity” involves preventative measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious diseases in crops and livestock. According to the individuals interviewed for this article, biosecurity is a non-issue when it comes to agritourism. In these cases, farmers are not worried about the public bringing infectious livestock diseases onto their farms because it is unlikely these visitors have been around livestock. Biosecurity is more of a concern for large, industrial-sized farms and ranches, and these types of businesses do not usually participate in agritourism activities.
Originally published in Countryside September/October 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.