By Barbara Berst Adams – On-farm visitors can help even the smallest farms increase the bottom line. Whether a farm is full-time or part-time, many very small farms are coming up with agritourism ideas like offering an herb cooking class on the farm or replacing a less profitable crop with a small u-pick cherry tomato patch. And many don’t realize they’re participating in agritourism, a growing trend to bring the non-farming community onto the farm in ways that are pleasant for the farmer and increase revenue at the same time. According to Purdue University, agritourism is the fastest-growing tourism-industry segment in the United States.
But don’t be fooled into thinking executing agritourism ideas is for the big guys or that you must become a large entertainment destination. The thought of ongoing crowds can unnerve the farmer who purposely chose the peaceful rural or even small town backyard garden life. It’s one thing to chase the dairy goats out of the hay field. But explaining to human non-farmers why they can’t park in the hay field is quite another.
Here’s how that process went for us one year:
Us: Sir, could you back your car off and park where the field is mowed short?
Him: What’s wrong with driving on the tall weeds?
Us: These aren’t weeds, this is our hay crop.
Him: My car doesn’t kill it, does it? They just make it lay flat?
Us: Yes, but when we mow over flattened hay, the mower can’t pick it up so we waste that amount of hay.
Him: Well doesn’t it just spring back up again?
Us: Not necessarily in time, and we’re mowing the field in two days.
Him: Why can’t you wait to mow until it springs back up again?
Us: Because we need specific weather to mow, and the weather forecast says in two days it will be perfect. We can’t just mow whenever we want to.
Okay, you get it. But with agritourism, you don’t have to open the floodgates to high numbers of the general public at all in order to benefit from it financially—which will be explained more fully below. Also, even if you do think you’ll eventually want large agritourist numbers, you can start small at first and gain experience to see if agritourism is a good fit for your farm–while adding a little income during the experimental stage, then growing gently to larger numbers over time if that’s your ultimate goal.
Agritourism Ideas: Even Small Plans Help the Bottomline
The obvious way on-farm visitors help a farmer financially is by bringing them to the farm to buy the farm’s products retail. The costs of extra liability insurance and any visitor set-ups on the farm are weighed against potential on-farm sales with no delivery time or costs to the farmer. Another direct way agritourism helps farmers is if they choose to offer experiences such as tours or farm crop cooking classes for a fee. But the indirect way is customer loyalty and word-of-mouth promotion for the farm. When customers get to know the farmers behind their food, they develop a relationship that no commercial brand can compete with. Plus, people talk about their farm experiences to others in a unique way that tends to be almost magnetic, and free farm promotion spreads to even more potential customers. A one-day pumpkin patch open-house on our farm generated many inquiries from people who heard of our farm through those who had attended our event, including a request to grow a section of pie pumpkins for a large church congregation, and to hire us to bring our ponies for upcoming kids’ birthday parties. When I was on the other side of agritourism — the visitor to another’s farm, the promotional benefits became even clearer. A handful of folks were given a free tour of a local quince farm. The farmers had been selling value-added quince products in the food co-op where I shopped regularly for years, but I’d never noticed their products. After that tour, their products stood out to me on the shelves, and I purchased them and told others about them.
Agritourism Ideas: Start Small, Start Slow, And Start Unique
The following three methods to gently break into agritourism can help you see choices for building your agritourism muscle, and eventually generate revenue in a fashion that reflects what your farm is all about.
Project 1: The One-Day Workshop
Here’s an agritourism idea that will help you test the waters. Host a one-day, one-time workshop that reflects who you are as a farmer, and see how you feel about it. Jessica and Jeremy Little, owners of Sweet Grass Dairy in southern Georgia, started their agritourism venture by giving appointment-only guided tours, which boosted sales of their cheese and added another revenue stream.
But at the time, Jeremy was living just one of his dreams as a dairy farmer. He also would’ve enjoyed being a chef.
“He is an amazing cook and really loves food,” says Jessica. So when a customer inquired about artisan cheese-making classes so she could learn how to make cheese at home, Jeremy tried out a one-day class with a small group of a half a dozen or so and liked it so well, he continues to offer the workshops based on customer requests.
This offered him another stream of agritourism income that also satisfied his appetite for preparing artisan foods. Maybe small-scale cheese-making classes wouldn’t authentically represent the personality of another dairy farmer, but they’re perfect for the one operated by the Littles.
Perhaps you aren’t a great teacher but know others who are talented at teaching flower arranging, cooking, bird watching or composting. You can offer your farm as a location for a one-time event, either charging rent directly to the teacher or splitting profits on fees per head, making sure there’s a limit to the number of attendees. With this type of partnership, the teacher can be responsible for soliciting students and collecting fees.
If you’re doing your own promotion for a first small on-farm workshop, advertise it online and in local classifieds, ask store owners if you can put up fliers (such as a cooking demonstration flier at a kitchen shop), and limit the number to four to six paid attendees, allowing a waiting list in case any cancel at the last minute. Don’t hold on to expectations about how it’s supposed to turn out; just do it once and assess afterward how you feel about it.
Project 2: The Small-Group Farm Tour
You might be enticed by the idea of thousands of paying tourists flocking to your farm.
The thought of a year’s worth of Sunday afternoon tours and 7,000 annual visitors at $10 a head does sound good—plus the added retail income from on-farm purchases made by all those customers. But unpredictable crowds and exhausting tourist disasters can result from jumping in too deep, too fast.
If you want to give farm tours, consider starting with “pre-made groups” first for building up your crowd-pleasing agritourism savvy and confidence.
Instead of calling in the general public, start by targeting an existing group. For example, contact a member of a local garden club to gauge interest in touring your farm. Send the members fliers for an exclusive walking tour at $5 per head paid in advance.
This lets you know ahead of time about how many people will show up and that those people should be well-behaved because the members already co-mingle on a regular basis.
As another method for testing this agritourism idea as touched on above—connect with one teacher at the local elementary school and invite her classroom out for a tour at $3 to $7 per head. In this case, you’ll have a teacher familiar with his students who will help control the behavior of the young tourists who have already had practice at being together as a group. The teacher already knows which ones are apt to behave and which would ignore the instructions for keeping the gates closed.
Another small group to solicit is your local Slow Food community. Go to the Slow Food USA website to see if there’s a Slow Food “convivium” in your area. These members often enjoy farm tours and are happy to pay an entry fee to support the farmers and to buy locally farmed products during their visit.
Open houses are more casual than farm tours but can have the same impact. Host a one-time Saturday open house for a local church or the regional Audubon Society.
Other pre-made group opportunities include your region’s Society of Retired Citizens, veterans associations, or civic and ethnic organizations. Don’t be shy to explain that fee-based farm events help local farms stay financially stable, but if you have enough on-farm retail products to sell, you might choose to not charge for tours and instead use your retail as the agritourism income stream.
One common example of this is the pumpkin patch farm that offers a free “haunted barn” to entice more customers to visit the farm and subsequently buy the farm’s autumn crops. As mentioned, it’s valuable, indeed, when you don’t have to ship products, rather you have customers gladly arrive at your door to pay retail.
If you want to test out-of-area tourists on a small-scale basis, network with another small, local tourist attraction, such as a bed and breakfast or antique shop, offering fee-based Saturday afternoon tours exclusively to their customers. When only that business’s customers get to experience your farm, it adds value to that business’s products or services, as well. They can promote your exclusive offer to their customers in a variety of ways. Just make sure you don’t sign long-term agreements in case you want to keep this business relationship as a one-season experiment. No other groups should be allowed onto the farm while such an agreement is made. Yet you should also have an outlet in writing you both agree on to where, if the business doesn’t seem to be doing any enthusiastic promoting of your farm, you’re free to move on to other sources.
Project 3: Test a Small U-Pick Patch
Plant a half acre of an annual crop that’s popular as a u-pick: consider growing pumpkins, flowers, small tomatoes, berries, sweet corn or green beans.
Or, tape off a small segment of an existing crop area and test the waters as a u-pick operation. This is a small-scale way to discover what it would be like to have customers harvesting your fields. Many u-pick-operation owners find it satisfying, which might explain why u-pick is one of the oldest and most familiar forms of agritourism.
Large numbers of people filling your fields can be overwhelming at first. Gain experience and foundational insight with small, controlled numbers. If you already have a several-acre sweet corn patch or a full-production blueberry field, for example, use temporary fencing or tape and mark off a just a small segment. Perhaps advertise it as open by appointment for adults only before opening up to families. Or, try having u-pick hours for a limited number of hours per day during your ripening season. Be prepared to harvest any remaining crops as usual that don’t get picked. Once you’ve tried this agritourism idea, you can decide if you want to open up more of your fields, plant more u-pick crops, allow children or solicit more u-pickers.
What Agritourism Idea Should You Choose?
Think out of the box when choosing an agritourism idea, especially during this flexible test stage. There’s nothing wrong with the usual corn mazes and hayrides.
But do you, as a farmer, grow or feed corn? How about hay? If corn and hay are your farm’s crops or something actually used on your farm, they would be authentic agritourism expansions that reflect your farm. If not, they can become overdone Old McDonald stereotypes that don’t reflect what you really produce or the treasury of what sustainable small farms have to offer.
The lavender farmer might be better off offering walking field tours, and the heirloom vegetable grower might do well hosting a food-preserving workshop.
Greenbank Farm, a CSA and mixed produce farm in the Pacific Northwest, hosts an annual poetry festival on the farm. A poetry society arranges the event with readings, workshops and, of course, opportunities to purchase the farm’s products.
If you, as a farmer, are also a poetry fan, antique addict or experienced quilter, you may want to rent out the farm porch for a summer afternoon poetry-writing workshop, hold a single three-hour quilting demonstration in the living room, or convert part of the barn to an antique museum and try a once-a-year, fee-based open house.
As you execute and grow your agritourism ideas, remember to expand your liability coverage and compliance to your local and state regulations. Every location has different rules. In some areas, you may greatly reduce the risk of lawsuits by simply putting specific signage in certain areas on the farm. In other locations, signage may not make any difference. Or, the fact that you’re charging a fee may make a difference in liability issues. Could be a very inexpensive one-time insurance rider will cover you for up to a million dollars for a one-time large even, or your current homeowners’ insurance may already cover you for, say, four non-fee events a year, but you don’t know until you speak with your attorney and insurance agent. Once you know your limits, you can then make better choices on how and when to expand into agritourism.
What agritourism ideas would you add to this list?
© 2014 by Adams & Davis, LLC. Barbara Berst Adams is the author of The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm. She also writes for the Micro Eco-Farming Center at www.microecofarming.com.
Originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.