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Growing agritourism and farm-based education in West Virginia

By: Dee Singh-Knights, Ph.D., WVU Extension Specialist – Agribusiness Economics and Management, West Virginia University Extension Service Agriculture and Natural Resources

More and more producers, especially women, are recognizing the opportunities inherent in agritourism and farm-based education. They see it as an extended growing season, where visitors yearning for fresh recreational, educational and social experiences, are ripe for the picking.

Agritourism is the practice of making farms travel destinations, and current U.S. travel industry trends are a natural tie to agritourism. Today’s travelers are taking an increased number of shorter family-oriented “staycations,” within driving distance of home, and planning those trips last minute. Visitors also are looking for unique experiences with a “social connection,” and hoping to combine recreation, education and social interaction into these experiences. And while many farm operators started in agritourism as an opportunity to supplement their farm income or to diversify their farm risks and protect themselves from fluctuations in their markets, many are equally enthusiastic about sharing their passion for agriculture, commitment to land stewardship and preserving rural cultures and traditions.

As opportunity knocks in the form of an increasingly savvy customer base, agritourism operators stand ready to help them connect to the farm. They help visitors understand where and how food is produced and the healthfulness and carbon footprint of food consumed, as well as what makes West Virginia farms and landscapes truly unique and a great value as a travel destination. West Virginia is uniquely positioned to capitalize on opportunities in agritourism, having the highest number of family farms per capita in the nation and more than 20,000 small and/or part-time operations.

Agritourism is recreation and education at its finest. Visitors might tour an orchard; pick pumpkins, apples, berries, and other produce; or they may navigate corn mazes or enjoy hayrides, barnyard animal visits, and local treats, as well as many other “fun things to do” on the farm. But agritourism is much more than recreation or entertainment. When done right, agritourism can be used as a form of “place-based” and “hands-on” learning that connects kids and adults to the environment, their community and the vital role that agriculture plays in our daily lives. Visitors can combine farm recreation with activities that explore how to make jams and jellies or discuss the artful process of tapping maple trees to get delicious West Virginia maple syrup. They can learn how to turn fleece into a cat’s toy or create felted sculptures. Farm stays, on-farm festivals or events, wildlife viewing, star-gazing, photography or farm chores are unique ways to take advantage of visitors’ hunger for authenticity, and connect them to the food, people, landscape and culture of West Virginia.

In a recent conversation, an agritourism operator said it best when he told me, “While educating visitors about local agriculture in the market, I see light bulbs go off sometimes when they begin to realize the role their decisions as consumers play in our economy and even our heritage.” Many practitioners have promoted agritourism and farm-based education as one of the most effective and promising forms of environmental, experiential and place-based education because of the innate ability in all people to connect to farms.

Creative ideas for agritourism activities are unlimited, but agritourism is not for everyone. Before implementing a new farm adventure, you will need to analyze the fundamental business competencies required to successfully manage the synergy between operating a farm and operating a tourism enterprise on a farm. A successful agritourism operation requires the agritourism operator to consider the impact of the tourism enterprise in relationship to the farm’s character, values, goals and financial resources. Be sure to consider the following critical questions before you jump head first into any agritourism enterprise:

  • Assessing your Agritourism Potential:  What experiences can I offer visitors that will make my operation unique and profitable?
  • Location:  Does my region have the necessary characteristics to draw people to the area? Does my farm have the necessary resources/characteristics to draw people to this enterprise? Do I have the necessary personal characteristics to make this enterprise successful?
  • Visitors’ Needs and Preferences:  Who is my target market and what products, experiences and amenities are they looking for?
  • Financial Feasibility:  Is my proposed enterprise economically feasible? What are the potential returns relative to the costs from this investment? Are there considerable upfront costs? Do I have the necessary financial resources to make this successful? Will I be able to generate enough cash on a regular basis to pay daily operating expenses? Do I understand how the proposed enterprise affect my whole-farm income?
  • Market Feasibility:  Can I deliver this product at a reasonable cost? Can I attract enough visitors to my enterprise to make it profitable?
  • Legal Liability:  What regulatory and liability risks will I incur from the proposed enterprise? Do I understand how to effectively manage these new risks?
  • Marketing Strategy:  What do I want customers to think of when they hear my business’ name? What is my unique marketing position/advantage? How will I let potential customers know that I am in business?
  • Hospitality and Visitor Management:  Do I have the people skills to deliver a good agritourism product? Do I understand how to manage the visitor experience so I can have repeat customers? Am I open to listening and responding to visitors’ feedback?
  • Partnerships: Who else will I work with to create an attractive regional destination that visitors will be attracted to?

In West Virginia, we are working diligently to help our farm operators take advantage of the growing trend for authentic agritourism experiences. The West Virginia Legislature recently passed a bill to enact the Agritourism Responsibility Act which will provide protection for agritourism businesses by offering them limited liability similar to that of the whitewater and skiing industries.

The West Virginia Agritourism Initiative is a collaborative educational partnership focused on helping agritourism operators building the critical success factors and core competencies needed to grow a successful agritourism operation. To find out more about the WV Agritourism Initiative or how we can help you successfully prepare for undertaking an agritourism operation, please contact Dee Singh-Knights at (304) 293-7606.