Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.E-mail: email@example.com
"They leap in the air, do a shimmy, kick a foot in the air, drop down, roll around in circles." Mary Lakner is talking about emus, which she raises on her ranch in Minnesota and which she finds "hilarious when they all get going."
So do visitors, who go to emu ranches to watch the antics as well as see chicks hatch out of dark green eggs and learn about low-fat emu meat and emu oil. While they're at it, the visitors also eat in nearby restaurants, stay in area hotels and buy local goods. What's old- fashioned fun for families is good business for farmers and their home towns. Whether it's to eye emus, milk cows, pick apples or check the chicken coop for eggs, agricultural tourism--agritourism or agritainment--is helping to save the family farm and rejuvenate rural areas.
States, however, have been slow to lend a helping hand. For decades, they've mainly focused on easing the way for farmers to sell their products to large markets here and overseas. Few states have set up agritourism offices. Farmers interested in entering the hospitality and tourism businesses fend for themselves. "Departments of tourism were not on board with the fact that people would travel great distances to spend time on a farm or a ranch doing what farmers do-- and pay for the privilege," says Jane Eckert, whose company, Eckert AgriMarketing, helps farmers get into the business.
In the past two to three years, though, a number of states have come to recognize that there's more at stake with agritourism than may have initially met the eye. It not only can help rejuvenate a rural economy, it can also be a factor in preserving farmland and open space and maintaining a local food chain--an increasing concern in this age of food-borne illnesses, homeland security and transportation problems. Agritourism also plays into an increasing interest among many families in educating their children about farming's link to food--that neither milk nor meat comes from a carton.
A few states are waking up to the industry's potential. This fall, Tennessee and Nebraska hosted their states' first agritourism conferences. Kansas has been even more proactive. It passed a law in 2004 to help farmers with liability insurance--one of the biggest obstacles to agritourism--and created a tax credit that is equal to 20 percent of the agritourism liability insurance farmers buy, up to $2,000 in a tax year. Other states are now following Kansas' lead.
It was a good move on the legislature's part. Agritourism is becoming a big business in Kansas. Visitors can pick pumpkins, run a corn maze and hunt turkey and quail. Near Emporia, they can even help a farmer set his fields ablaze--a tedious chore that a farmer would otherwise have to do for himself and now can have others pay him to let them do.
Nearly 200 agritourism operations have registered with the Kansas Department of Commerce's agritourism program since the beginning of July 2004. In November of that year, the state held a statewide conference that drew 400 participants. "I knew it would be popular, but I was a bit surprised at how many chose to attend," says Janna Dunbar, program manager. "It really showed us that farmers, ranchers and wineries in Kansas are interested in adding this income to their properties."
Vermont farmers wised up to the value of agritainment before it had a catchy moniker. Forty years ago, there were 40 dairy farms in the upper White River Valley. When Beth Kennet and her husband moved to the area more than two decades ago, there were only 11 left. Liberty Hill Farms, the Kennet's place, is now the last remaining milk- shipping dairy farm in the region.
With good reason. When the Kennets started selling their cows' milk, they got $15 for 100 pounds of milk. Today, nearly a quarter-century later, they still get only $15 for 100 pounds of milk. Yet their expenses have nearly quadrupled, and they're competing in a global market. "It puts a tremendous burden on us to be incredibly efficient and really savvy," says Kennet.
Twenty-one years ago, the Kennets started taking guests from around the world into their 10-bedroom farmhouse. Beth Kennet serves breakfast and dinner using locally made products. The farm-stay business now provides about a third of the Kennets' income.
Kennet became a lead participant in developing an agritourism program that started as a pilot project for the state's Department of Agriculture. Now it's in the hands of the Vermont Farms Association. With a decade under its belt, the program seems to be producing solid results. Many Vermont farms offer lodging or enhance their incomes from pick-your-own orchards or some other form of agritourism. Total annual income from agritourism increased 86 percent between 2000 and 2002 to $19.5 million.
North Carolina is another state that is actively nurturing agritourism. With one of the few state agritourism offices, it recently surveyed 600 farmers and found that more than half experienced an increase in the number of visitors over the previous year. Martha Glass, who manages the office, travels the state giving workshops and presentations to farm groups. She helps farmers decide what kind of agritainment business to start up and educates them about what they need to do to bring visitors onto their property. That includes keeping the farm clean, following safety rules, putting up signs about liability and training staff for hospitality. Recent state legislation, like that in Kansas, addresses the liability issue and is designed to reduce the insurance premiums for farmers.
In its efforts to encourage agritourism, Oklahoma is working on ways to bring more international travelers in to visit some of Oklahoma's 84,000 farms. Together with Kansas, Oklahoma has hired a consultant to market their agritourism to people in German-speaking countries and Britain, where people seem to want the experience of being on a working farm, as opposed to a dude ranch. "People are looking for an authentic experience," says Francie Tolle, director of Oklahoma agritourism. "They want to get out of town, not go to a theme park or a chain restaurant."
Andy Callaham, who with two other family members owns a peach orchard in Belton, South Carolina, has seen for himself why extra income is necessary. A generation ago, women bought peaches by the hundreds of pounds to can the fruit and make jams. Now, people buy small amounts of fruit to eat and buy their jams and canned fruit from the supermarket.
To bolster his income, Callaham gives tours and creates farm fun for 8,000 to 10,000 kids a year. The kids race rubber duckies, mine for gems in a bag of dirt, find their way through a corn maze, race one another in an artificial cow-milking game and feed the animals. "You've got to look at what you've already got and what you can do to make it more profitable," he says. "Agritainment is the way to go."
While states may be trying to encourage agritourism, farmers complain that some localities are taking a big cut out of the additional income. Some counties have started to assess farm buildings or side enterprises as retail businesses if, say, jam being sold by the farm is not produced from fruit on that farm.
The owner of a Christmas tree farm in Lexington, South Carolina, for instance, lost his agricultural status on his barn and the land it sits on: There were tables for catered meals that the locality argued should be taxed as a commercial operation. For a lot of these farms, however, the tourism business runs for only two or three months in the summer and fall. The rest of the time, the sole focus is full-time farming.
In some areas, zoning laws created decades ago have prevented farms from opening a produce stand or a bakery on their property. Some localities have laws requiring that as much as 80 percent of what is sold on the property must be grown on the farm in order for the farm to keep its agricultural status. "Counties haven't understood that to keep farms in business, they're going to have to allow them to do other things on their property," Eckert says.
There are other benefits to a locality if it helps a farm stay in business. A big one is the preservation of undeveloped land, which some localities--or even the state--pay landowners for. Pennsylvania has gone so far as to create a development easement program to pay property owners in more populated areas to keep their land green in perpetuity. "You hear politicians holler we need more green space," says South Carolina peach grower Callaham. He points out that his agritourism business allows him to preserve green space for the state. "My place is a big old park that doesn't cost the government anything. I mow the grass, keep it up and people come out here and enjoy it."