No doubt about it. Agritourism may be the fastest growing rural tourism niche in the US. My question, and reason for blogging today is to examine whether agritourism is in fact good for small family farmers. I’d appreciate your thoughts and concerns on this subject as well.
I have a Google Alert set up for agritourism. Four years ago there was an occasional announcement about an agritourism class at some rural ag extension office. Today, I get two or three alerts a day with all kinds of news stories, events announcements and websites.
With agritourism growing, who benefits?
This past weekend I was very fortunate to have Chuck Hassenbrook, Executive Director of Center for Rural Affairs and his Development Director, Hank Rowling visiting my little corner of rural California. We had breakfast with a group of micro-farmers and lunch with another group of family farmers on bigger spreads.
Both groups talked about the challenges of making ends meet these days on a family farm. They talked about the lifestyle requiring sun-up to sundown labor and often one family member working in town to support their “farming habit.”
Would agritourism help these farmers make ends meet?
Perhaps, but one issue that rumbled around in the back of my mind all weekend was, “Why should these family farmers have to become something else besides farmers – innkeepers, guide services, happy makers etc. – in order to be able to afford to grow the food we all need to survive!!!”
There. I’ve expressed my major concern about agritourism.
In an article in the Malone, NY Telegraph, “Why invest in agritourism,” Bernadette Logozar presents a convincing picture of the economic possibilities that come with a robust agritourism operation.
My thought as I read the article was, “When do these farmers have time to farm?”
Agritourism vs. Sustainability
One of the women who sat in on our lunchtime discussion this weekend was born and raised in an Austrian village. She talked about her youth in a truly sustainable environment where all the food and fiber needed by her family and neighbors were produced within walking distance of the village.
After World War II tourism began to become a major economic factor in her area. Villagers turned to more lucrative tourism options like home stays and events, and the area has become an agritourism playground rather than a farm village producing what it needs to survive and flourish.
Back to our original question: Is agritourism good for our small family farmers?
It is true that “consumers are looking for local, fresh, organically or naturally grown products” as Logozar writes in her article. But are they willing to pay the true costs of growing and producing those products?
It feels good to visit a working farm. Our children learn that milk comes from cows and eggs come from chickens. They see the beautiful orchards and gardens from the specially prepared pumpkin patches and corn mazes, and are awakened by the rooster from the bed that had to be freshly made by someone, sometime between milking and weeding.
And when they go home, do they realize that the food they buy from the freezer section, or the meat counter or even the organic section at the local WalMart doesn’t come from a farm anything like the one they visited? Do they even realize that their demands for dollar hamburgers and cheap organics are part of the reason that farmer had to go into the corn maze business?
It makes sense to regulate an operation that produces tens of thousands of pounds of hamburger that is shipped to 40 states. It doesn’t make sense to slap those same regulations on a small farmer essentially making it impossible for him to butcher or milk for himself and several families and sell from his farm to neighbors and friends.
Is agritourism bad?
Absolutely not! It is a way for many of these small family farmers to remain in business and have the option to change guest beds and set up pumpkin patches rather than drive into town everyday to support that farm.
But it is not the answer for saving the farm for future generations. At some point, like in that Austrian village, the tourism profits outstrip the farming income and you have agridisneyland to keep the visitors coming.
Agritourism as agridisneyland
In spring 2010 I was contacted by a land developer from Chengdu, Sichuan, China to consult on a project to develop a “creative agriculture” development outside of Chengdu. On a 200 square kilometer piece of land, his company was building a rural tourism destination, and he was looking for an expert in rural tourism to pump for information. After getting all he could for free, I never heard from him again, but the project was completed in 2012.
This is perhaps a more honest form of agritourism. The purpose of “creative agriculture” in China is to “increase the ‘happiness index’ of urban dwellers.” This creative agriculture development includes simple homes, fields, small village like gathering places and orchards. It is run by people who were formerly rural farmers. Urban dwellers can come and help work in the fields, stay in the simple homes and be reminded of their former rural lifestyle. Agridisneyland, China style. The purpose is clear and the result, according to reports, is satisfactory to both farmers and visitors.
If every farm visit included an education of the state of our family farms, US agritourism would serve a greater purpose and US agriculture would benefit.
We would know how much it costs to produce a bunch of organic spinach. We would understand a little more about how regulation is forcing small family farms to change or go out of business altogether. Our concern about the safety of our food would extend to concern about the farmer who produces it.
So, visit an agritourism operation. Have a blast. Ask lots of questions. Buy everything they have to sell. And if the same person who tends the garden is also cooking your breakfast, consider making your own bed and even offering to do a little weed pulling.