Is Agritourism Good for Small Family Farmers?

by Joanne Steele on April 11, 2013

men picking peachesNo 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.

photo of Clark Family Orchards from







1 Anna July 24, 2013 at 7:19 am

You bring up a good point about agritourism. It’s great that families are interested in supporting the local farmer but are they willing to pay the price? Farmers these days are so bogged down with regulations and fees that it’s hard to maintain a lower price point. It’s a never ending circle of farmers having to pay the difference in the fees because people don’t want to spend the money to purchase the farmers goods. It’s a no win for both sides. Thanks for the interesting.

2 Joanne Steele July 24, 2013 at 11:47 am

Interesting. It’s been my experience that the problem is small farmers being lumped with very large operations regarding regulation, which either makes it impossible for them to function, or causes them to have to pay extra to ship animals away for butchering. Fees, not so much of a problem.

3 Mark Schomer May 12, 2013 at 10:25 am

Our Guatemalan coffee farm has become a tourist destination to help meet our income needs especially when world coffee prices are low. We have received visitors for 12 years, many of which have stayed overnight in our farm house and had three meals and a long tour. We’ve also hosted week-long volunteer work camps with study of the farm as a family business for university students. It’s been fun, but it limits our privacy and takes up a lot of our time and emotional energy, and we’re not getting any younger! We decided to build a house of our own away from the farm and dedicate the farm house mainly to hospitality, hiring more staff to help. That may take away some of the charm of being received by the host farmer family, but we can’t become slaves to the tourism programs we set up. I like the idea of scheduling a period of the year for intense visits, but in tropical countries the weather permits visits all year around. Any other experiences from the tropics?

4 Joanne Steele May 12, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Thanks Mark. I’d also love to hear from some year round operations. Most US agritourism operations are seasonal giving farmers a chance to catch their breath. Your “not getting any younger” point is well taken, especially if you’re working year round! Another fear I have for the future of farming is whether aspiring farmers will need to come into the field expecting to run an agritourism operation in order to make it. Will that discourage the next generation of small farmers?

5 Mark Schomer May 13, 2013 at 6:30 am

Good points, Joanne. The “next generation” has often followed other paths and is not interested in farming, with or without tourism. That raises the significant issue of how to manage succession planning in family farms, especially those that have multiple co-owners with potential heirs scattered around the globe. That involves legal ownership structure, planning and reporting systems, and many other issues worth discussing. When the owner-operators are personally leading the agro-tourism activities, it is important to decide how long to continue the program and identify other tour leaders and train them to take over when the original leaders are unavailable. It takes a lot of investment and relationship-building to set up a successful agro-tourism activity, so continuity and adequate staffing should be built into the design. Some of our clients are interested in using the farm house as a retreat center and might be able to lead tours from that base, but tours led by people who don’t do the actual farming may be different and less attractive to potential participants.

6 Nikki Rose April 16, 2013 at 8:26 am

From my experience consulting in the US, farmers tend to focus on income from agritourism, rather than educating consumers. Shift that mindset and agritourism can be beneficial for both farmers and visitors. Here’s an interview from 2007 where I was very concerned about these issues…many other interviews followed, some of which are on my website.

Nikki Rose
Founder & Director
Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries Eco-Agritourism Network
Crete, Greece

7 Nikki Rose April 16, 2013 at 6:15 am

Good article. One thing about any business is a balance. Agritourism, if organized with respect, a strong educational component and fair compensation to the teachers (the farmers) can strengthen our relationship with farmers and, in turn, our knowledge of their challenges, our food sources and appreciation for the true cost of good, safe food.

Nikki Rose
Founder & Director
Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries Eco-Agritourism Network
Crete, Greece

8 Joanne Steele April 16, 2013 at 8:13 am

Thanks Nikki. I’d love to come and experience what you do. Great name – Eco-Agritourism Network.

9 Mike Martin April 13, 2013 at 4:52 pm

We have been having farm tours for the past 10 years with several farms in the county. These have been held twice a year with one on the second weekend of May and the other the third weekend of October. One of my fellow emu growers in VA wrote about how his tour was so successful and his farm was just one of many in that county. By banding together to put out brochures, advertising, etc we all win. Two weekends a year is not much and we do not do commercial rides, etc. They are educational in nature and the farm must be involved in agriculture.

10 Joanne Steele April 14, 2013 at 7:37 am

Sounds like a good solution. Artists have regular but infrequent open studios, why not farmers!

11 Kim Solga April 13, 2013 at 9:29 am

Any industry needs to build and support its customer base. Small farmers seeking a reliable market cannot passively assume that they will have a constant audience of “consumers are looking for local, fresh, organically or naturally grown products.” They need to actively nurture and grow that market. Agritourism is part of that promotion, where visitors to the farm learn the value of local, fresh, naturally grown products. And become lifelong consumers of real food, rather than the cheap fake food offered by industrial agriculture. Farming isn’t just about growing plants and raising animals. Agritourism doesn’t take time away from farming – it is a part of successful small farming.

12 Joanne Steele April 14, 2013 at 7:46 am

Good point about agritourism being part of marketing. The problem for us all arises when the marketing becomes more lucrative than the business. And with “fresh organic food” showing up in Safeway, and industrial organic farms bringing us tainted spinach, the question becomes, who benefits and what is the message. I agree that agritourism has a strong educational component – Mike Martin’s comment speaks to that.

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