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Opinion

Agritourism helpful in promoting sustainability

Molly Breitmün

May 2, 2013

Agritourism is a farming practice that utilizes tourism to further bolster the sustainability of a farm through diversified means. Farmers are notoriously dependant on factors that are uncontrollable, like late springs, drought and foreign imports making prices fall drastically. Creating an alternative source of income decreases a farmer’s risk to factors out of their control.

Depending on how agritourism is defined, it includes farmers’ markets and roadside stands amongst more explicit attractions like hayrides, U-pick operations and harvest festivals. As U.S. consumers become more concerned about food safety, the environmental effects of industrial farming, animal welfare and buying local, agritourism may attain worthy growth.
Agritourism has been popular in Europe for centuries. The renown for French wines or the ubiquitous image of a fresh meal laid outdoors of an Italian farm villa are examples of the cultural embrace of fresh, local food straight from the much-celebrated producer. Agritourism is funded by the European Union in its agriculture policies to diversify a worldwide farming economy fraught with increasing costs with little return. E.U. policy recognizes the role of agritourism in food security as well as garnering higher prices through value-added experiences. The 2012 USDA statistical profile on Farm-Based Recreation reports that agritourism “provided income to about 52,000 U.S. farms (2.5 percent of total U.S. farms) in 2004.” According to the same report, one third of all farms in the United Kingdom earned income from agritourism. There is clearly room for growth in the U.S.

Agritourism encourages crop diversity. Tourists and neighbors become loyal consumers when they can rely on a farmer to provide a variety that satisfies their needs and interests. Though a monoculture of corn serving as a corn maze does attract people looking for entertainment, a flourishing agritourism business will provide more than corn products to keep visitors returning. The more unique and local the product is, the better to attract loyal consumers.

The 2011 Proceedings of the International Scientific Conference on Rural Development suggests that agritourism encourages soil conservation. The higher profit margins that occur when selling a value-added product or experience put a far lower demand on the productivity of the farmland. The less land needed in intensive production, the less nutrient demand is placed on the soil. In third world countries, the higher profits of agritourism have also shown promise in decreasing farmer’s incentives for deforestation.

Agritourism can also foster ethical self-regulation. A wise business model will not air out its dirty laundry. Agritourism invites tourists to witness, participate, and be amongst the plants and animals being raised. It is hard to imagine a concentrated animal feeding operation inviting school children to visit to see the sad conditions the animals live in. Similarly, if a farm is exposing its employees to unsafe practices and conditions, how will they protect the visiting public from the same ills?

‘Wine maps’ are an example of a noncompetitive partnership that can be fostered by agritourism. Customers often come to agritourism venues with the plan to be entertained half the day or an entire weekend by agricultural related activities. Wine maps are created by a network of vineyards and wineries that cater to these customers while reducing the cost in advertising by sharing the burden. The sharing of risk is common glue in the creation of community. Instead of struggling as individual road-side stops, agritourism businesses are uniquely poised to cooperate with peers to create festivals and weekend-long entertainment. Partnerships within the community can also create increased investment amongst all community members. The flavor and pride of the community is encouraged to emerge.

The Journal for Appalachian Studies reports, “between 1997 and 2007, naturally and agriculturally based tourism was the fastest growing sector of the travel and tourism industry.” Farmers interested in following this trend might best succeed by creating an agritourism cooperative. By networking with other local farmers and producers, the shared risk is greatly decreased, while the draw from customers looking for diverse attractions may increase.

As consumers though, we have the most pleasurable responsibility. We need to visit farms, get to know our farmers, buy their products and eat the fruits of their hard labor. A good place to start for finding agritourism possibilities in the River Falls area is the Local Food Partnership’s local food directory (http://www.localfoodpartnership.org/directory.html). Though this is the most complete list I’ve seen of quite local food opportunities, it’s not exhaustive. Some of the best places are found by word of mouth, slowing down when you see the ‘fresh strawberries’ sign on the side of the road, and asking around at the natural food coop and farmer’s market.

I first learned about A to Z Pizza Farm of Stockholm, Wis., when I was swapping favorite agritourism farms with Amy Lloyd, the Student Life service coordinator. Next week I finally get to visit the Pizza Farm with both S.A.L.S.A. and Crops & Soils Club. A to Z has certainly taken the agritourism spirit to heart. They are a working farm and CSA (community supported agriculture) that offers a Pizza Night picnic every Tuesday from spring until fall.

Agritourism has the potential to greatly enhance American farms and aid in the creation of a sustainable American food system. I challenge anyone reading this to enjoy at least one agritourism experience this growing season.

Molly Breitmün is a non-traditional student majoring in conservation with a minor in GIS. Her interest in campus sustainability was fostered by becoming an undergraduate fellow for the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development as well as by her peers in the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture.

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