Perspectives Online

Agritourism: It's a Growing Thing. Farm-related entertainment enterprises blaze trails for economic development. By Art Latham.

In Alexander County, children romp through a pumpkin patch during a tour at the Lindsay Deal orchards.
Photo by Lenny Rogers

Aided by North Carolina Cooperative Extension's efforts, agritourism - farm-related entertainment or educational enterprises that often also promote agricultural products to generate more farm income - remains a force in our economy.

The state Tourism, Films and Sports Development Division estimates that more than 49 million visitors spent $13.3 billion in North Carolina in 2004, the most recent year for which we have statistics.

Martha Glass, manager of the Agritourism Office in the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' marketing division, says while we won't get our first statistical reading on agritourism's contribution to our economy until October, "We do know that many agritourism farmers have reported that they are continuing to be more successful, and we don't hear of any going out of business."

Deal employee Jane Elder speaks to a tour group. The Deals expect 6,000 visitors this year.
Photo by Lenny Rogers
N.C. Cooperative Extension has been instrumental in developing agritourism in our state, helping evolve once-anonymous country roads into such forms as today's "Art Roads and Farm Trails," a Web site posted by HomegrownHandmade. In fact, when early agritourism player HandMade in America compiled a list of western North Carolina agritourism businesses for one of its first trail itineraries, they contacted county Extension agents to track the hundreds of potential cooperators.

HomegrownHandmade's online auto trail itineraries, sponsored by a Golden LEAF grant through the N.C. Arts Council and Extension, follow the style and complement information from two books HandMade in America developed from that information: Farms, Gardens, and Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina and Craft Heritage Trails.

Since the agriculture department's 2003 Agritourism Office opening, Glass has met meet with Extension district and county directors statewide. That led to successful partnerships and collaboration with many Extension agents, who keep locating farmers who are considering developing agritourism farms, she said.

In Lincoln County, a tour group visited the Davis & Son orchard during Farm-City Week.
Photo by Kevin Starr
"This has been an invaluable partnership and has greatly expanded our overall outreach efforts," Glass said. "The agents are familiar with the resources we provide: free online marketing in the General Store, free resource material, collaboration in workshops and free consultation, site visits and continuing dialogue with the farmer as the agritourism farm develops.

"By working together, Cooperative Extension and the agriculture department help our farmers find more ways to educate the public about our state's agricultural heritage, while diversifying their farms and increasing their incomes," she said.

Extension's agritourism effort began to crystallize with the founding in Watauga County of the Sustainable Tourism Council, now the MountainKeepers. Statewide conferences in 1999 and 2000 kicked off the initiative.

Now agritourism business spans the state. For instance, Kevin Starr, Extension's Lincoln County director, is proud of his county's annual September Apple Festival at Lincolnton.

"This festival is a big-time commitment to community and rural development," Starr said. "Extension started the festival in 1972 with 300 attendees, and today 40,000 people a year turn out, which makes it our largest agritourism event. And we are the coordinating agency: When anybody calls for information, we're the ones who get the referrals."

That can be a mixed blessing, Starr learned. "When we had to cancel last year due to the threat of bad weather from Hurricane Ivan," he said, "we certainly found out just how important the festival is to a lot of people."

Lincoln County also hosts a full-time apple and fruit stand, a cut-your-own Christmas tree operation and more, enhanced by various Extension projects such as Farm-City Week, during which visitors from as far away as Charlotte enjoy orchard tours.

Agritourism's Lincoln County growth has been slow, Starr said, but should accelerate. For one thing, the county's first muscadine winery will soon be in operation in the foothills near Vale: the Cagle family's WoodMill Vineyard.

In nearby Alexander County, along the eastern slopes of the Brushy Mountains, nonprofit groups use the annual Taylorsville Hometown Apple Festival as a major fundraiser and local businesses participate to educate the public about their goods and services.

Lenny Rogers, Cooperative Extension's Alexander County director and apple festival chairman, noted the festival's rapid growth: from 30 to more than 160 vendors in 10 years, with crowds now ranging from 15,000 to 20,000.

"Many local restaurant owners used to sell from a booth at the festival six to eight years ago, but now they don't," Rogers said. "They say that they have to be at their restaurants because it's their busiest day of the year with all the folks coming to our town."

"We probably started thinking about agritourism in the late 1990s, when a few people began to advertise," he said. That's about when, after consulting with Extension specialists, Alexander County apple farmer Lindsay Deal and his son Alan put in their first sunflower maze. Now they have two.

"When the Deals' son married," Rogers said, "they were looking for additional income to keep the new family on the farm. It's a great income for two to two-and-a-half months' hard work."

The sweat equity pays off. About 1,200 students visited the first year; this year, they expect 6,000.

"We've helped him put together a couple of brochures, and he's no dummy when it comes to identifying the niche: school tours. Overall," said Rogers, "Lindsay Deal has been real tickled about the way it worked out. I think it's exceeded his expectations."

Across the state, in our north-central region, Extension agents in Caswell, Franklin, Granville, Person and Warren counties; Golden LEAF; the North Carolina Arts Council and HomegrownHandmade developed, among others, the whimsically named "Hushpuppies, Pimento Cheese and Sweet Tea Trail."

The trail is one of seven online itineraries that link down east and non-urban north-central piedmont farms and agribusinesses that often feature artistic and craft components. It stretches from Pearces in southern Franklin County, where the Flying Pig Farm showcases shiitake mushrooms; through Youngsville, with Hill Ridge Farm and the Red Barn Trading Post with its antiques and collectibles; to the Vollmer Farm in Bunn, with its slingshot pumpkins and other "Back Forty" recreational fun; all the way to Pelham in rural Caswell County, where the Sleepy Goat Farm produces cheese.

Agritourism enterprises of many varieties continue to sprout as North Carolina's farmers and their agency partners help grow farm earning power. Cooperative Extension continues to help stretch that growth.

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