With the increased mechanization of farming, less manual labor is needed per unit of land. As a consequence, work opportunities disappeared in rural areas and people migrated to larger urban areas in search of jobs. This shift of work opportunity has sparked many initiatives aimed at stabilizing the declining trend in many rural areas of the country.
Agritourism, while not a cure-all to the challenges, is one option for economic development in rural areas. Research has shown that rural regions are already popular destinations. In 2000, the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment found that approximately 82 million people visited farms during that year. It also found that even though only a small percentage of American farms were participating in the industry, income earned from agritourism was close to $800 million. Both of these numbers were significant enough to prompt the U.S. Census of Agriculture to start tracking income from recreation and agritourism on farms in 2002.
When speaking about this relatively new industry, several questions often arise. Most common are, "What is agritourism and how is it different from ecotourism?" or "I've never heard of agritourism, where is it located?" and lastly "Why has agritourism developed where it has"? This article summarizes current and past research in an attempt to provide some answers to those questions.
What is Agritourism?Agritourism is a coupling of two very large industries: agriculture and tourism. Although it is a relatively novel concept in the U.S., the tradition of getting out of the city for rest and relaxation is not a new idea. In Europe it has been a thriving industry for quite some time and dates back to the dawn of civilization and cities. From the Greeks to modern day urbanites, people have been taking advantage of what the country has to offer.
Due to its recent development as something to be studied, many different definitions of agritourism have been introduced. One study cites the evolution of over thirteen different meanings for agritourism. A commonly used definition, though, was developed by the University of California Small Farm Program which states that: Agricultural tourism is a commercial enterprise at a working farm, ranch or agricultural plant conducted for the enjoyment or education of visitors, and that generates supplemental income for the owner.
Agritourism, by its nature, is closely linked to other forms of tourism such as ecotourism, nature tourism, heritage tourism, and rural recreation. What separates agritourism from the rest is that farmers or ranchers are using the physical or cultural assets of their farms and ranches. This distinction discounts as agritourism things like agricultural museums or private businesses and individuals simply operating a touristic business in a rural area. Agritourism activities can include a wide variety of things. The Small Farm Program mentions: visiting wineries, picking fruit at an orchard, barn dances, and even hunting and fishing among many other things. Clearly, there is ample opportunity for creativity on the part of the operator and no one category seems to be left out.
Where is Agritourism?Most operations are day-trip ventures located near large urban centers. They are smaller in scale and often include activities such as wineries, orchards, or petting zoos. Many of these are also seasonal: their specialty increases public visitation during certain times of the year (for example pumpkin patches in the fall or Christmas tree farms in December).
Other larger operations have been developing farther away from population centers. Surveys of these farms indicate that their specialties are focused more on wildlife-based recreation. These ventures provide access to natural areas for hunters and anglers as well as for the growing population of wildlife viewing enthusiasts.
The overwhelming majority of income from agritourism is in the West Coast, Gulf Coast, and Northeastern states. This is due to the nature of farming in those areas. The operations are smaller in size, closer to population centers, and more conducive to the day-trip activities. In the Midwest and Great Plains regions, agritourism has been adopted more slowly. These regions are flatter and more fertile, making them better suited to the intensive production of commodity crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, and also the raising of livestock. In recent years, however, agritourism operations have begun to sprout on the landscape. Research suggests that this is due to the lack of other economic opportunities in rural areas and also to smaller scale farms struggling to find means to stay in operation.
Why is Agritourism There?Agritourism has tended to develop on smaller farms near urban centers because operators rely on the proximity to a large population base. More recent trends, however, show that thriving agritourism sectors have been flourishing in remote areas away from cities. Along with a lack of other opportunities in these regions, researchers also conjecture that this is due to the mobility of modern tourists as well as the need of urbanites to "get away from it all." Other evidence has pointed to increased demand for wildlife recreation in regions heavily dependent upon agriculture. In the Midwest and Great Plains, this trend is very apparent. The state of Nebraska, for example, is 97% privately owned and 94% of the land area is devoted to some kind of agricultural activity. Thus, proponents of rural economic development, seeking to capitalize on more recreation opportunities or increased access to the outdoors, would benefit from considering agritourism as one of their options.
Future Potential of AgritourismWhile not a complete solution for rural areas, agritourism shows potential as an option for economic development. It relies heavily on an urban population for a customer base. So, with the increasing urbanization of the U.S. combined with social movements celebrating local and natural experiences, the future of this industry looks good for those who remain in rural areas and wish to continue deriving their living from the land.
University of California Small Farm Center
National Survey on Recreation and the Environment
Brown and Reeder, 2007 Farm-Based Recreation: A Statistical Profile. Economic Research Service
Bernardo et. al, 2004. Agritourism: If We Build It Will They Come? Kansas State University.