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Agri-Tourism is a Growing Industry in Virginia

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You’ve heard of ‘Eco-Tourism’ where visitors go to learn about the local the ecology of a place.  Now there’s variation on that theme.  It’s "Agri-Tourism" and it’s a growing thing in Virginia. 

You might think the largest industry in Virginia is defense or some other government related sector, but in fact it’s Agriculture and third largest, tourism.  So it’s no surprise that the ‘Agritourism’ sector is growing.

"We’ve learned that farmers are beginning to be open to having the public come on their land and experience the farm in different ways and it’s making them money," says Martha Walker, who specializes in Agricultural & Applied Economics for the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

"Recently, I had a conversation with a farmer who is outside Roanoke County who said Martha, my Agritourism will generate more revenue for me than my crop generated."

Walker worked on a survey of farmers in Virginia who have opened their working farms and vineyards to visitors. Still a small sector, around 500 farms are doing it. This kind of tourism has a long history in Europe and more recently the west coast, but Agritourism is still relatively new to Virginia.

In 2007 the legislature passed law defining it as an ‘on farm’ activity. It includes things like milking your own electronic cow on a dairy farm, visiting or cutting your own trees in winter, picking your own fruit in spring, corn mazes in fall and wine beer, cider and spirit tastings all year.

“If this sector continues to grow it will reinforce the idea that Virginia is a tourist destination, not just historical,” says Gustavo Ferreira, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech.

“I think we are in a good - we have a competitive advance because of all the history because of all the richness of the history we have. So we had that but I think it adds another layer of attractiveness in terms of bringing tourists all around the middle Atlantic area. Number two: it will support rural economies.  In areas where there is not other economic activity it will keep people that will keep people and keep farms and keep population there. This provides an additional economic activity.”

Just under 500 farms in Virginia are going the Agritourism route. Most of them are wineries and most of them are in northern Virginia. Half responded to the statewide survey, which found, the biggest obstacles to Agritourism had to do with location.  The farther they were from an interstate, the fewer the visitors. Lack of road signs was also a problem.  And so is finding qualified workers to give tours and work with the public in what are often low paid, seasonal jobs.

He says Agritourism seems best suited for mid-sized farms and may play a role in keeping them from disappearing.  And it may be that this new take on an old business could help keep middle-sized farms going. Larger operations benefit from economies of scale, small ones from that niche factor, the mid size get special value from direct contact with the public which amounts to a kind of direct marketing for them.

“Pick your Own is a very flexible.  They’re only open certain weeks and it depends on the weather. It depends on how the berries are maturing so I takes a very flexible tool like a Facebook page or Twitter to say, well, the berries are ready for picking, come this weekend.  We’re open this weekend.”

And while the survey found that most Agritourism sites in Virginia are vineyards, the wineries are actually making smaller profits at this point than other kinds of farms open to the public.  But Ferreira expects that to soon change. Wine Spectator Magazine recently named the commonwealth a top world destination for wine lovers to visit, along with places like France, Germany Spain and New Zealand.  The first ever Virginia conference on Agritourism will be in Staunton, in March.

The first ever Agritourism conference in Virginia will be in Staunton, central Virginia in March.

For more information about the financial impact of Agritourism in Virginia, click here for a recorded presentation.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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