While the North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents who focus on alternatives to traditional agriculture dont promise a total solution to a complex problem, theyre convinced that one answer for farm families is the culture of agriculture itself, spiffed up in a shiny new package aimed at upscale vacationers.
The name of the package is agritourism.
Agritourism has its roots in heritage tourism, which stresses travel to authentic natural and historical attractions. Agritourism aims to preserve cultural, natural and historic uniqueness, protect resources through careful stewardship and sustainable use and promote North Carolina as a top tourist destination. It also aims to generate economic development and tax base expansion, says Lanny Hass, a N.C. Cooperative Extension agent specializing in small business development and farm management.
During the past few years, agritourism has become a growing component of the tourism industry, he says. As profit margins grow smaller for traditional farmers, agritourism may provide an alternative avenue to help keep the family farm.
Hass, until recently based at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center near Fletcher, says agritourism quickly is becoming a viable economic and community development alternative. Its also a way to tap into the $12.6 billion that state Tourism, Films and Sports Development Divisions statistics indicate North Carolinas more than 40 million visitors leave here annually.
No hard statistics yet exist on agritourisms economic impact in North Carolina. But a recent book Farms, Gardens and Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina lists more than 900 sites in our mountain counties alone. And an inventory by Carol Kline, a former sustainable tourism specialist in N.C. States Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management in the College of Natural Resources, lists more than 230 sites in the 44 counties responding to date.
I think thats just a tip of the iceberg, says Kline, whose name comes up in almost any discussion on agritourism.
In the East, its paddle trails and corn mazes, in the Piedmont, near population centers, its hunting rights, mazes, birders, history tours, school groups, he says. In the mountains, were looking for things for people to do to expand their stays and for repeat business, because once youve done Biltmore Estate and a few mountains, youre looking for more products and services. So now were training people on the agritrail concept, and that will be the key to creating a destination experience. Were creating corridors so people can go out for a Sunday drive in nature and feel good.
Through these trails and by other means, were trying to develop rural corridors as destinations, and to do that you have to have clusters of attractions. Farmers need to group up and partner; everyone promotes everyone else so we can develop packages.
Although in its infancy, North Carolinas program is advanced enough that other states already seem interested.
Weve been getting calls from all over the country about the agritrails: California, Florida, Pennsylvania. Vermonts officials even came down to look, Hass says.
Hass works closely with Jeanine Davis, North Carolina Specialty Crops Program director, who also plays a major part in agritourism development by providing results from experiments run to determine the best products to use in agritainment enterprises such as mazes, a current favorite.
This year at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station, were working on tunnels: 3-D mazes with straw bales for farmers without much land, Hass says. The Colleges Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department is helping to structure them for safety. And well have a demonstration, with something about how the product goes from grass to straw to hay.
One Alexander County farmer, Linsey Deal, converted his traditional apple farm to an agritainment farm for touring school groups, says Hass. He started a sunflower maze and sold homemade ice cream, apples and pumpkins, which added value to his already existing farm.
The field is apple-shaped, with maze paths which we laid out with GPS technology and various specialists help shaped like a tree trunk and branches. We helped the Deals with a specialty crops grant to establish the maze, then helped design and print an agritourism brochure. They already have more than 1,200 school kids scheduled for the first two months of operation in this very successful venture.
Those schoolkids are among a growing group of prospective agritourists.
Research shows that most of agritourisms potential customers Baby Boomers aged 42 to 62 hold advanced degrees and that women make most of the travel decisions. And in light of the events of September 2001 and even earlier, tourists seek to ground themselves by experiencing rural life, meeting and interacting with the local people, Hass notes.
Armed with such information, Hass talks with commodity groups about agritourisms potential for adding value to their enterprises. Those talks and other programs, such as showing farmers how to access the Web to gather statistics on school groups, give farmers an idea of how to market.
Marketing agritourism enterprises doesnt come without risks, notes Ted Feitshans, a Cooperative Extension specialist in agricultural and resource economics whos based at N.C. State.
The biggest change most farmers must make to profit from agritourism is one of mindset, says Feitshans, a licensed attorney who conducts statewide programs on liability avoidance for farmers interested in agritourism.
Agritourism businesses market a service, not the commodities farmers traditionally market, so agritourism operators must develop comprehensive risk management programs with input from their attorneys, insurance carriers and other professionals, he says.
It is critical that the business be thoroughly analyzed for liability sources and that these sources be eliminated or minimized, Feitshans says. The plan must include contingency planning for the possibility that an injury may occur that results in liability exposure.
The efforts of Hass and his colleagues resulted in 35 farmers in his region incorporating an agritainment experience into their operations last year.
We conducted training for agents and professionals on creating an educational program in sustainable tourism. More than 60 Extension and local people attended from all over the state. We obtained a $16,000 grant and each county received a notebook with a CD ROM and disks that included all the information needed to start a sustainable tourism educational program in their county. Now were following up because agritourism activities can bring about extra income to offset lower profit margins from traditional farm enterprises.
You can add value to a farm, Hass says, by processing or by providing various experiences, capitalizing on unique ideas or skills and knowing that customers generally pay more for specially packaged, high-quality and locally grown or crafted products. To this, you add complementary items, experiences or activities, such as farm tours, crafts and equipment demonstrations.
Those experiences can range from lodging in rural bed and breakfasts, fishing and hunting lodges and campsites to learning about local food and cuisine, such as country cooking; from themed farms that offer harvest festivals and Halloween and other holiday activities to niche markets such as specialty cooking and historic tours.
Following his own advice, Hass teams up with several other Cooperative Extension agents and specialists. They are, among others, Sue Counts, Watauga County Cooperative Extension director, who specializes in community and resource development; Robert Hawk, specialist in recreation and community resource development in southwestern North Carolina and the Cherokee Reservation; Fred May, agricultural agent for Pamlico and Carteret counties; and Feitshans.
Without partners, they all agree, not much can be accomplished.
Those partners, diverse as North Carolina itself, range almost literally from Manteo to Murphy. A few include the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation; an Asheville-based not-for-profit called Handmade in America (HIA); N.C. States College of Natural Resources Sustainable Tourism Program in its Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management Department and the extension component of the N.C. State Sea Grant program. Kline also stresses the importance of partnering with local interests, such as chambers of commerce, tourism development authorities, arts councils and citizens groups.
Counts High Country efforts around Boone and Watauga and surrounding counties concentrate on sustainable or conservation tourism; Hass, on the upland plateau near Asheville, stresses agriculture; and Hawk, in the states southwest, focuses on ecotourism destinations.
And what better destination than down on the farm?
Heres a region-by-region breakdown of a few of Extensions agritourism efforts and few key players.
WEST: Sue Counts instinctively understands the lure of the upland back country. I grew up in southwest Virginia in the Appalachians, she says. It was a very beautiful area, but we had no industry and I saw an opportunity. As soon as I started working here, I began to network with other groups, and we founded the Sustainable Tourism Council, now the Mountainkeepers. We began with a $12,000 mini-grant through Dr. Ed Jones. Those first conferences in 1999 and 2000 helped us to learn, together with some great people who made major contributions and that planted the seed in all of us.
Jones, a Cooperative Extension associate state program leader, realizes agritourisms potential. The development of tourism opportunities in North Carolina using our natural resources is an exciting opportunity, he says. It allows for multiple uses of our natural resource base, increases landowners incomes and provides leisure and educational opportunities for people worldwide.
Counts agrees. One reason we have a lot of tourists in our mountains is the natural resources, the environment, the beauty: the air is clear, the water is clear, you can canoe in the New River. If we dont really focus on resources and conservation of our environment, those tourists arent going to come here to see something they can see somewhere else.
Becky Anderson, executive director of the non-profit HIA, also sings agritourisms praises.
Says Anderson, who farms tobacco and who for 12 years was development director for Ashevilles Chamber of Commerce: Tobacco for many years was the one crop you could be sure of, the down payment on the pickup. But as the crop declined and we looked around for alternatives, we knew the industrial economy was not going to be our regions economy. Instead, we saw a series of niche economies.
The French Broad River Basin has the largest number of specialty crop growers in North Carolina. We thought that might be the answer for the tobacco farmer, but the tobacco farmers average age is 60, so it was for their children coming home from N.C. State with new ideas, knowledge and their laptops who are willing to take the risks. Its the Young Turks wholl try a corn maze and say, Next to it, lets do a pizza farm, which is a pie-shaped plot planted to wheat, tomatoes, onions, garlic and such.
As a businessperson, Anderson also understands the importance of partnerships.
Weve always had several Cooperative Extension folks on our 28-member board, she says. For a long time, Extension has nurtured the crafts in the mountains. She lists Counts, Marilyn Cole (retired area specialized agent), Mary Jane Letts (retired director, Cherokee Reservation), Dr. Susan Lyday (retired district director), Doug Clement (Cherokee County Cooperative Extension director) and others as supporters of the efforts.
Rob Hawk, the states only Extension agent specializing solely in tourism, also works in community resource development.
Sustainable tourism, parks and recreation, greenways, cultural-based tourism, heritage-based, ecotourism its all linked, he says. To make all this happen, weve had to do a lot of partnering: with Handmade in America, with private owners and with local and state government, with Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University.
People here are more aware that we have to focus on our assets: our natural capital, our cultural heritage.
A lack of riparian zone protection along waterways in the Lower Little Tennessee Sub-basin Watershed, combined with a desire for walking trails by Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, prompted Hawk to convene a regional greenways steering committee composed of stakeholders from Graham, Jackson and Swain counties and the reservation. That led to the Extension-sponsored 1999 Healthy and Happy Trails Workshop, which laid the groundwork for an expanded regional steering committee and a regional greenway system plan.
We are trying, Hawk says, to create an economic development base which the locals understand, so they say, Hey, we have this resource. We dont have to bulldoze that mountain for more condominiums. Were trying for product development such as the greenways. Agritourism isnt the end-all, but it could be an important supplement.
PIEDMONT: Some of the first counties to establish a sustainable tourism development plan are in the Piedmont, says Carol Kline.
In 1998, Anson, Moore, Montgomery and Richmond counties banded together to work on a regional tourism development plan, she says. I worked with county directors Russell Sikes, Charles Hammond, Bert Coffer and Extension agent Roger Galloway for over a year, taking inventory of the areas assets, hosting stakeholder meetings and forming short- and long-term regional marketing strategies.
Ann Liebenstein, the Yadkin-Pee Dee Lakes Projects executive director, focuses on sustainable economic development in the states central park region: the lower Piedmont counties surrounded by Interstate 40s and I-85s urban sprawl. Liebenstein envisions overnight or weekly farm stays as a popular respite for urbanites in North Carolinas metropolitan areas.
This important central park concept, says Kline, captures one of the key motivations for agritourists: getting away from bustling city life to drive to the country for a fresh-air and rural experience.
Other Piedmont regional efforts include a tourism task force formation by the South Central Extension District and discussions of a regional agritourism conference in the North Central Extension District.
Last fall, says Sue Block, Stanly County Cooperative Extension agricultural agent, her countys Sustainable Tourism Committee hosted Uwharrie Safari, a packaged tour for 50 older active adults from Rock Hill, S.C. The tour included a lecture and slide presentation on the region, a trip to Dennis Vineyards, dinner and an excursion to the Seagrove Pottery Museum and area shops.
Participants were eager to return to explore other local attractions, go antiquing and learn more about regional history. And the tour provided the final push for a local investor to start a tourism business focusing on regional tours and excursions, as well as bicycle, canoe and boat rentals, Block reports.
And Chatham County boasts, along with organic farms and boating and fishing on Jordan Lake, several farmers markets, farm and nursery tours, feasts in the country, barn openings, a new winery and special events, including an open house at North Carolinas largest fruitcake producer, all promoted by Cooperative Extension and the Chatham County Travel and Tourism office.
EAST: Agritourism marketing and development seems to have taken root in rocky Western North Carolina, but the seeds are just being planted along our sandy coastal counties.
More than 110 people, mostly looking for alternative uses for farmland, plowed their way through the recent second annual agritourism conference in Trenton.
The opportunity to continue educating, rebuilding, strengthening and encouraging Eastern North Carolina farmers and their families fell on seemingly fertile soil, says Dr. Wanda Sykes, Southeastern District Extension Director, who termed the conference a success.
Participants learned about creating and developing markets, making a successful business plan, liability and insurance, hospitality, packaging and the all-important partnerships.
But in eastern North Carolina, where most of the land ranges from a few inches to a few feet above sea level and much agriculture actually consists of farming the sea, the approach must be water-based.
The big draw is personal watercraft, the simpler the better. One initiative, driven by Fred May, agricultural agent for Pamlico and Carteret counties, plays off humanitys attraction to large bodies of water.
May and the Pamlico County Cooperative Extension Center established the Pamlico County Rural Development Panel 20 years ago to help the areas stagnant or depressed rural economies.
There has been a tremendous influx of kayaks and canoes, May says, and Pamlico County has the most inland water shore mileage in the state. Some is sheltered, some open waters and a lot is fairly isolated. Weve got most of the creeks mapped, and we want to do a summary of all the guides. We want to pull the people from the Piedmont down here.
To help do just that, May, in cooperation with the state Parks and Recreation Division, was instrumental in developing several paddle trail guides using grants secured through the Rural Development Panel, with John Hinners as chair.
Scores of paddlers have turned out in all kinds of weather in the past three years during the Pamlico Paddle event. They explore the areas more than 100 miles of paddle trails and waterway nature trails along the Neuse Rivers waterfront and tidal creeks in Pamlico County.
Whats the big attraction? When we did our guides, says May, wed see bald eagles, blue herons, kingfishers. At times you get so you take them for granted, but people come down here and say, Look at that! and it reminds you of what you have. Youve got to make people aware that you have that resource. As a result of our efforts, Pamlico County has an outfitters store in Oriental for canoes and kayaks.
May also has written a tri-fold brochure for a self-directed driving farm tour. We listed crops that have been grown and that are now growing, he says, and we mention field activities to observe liming, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting as you drive around Pamlico County. We define no-till, point out grain bins and overhead irrigation systems.
The Paddle Trails initiative has spread to the northeastern waters as well, with trails inland along the Roanoke River and into Dare County waters.
From Roanoke Island to Duck, the Outer Banks are copiously sprinkled with outfitters happy to set you up in your own adventure tour canoe or kayak for a little sheltered-waters boating. From those craft, depending on where you launch, you can access several attractions such as the splendidly refurbished Whalehead Club, once a railroad and sugar millionaires mansion and hunting lodge on the Currituck Banks; the Nature Conservancys wooded dunes at Kitty Hawk; or Manteos thriving Elizabethan-style waterfront.
Funded by Confluence, a North Carolina-based paddle sports company, the N.C. Coastal Plain Paddling Trail Initiatives partners include the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department and N.C. States Sea Grant program. Cooperative Extension and N.C. States Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management Department conducted a two-year survey for the initiative.
Dr. Jack Thigpen, N.C. Sea Grant Extension Program director, involved with the project from its inception, says the initiative resulted in last years formation of the N.C. Paddle Trails Association, a grassroots group that promotes paddling.
Any of those paddle trails could easily lead to the brand-spanking-new Eastern 4-H Environmental Education and Conference Center on Bulls Bay near Columbia.
Campers can explore the not-too-distant Outer Banks beaches, historical sites dating back 450 years, black bear- and red wolf-sheltering forests, wetlands and ancient creeks that wander through mysterious overhanging forests preserved in the five wildlife refuges, two preserves and two state parks that surround the camp.
Whats ahead for the growing agritourism industry? Recognizing tourisms value and potential is another example of the ingenuity and relevance of our Cooperative Extension field faculty, says Extensions Ed Jones. I believe we will continue to see this as a major Extension effort in many counties and as a benefit to many rural North Carolinians.
Hass and his associates are counting on it. For our next steps, says Hass, were doing a needs assessment and hospitality training and discussing whether a certification process is needed for agritourism businesses. Farmers were underpricing what they sold; they need help on pricing points. Theyre used to having something tangible to focus on, like potatoes or tomatoes. I had one guy say, I dont know why people would want to see me.
And were also looking for consistency a set of standards so one person cant make it a bad experience for the visitors.
Agritourism is about sustaining the integrity of agricultural communities and improving the well-being of local people, Hass says. It may not be the total answer, but it will definitely help keep the family farm alive.