Grant gives Vt. agri-tourism a boost
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | October 23,2013
Shearer Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast in Wilmington offers guests the chance to experience agri-tourism by milking cows.
MONTPELIER — Vermont’s farms have long contributed to a bucolic aesthetic that draws millions of visitors to the state annually. Now, a new federal grant aims to transform those agricultural operations into tourist draws in their own right.
The state Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets announced Tuesday the receipt of an $88,500 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture designed to expand agri-tourism and generate a new revenue stream for small farms.
Many farms, wineries, orchards and other agricultural enterprises already participate in some manner in the emerging sector. But state officials say the state has yet to come close to realizing its full potential.
“What we’re trying to do is educate farmers that there are opportunities to provide this service, and that they should be compensated for this service,” said Chelsea Bardot Lewis, senior agricultural development coordinator at the Agency of Agriculture.
“Whether it’s educational opportunities for kids, or classes for adult learners, or tours, or going further and doing bed and breakfasts and on-farm dinners, there are a lot of options and possibilities,” she said.
Mari Omland, co-owner of Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, is among the Vermont farms to get in on the tourism industry. In the last month alone, according to Omland, the farm has hosted visitors from Australia, New York City and Ottawa.
She said the tours and overnight stays in “barn lofts” now generate about $30,000 annually.
Diversifying sources of income at a farm that already does everything from grow vegetables to milk goats, Omland said, is a key survival strategy. And she said the state can help agri-tourism entrepreneurs by pulling together statistics and data to inspire and inform business plans.
“There’s a lot of orchards and sugar houses and family farm-scale operations that are allowing people to have very meaningful experiences on farms,” Omland said. “But we probably don’t know the collective value of that, so more study, and getting good data, will give us a better perspective on what’s happening, and ideas for how to grow.”
The new grant will fund the collection of that data, as well as the examination of the “economic impacts and farm profitability” in the agri-tourism sector, according to the Agency of Agriculture.
The grant will also fund a marketing campaign to drive tourists toward “authentic” agriculture operations, as well as the restaurants that serve their goods. The state already maintains a website, www.diginvt.com, where would-be visitors can find tourist-friendly farms.
Jen Butson, director of communications for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, said the grant will make for a more cohesive approach to agri-tourism, and help the state coordinate the patchwork of individual efforts going on across the state.
She said the grant will also fund educational opportunities for Vermont farmers who want to enter the marketplace, and emphasize the safety precautions that need to be in place for visitors to a working farm.
“We need to have those who are running working farms right now to know how to be equipped to be tourism- and tour-friendly,” Butson said. “You can’t just put an ‘open’ sign on the farm and have it be friendly to travelers or vacationers.”
Butson said the emergence of agri-tourism could help grow the state’s $1.7 billion tourism economy in parts of the state that need it most.
Turning farms in some of the most rural parts of the state into tourist attractions, she said, will mean capital, revenue and jobs for the residents of those communities.
“To actually drive a person into a village or town, be it overnight or for a week-long vacation, that impact will be huge,” Butson said.