“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”
– John Burroughs, American naturalist and author.
One positive outcome of the pandemic – if we can ignore all the many negatives for a moment – is a shift towards exploring close to home, in our own backyards. Vermont has an almost-embarrassing richness of places to explore while still safely following social distancing and travel guidelines, including the trails and scenic views in the beautiful sugar woods at Silloway Maple in Randolph.
“We’ve always welcomed the public to our sugarhouse and farm,” said farm owner Betty Lambert, whose father started the sugaring operation in 1943. When the shutdown happened in March, she says farm tourism, or agritourism as it’s called, completely stopped during Maple Open House Weekend, when maple syrup producers like Betty open their farms and sugarhouses to the public.
“Agritourism totally shut down during the biggest weekend of the maple calendar,” she said. And now, after six months of staying close to home, “there seems to be a lot of people dying to get outside.” Since the state has begun to open back up, she’s hosted many of them at her farm to hike on a half-mile trail in the sugar woods and to shop in the farm store for maple products and, new this year, maple creemees.
Spring is a popular time for Vermonters and tourists to visit maple syrup producers like Silloway Maple, says Tara Pereira with Vermont Fresh Network. “But those sugar woods are there year round,” she points out. “Why not explore in the fall as well?”
Exploring farms is exactly what Tara’s organization had in mind when she worked with several partners to add a section on the network’s website devoted to visiting farms that offer public trails. Hosted on agritourism website DigInVT.com, the Vermont Farm Walk Trail network is built on the idea that farms are places for both production and recreation. The list of options includes Merck Forest in Rupert, Retreat Farm in Brattleboro, Champlain Valley Hops, and a lavender farm in the Northeast Kingdom, among many others. More farms are interested in being listed, as well.
Tara says momentum for the project grew over time, as organizers observed the success of the countryside walking culture in Europe, for example. And while many of these farms already offered public trails before the pandemic, the onset of COVID-19 catalyzed the project, as people sought safe places to be outdoors while staying close to home.
“In Vermont, local farms and food, connecting with community, and getting outside is a bright spot these days,” says Lisa Chase, who works with University of Vermont’s Extension Service and serves as director or the Vermont Tourism Research Center. Not only are public trails good for visitors, they’re good for the farmers, too.
Lisa says that just before the pandemic, national research was conducted to discover what was important to farmers. The results of a national survey of farmers and ranchers are only beginning to be put together, but she says that one clear finding is already emerging: while revenue is important to farmers and ranchers, so is connecting with customers and the community at large.
“So, yes, increasing revenue is up there, it’s a top goal for farmers. But right behind that is building good will and educating the public.”
It all leads to building relationships that bring in devoted customers and newcomers alike. There is a direct link between increased traffic on the farm and increased farm sales, and that is a benefit to farms like Silloway Maple that open their trails to the public.
Other farms on the DigInVT website list include Knoll Farm, where users can buy a day-pass or membership, and can add on purchases from the farm store, including several special picnic basket options for hikers using the trails. The same is true at Shelburne Farms, where 10 miles of hiking trails are open to the public, and there are plenty of yummy snacks in the farm store, which can be ordered ahead of time online for curbside pickup to bring along for trailside refreshments.
These direct relationships with consumers are great for farms, explains Lisa, because it builds relationships that last beyond the customer’s visit. “Customers develop a relationship with that one farm,” she says, “and they will continue to purchase from that particular farm.”
Shelburne Farms had already established a long-term commitment to providing public space, with the farm’s first trail opening in 1984, explains their vice president and program director, Megan Camp. But when the pandemic hit, the farm already had seven acres of vegetables planted to serve an onsite inn and restaurant that were shut down. This led to the farm store, with online shopping and curbside pickup, as a way to offer vegetables, meats and chef-prepared foods to the public in a safe way.
While combining public trails with a farm store weren’t the initial goal, “it was all a happy synergy,” says Megan. Though she doesn’t have exact numbers, anecdotally, she says, the use of their trails is way up since the pandemic hit.
“The trail system was created to make our beautiful campus more accessible to the general public, to build community, and to offer a way for people to informally connect with a working farm and landscape,” explains Megan. “When COVID hit, we felt it was more important than ever to open our trails” to offer respite and refuge for people who needed to stretch their legs, settle their minds, and safely connect with one another during the pandemic.
Back at Silloway Maple, Betty says her son is opening up more old paths through the sugar woods to add more miles of trails, and they are planning to put the trails on a map for visitors who want to make a day of it. For now, the trails are open to be explored as-is, and they offer just what the doctor ordered for pandemic-weary explorers: “There are lots of wildflowers, and a lovely view.”