STORY and VIDEO: Agritourism keeps many farms going

Cynthia Larson and her husband, Rich, have explored farmstay hosting, horse boarding and tours in an effort to keep their organic, grass-fed dairy farm in Wells profitable. DAVID W. SMITH / STAFF PHOTO

Mari Omland laughs when she recalls at one time in her life she considered getting into politics. A Rutland native and coowner of Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, Omland’s life went in a different direction. “Seven years into a retail operation, I can’t even handle retail. I’m too thinskinned,” she said, referring to the small, farm-sourced food store stocked with fresh vegetables, local meat and a few Vermont specialty products she and partner Laura Olsen run on their property. To be fair, Omland does a whole lot more than run a store. The two of them produce the vegetables, canned goods and raise the pigs, goats and poultry for the meat they sell. They also host community events and operate two bed-and-breakfast type lodging facilities on the 40-acre farm they purchased about 10 years ago. The store is open 365 days per year, and they need to get to work on a marketing plan so more people can find them. “Farming is a hodgepodge of everything,” Omland said. For many farmers, agritourism has become the new face of farming. From school visits and guided tours to farm stands, specialty products and mail-order businesses, many Vermont farmers are supplementing incomes by finding new sources of revenue and selling directly to consumers. It’s an approach that can mean backbreaking work, and opportunities for pleasure. It’s both a source of money to keep farms in operation, and a soapbox for teaching people about agriculture and giving farmers a voice in what they feel is important. “We knew all along the margins on our food would be slim to none,” Omland said. “... The tourism piece is a wonderful way for our farm to supplement its income.” Authenticity sells For tourists and visitors, Olsen said Vermont farms provide “authentic, real groundedness” — something she thinks people are drawn to, and a reason they visit in addition to the state’s natural beauty. “Part of that beauty is held in place because of Vermont’s agriculture,” Olsen said, who grew up in the Midwest and met Omland in Washington, D.C. Tourism is a recognized piece of the Vermont economy, bringing in $2.6 billion and accounting for 8 percent of the gross national product, according to the 2015 University of Vermont Benchmark Report on tourism in the state. Statistics on the number of farmers who have resorted to agritourism are tricky, because the word describes very different practices and ranges of commitment. Some farmers who say they don’t participate in the tourism economy have been inviting school groups and hosting pizza dinners for years, according to Vera Simon- Nobes, co-chairwoman of Vermont Farm to Plate Network’s agritourism task force. There are creative entrepreneurial efforts going on down every dirt road, she said. “We do see it is growing in Vermont. But we still think it’s an undercount,” said Simon-Nobes, who works for Shelburne Farms, and describes Farm to Plate Network’s task as boosting the economic viability and employment opportunities of Vermont’s food systems. Farms do a great job providing fun activities, but she sees a higher purposed. This is a chance for visitors to come face to face with people who produce food, and learn something about why farmers work so hard to produce local food, and why the cost can be so high. “Maybe when a consumer sees that a package of meat is a little higher than they thought it would be, maybe they’ll be more OK paying it,” she said. Start ’em young Cynthia Larson said they’ve always been passionate about education at Larson Farm in Wells. “We encouraged schools to bring their third-graders right from the beginning,” she said, adding that she and her husband, Rich, moved to Vermont from Connecticut in the 1970s with a vision of owning a dairy farm. They frequently host college classes and community events on their organic dairy farm and creamery, often accompanied by pasture walks and tours. It gave them a chance to share what they’ve learned about sustainable growing. “ It began to occur to us that we should begin to schedule them, and to charge for them,” she said. Their dairy farm has gone through many changes, she said, but none like the past year. They’ve started selling pasteurized milk, yogurt and gelato. They’re hosting more tours, boarding horses, running a “help-yourself” farm stand from their house, hosting pizza dinners and — as their children have grown and moved away — they’ve begun developing the extra space for farm-stay lodging. She described their planned accommodations as a “bed and kitchen.” “They can make their own breakfast,” said Larson. It’s been a lot of fun, and she describes her life as deeply satisfying, but has come with a tremendous amount of work and anxiety. “Financially, it’s very, very difficult. And I think there needs to be a cultural change,” she said, believing it imperative for the state to find a way for farmers to be able to make a living. Olsen agreed, saying the food economy has suffered an unrealistic expectation for years: That food should be cheap. It’s always been their mission at Green Mountain Girls to educate people about sustainable food production. “The truth is you do get what you pay for. ... the costs of it are borne elsewhere,” she said. Tourist-dependent Burr Morse, owner and heir to the Morse Farm Sugarworks in East Montpelier, has sought the attention of tourists and visitors much of his life. Morse Farm, which produces maple products and raises beef cattle and Christmas trees, operates a large store, mail order and online retail operation, and a ski touring center. It started in 1966 when his father, who never cared much for dairy farming, sold the herd and opened a vegetable stand, eventually reaching out to the visitors in Montpelier. His dad, he said, was something of a unique thinker and his decisions were bold for the time. “Now, we’re largely carrying the place on tourism,” he said. Morse said he tends to have a “glass half-empty” viewpoint, and is not optimistic for the fate of small Vermont farms. Even with the growth in tourism, he cautioned that most farms aren’t as close to the state capital as Morse Farm, and it’s hard to lure visitors. Really, he doesn’t think farming will get much easier until farmers can get a better milk price. “That’s what this land wants to do. It wants to support dairy cows,” he said. Still, he admits that staying on the farm has allowed him to do things he’s wanted to do all his life, like write, work to make the site a fun place to visit, and be “an entertainer, of sorts.” “I fought it for years. Didn’t want to be here. … I guess I love it,” Morse said with a quick laugh. Simon-Nobes said the agritourism task force works to give training and assistance to farmers, whether they are looking to open their greenhouse to the community once per year, or start a major tourism based business initiative. It’s part of how agriculture remains viable. “One of the important things is to keep that working landscape working so that people continue to be attracted to coming to this state,” she said.

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