By Lisa Chase, PhD
Picking apples, learning how maple syrup is made, tasting heirloom tomatoes, milking a cow—all of these activities are part of the growing trend of agritourism. Visiting farms and ranches to experience agriculture and celebrate harvests is an age-old tradition that has recently been rediscovered throughout the U.S. and in other countries.
The Rutland Farmers’ Market/Photo: Rooted in Vermont
A few generations ago, most families had relatives, friends or neighbors living on farms, if they weren’t farmers themselves. Understanding how food was produced was as easy as visiting your grandparents or neighbors on their farms. But the farming population has shrunk to less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and most people, especially in urban and suburban areas, have no connections to agriculture.
To remedy this disconnect, farms and ranches are opening their barns, fields, forests, and farmhouses to the public. Visitors can learn about food and fiber production, and they get to experience firsthand the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of a working farm.
This invaluable experience helps people of all ages better understand and appreciate the challenges of food production as well as the complexity of food systems. One benefit for farmers and ranchers is that they can supplement their income through direct sales of local products and charging for experiences on their farms. It seems like a win-win for farmers and for visitors, but not everyone is in agreement about which activities should be permitted on farms and what constitutes agritourism.
Led by researchers in Italy, where the term “agriturismo” originated, there is a push for a unified definition of authentic agritourism in the European Union. The definition there carries tax and policy ramifications that are critical for farm viability over the long-term. At issue are questions about whether the term agritourism should be limited to activities on working farms that are closely related to agriculture.
Some researchers maintain that agritourism must take place on a working farm, while others include nonworking farms as well as farmers’ markets and agricultural fairs. The connection to agriculture and the engagement of visitors is also an issue, leading to policy controversies over whether activities on farms that have little to do with agriculture should be included, such as weddings and outdoor recreation like mountain biking. This disagreement over the boundaries of agritourism has hindered the ability of researchers and agricultural interests to fully understand the sector’s economic importance and develop programming to support its performance over time.
To provoke discussion and debate about the boundaries of agritourism, I co-authored a paper, “Agritourism: Toward a Conceptual Framework for Industry Analysis,” with Mary Stewart (Oregon State University Extension Service), Brian Schilling (Rutgers University), Becky Smith (Mississippi State University Extension), and Michelle Walk (Michigan State University Extension), in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.
We collaborated to develop a conceptual framework based on the literature and further reviewed by colleagues throughout the U.S. The framework encompasses core and peripheral tiers, as well as five categories of activities that include direct sales, education, hospitality, outdoor recreation, and entertainment.
Should agritourism be restricted to on-farm activities that are deeply connected to agriculture, or should the concept be broader? How important is tourism as part of the definition? And what does authenticity mean in this context? We invite colleagues to respond with their viewpoints to spur discourse in an evolving and important sector of agriculture in the U.S. and beyond. Share your thoughts at the JAFSCD Facebook page.
-Lisa Chase is the natural resources specialist at University of Vermont Extension, where she focuses on the intersection between environmental management, food systems, and community development. As the director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center, Lisa emphasizes tourism and recreation in her programming.