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Agritourism study finds on-farm activities are good business for farmers

Child on a tractor at a farm.

Tourism is the second-highest revenue-generating industry in the commonwealth, contributing $21.2 billion to the state’s economy.

From pick-your-own strawberry operations and winery tasting rooms to pumpkin patch fields and cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, agritourism is growing in the commonwealth and across the country. A recent statewide study by Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension found that visiting farms is not just a pleasant way for consumers to leisurely spend a Sunday — it’s also a viable way for farmers to supplement their income.

The study defines agritourism as a value-added activity that generates additional net farm income and creates a loyal consumer base for branded farm products.

Agriculture is Virginia’s No. 1 industry; it has consistently grown over the last two years, reaching a record $3.35 billion in exports in 2014. Tourism is the second-highest revenue-generating industry in the commonwealth, contributing $21.2 billion to the state’s economy and making a marriage of the two industries a logical economic strategy for growing businesses.

Forty-two percent of operators who responded to the survey reported that agritourism contributed between 76 and 100 percent of their farm income. The study also found that in 2013 almost all of the operations surveyed claimed that the average agritourism visitor spent $31 to $40 on the property per visit.

Wineries accounted for 44 percent of the respondents. The growth of the wine industry in the commonwealth over the last 10 years was cited in the study as a positive example of the economic power of agritourism.

“The study dealt with a decline of the midsize farms in the commonwealth, so finding ways to help the entrepreneur who would be likely to start a farming operation of this size was important,” said Gustavo Ferreira, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics and Virginia Cooperative Extension economist.

Unlike Europe, where agritourism has been a common activity that engages tourists and encourages interaction with local farmers, agritourism is not thought of in the same way in the United States. This could be causing both the agriculture and tourism industries to lose revenue, not to mention the lost opportunity to strengthen relationships between farmers and consumers.

“Farming isn’t just good business, it’s good community building,” said Martha Walker, an Extension community viability specialist and collaborator on the study. “Our survey found that overall the industry is viable and has the potential to add value and income to the state’s No. 1 industry.”

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