Adding a Layer of Value and Education to Land-Based Businesses

By Meriwether Hardie

We stand in the Pack Barn, staring up at the tall ceiling. We hear the squeals of piglets playfully wrestling in the pen right outside the barn. Our farm guide explains how forty Belted Galloway cattle spend the winter in this 3,000 square foot space. Although we currently stand on cold concrete, she explains that prior to the ground freezing in the fall, the farm team will fill up this space with several feet of hay, and then bring in the herd as the ground begins to freeze.

  The cattle at Philo Ridge Farm eager to get out of the Pack Barn and into green pasture on a warm spring day.

The cattle at Philo Ridge Farm eager to get out of the Pack Barn and into green pasture on a warm spring day.

Each day in the winter the farm team will add a large round bale of hay to this space. The cows will graze the hay throughout the day, trampling some of it down as additional bedding. As the winter months pass, more and more hay will be added to the bedding, mixing in with the herd’s manure and urine. Biologic activity begins to break down the urine, manure, and haw, and creates heat that the cows enjoy during the cold months.  

This breakdown of the bedding is the first stages of creating nutrient-rich compost that will eventually be spread on our fields in the summer months. In the late spring, the herd will be let out of the barn and back into the pasture. The farm guide explains this is one of her favorite things to watch as the normally calm and slow-moving herd runs quickly out of the barn leaping and frolicking , excited to be back in green open pasture. With that, our guide takes us into the market garden, and allows everyone to pull a golden orange carrot from the field as a mid-tour snack while she begins to provide an overview of the farm’s vegetable production. 

  Visitors learn about the Pack Barn during a tour of Philo Ridge Farm. Photo by Kelly Dudash.

Visitors learn about the Pack Barn during a tour of Philo Ridge Farm. Photo by Kelly Dudash.

It is Vermont Open Farm Week and I am participating in a farm tour at Philo Ridge Farm, one of our long-term management projects. Our group consists of interested parties of all ages and they have come to the farm to celebrate agriculture and share an authentic experience about where their food comes from and the complex systems behind it. These visitors may come for the experience of the tour at Philo Ridge Farm but after the tour they stay for a meal in the market, play a game on the lawn, and leave with a deeper understanding of their local food system as well as some Philo Ridge Farm organic produce and meat tucked into their bag. This aspect of bringing consumer and community members on farm, is an important part of the history of agriculture and as well as for the future of our community supported farms.  

The history of on farm hospitality goes back many centuries in Italy, where travelers and pilgrims would knock on farmhouse doors and ask for food and shelter. As small-scale farming became less profitable in the 1950s to 1970s, more and more farms were abandoned as farmers left to search for work in larger towns and cities. In 1985 Italy passed an “agriturismo” law to help increase farm income and create jobs in rural economies. In Italy today, Agritourism represents one of the main drivers for on farm diversification, has contributed to the economic development and wellbeing of rural areas, and attracts millions of tourists each year. Many countries around the world have studied Italy’s agritourism successes and passed similar laws to try and support rural agriculture communities.

  The farm stand at Hana Ranch provides an entry point to farm tours and other experiences. Photo by Molly DeCoudreaux.

The farm stand at Hana Ranch provides an entry point to farm tours and other experiences. Photo by Molly DeCoudreaux.

Our team at Bio-Logical Capital believes in agritourism as an important form of diversification for farmers. Time and again, we’ve also found that agritourism provides powerful and transformative experiences—people who travel to view wildlife, volunteer for conservation, visit farms, or learn about the history and culture of a place are frequently impacted with lasting memories, a new outlook on the world, and a stronger understanding of the natural environment.

Our agritourism approach weaves together multiple aspects of a business to spark a deep connection to the land and the community. It helps stimulate local economies, advance conservation efforts, and enhance awareness and respect for nature and communities. Financially, agritourism further diversifies revenue lines, increases land value, helps improve habitat, and creates local economic benefits. Visitors do more than spend the night in local lodging, in visiting land, they create a market for the many other industries that take place there, like guided tours, recreational and technical classes, local produce, and crafts.

Our approach to agritourism is broken into three parts:

1. Be authentic to the place

To protect and enhance the land’s future, we identify and showcase existing resources to create sustainable tourism opportunities that allow people to experience the true character of the land and its heritage. There are many interconnected ways that the land provides these gifts:

  • The beauty of stunning vistas, trails, or other natural features

  • The storytelling power of cultural and historic sites and the reflection that these sites provide into local values and traditions

  • The distinctive natural systems that sometimes mean this is the only place to experience a particular plant or animal, or to witness an ecosystem working at a micro level

  • The industries that support the local economy, such as working farms and ranches, crafts, or local foods

  • A wide range of recreational opportunities like hiking and biking, hunting and fishing, bird watching, rock climbing, horseback riding, swimming, or just finding a peaceful moment alone in nature

  • The chance to learn about new research or restoration methods, or gain technical skills

2. Sit lightly on the land

Our first responsibility in agritourism is to protect the resources that define the character of the land and make it worth a visit in the first place. All our efforts are grounded in conserving and restoring the land itself, and minimizing the impact tourism has on the land. If additional infrastructure is needed to support an agritourism program,  we build small scale, light-footprint development that maximizes energy and water efficiency, embraces the use of rapidly renewable building materials, integrates on-site gardens to provide food, and maintains the buildings so that there is minimal waste, pollution or environmental harm. In addition, we develop agritourism activities on a scale that fits with the land and the local community.

3. Invite people to enjoy and connect with the land

Agritourism efforts should be specifically designed with respect to the land in a way that welcomes, engages and informs visitors about the social, economic and environmental impacts their visit has. Guests can then learn through direct experiences with nature by taking in appropriately sited signage, finding self-guided wilderness trails, and participating in hands-on projects. People are encouraged to connect with the land and its people in a very personal and experiential way that will touch their lives forever. 

  The bi-annual Hana Ranch Rodeo provides guests an opportunity to learn about authentic Hawaiian paniolo culture.

The bi-annual Hana Ranch Rodeo provides guests an opportunity to learn about authentic Hawaiian paniolo culture.

In creating an authentic agritourism experience, you can empower responsible visitors who are interested in social, economic and environmental sustainability–people who experience, understand and value the land and the resources it provides. It generates awareness of and appreciation for culture, history and heritage. This in turn provides financial benefits and inspiration for local communities by creating opportunities for jobs and business skill development ranging from hospitality and service to tour guiding and conservation. This is more than a nice vacation, it is a transformative experience through which people see the land as part of themselves and remain dedicated to protecting it in the future, in whatever community they live in.

If you are considering adding agritourism to your business, check out these additional resources:

Shelburne Farms – Agritourism Guides for Farmers – Includes guides on risk management, permitting and zoning, and business and financial planning.

Conducting Farm and Ranch Tours – A comprehensive list from the University of California of steps to successfully plan, develop, schedule, conduct and conclude a tour or your farm or ranch.

Alternative Enterprises and Agritourism: Farming for Profit and Sustainability Resource Manuel –This manual identifies and describes publications, websites, marketing options, resource lists, funding programs, data and more related to many aspects of farm diversification.