DOBSON — About 75 people attended a workshop in Dobson Monday afternoon aimed at sprouting ideas among local farmers and others to help them reap the harvest of North Carolina’s growing agritourism industry.
Whether it involves pick-your-own produce operations, corn mazes, farm-based restaurants, natural settings for weddings, farm riding trails or many others, agritourism is providing new ways for traditional family farms and other rural entities to achieve profitability.
“You are only limited by your imagination when it comes to agritourism,” Annie Badgett of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said during Monday’s workshop held at Surry Community College. Hosted by the Mount Airy Tourism/Tourism Partnership of Surry County, it was open to the public, and especially those involved in an agritourism business or planning to start one.
Badgett, who is agritourism marketing specialist for the state agriculture department and also lives on a small farm, joined other experts Monday at the N.C. Center for Viticulture and Enology at the local college to let folks know conditions are ripe for agritourism.
About a fourth of those attending were farmers or persons involved with some type of agritourism enterprise, based on a show of hands during what was billed as the first-ever summit on the subject locally. Collectively, the county has only begun scratching the surface in terms of maximizing such operations through marketing and use of social media.
Maximizing their potential would boost an already abundant tourism industry in this area which is aiding the economy as a whole to the tune of $116 million in expenditures during 2015 alone in Surry County. Workshop participants were told that Surry ranks 38th in tourism impact among North Carolina’s 100 counties.
In addition to the state agriculture department, Monday’s workshop reflected outreach efforts of the Appalachian Regional Commission and its Bon Appetit Appalachia! campaign, which highlights the region’s most-distinctive local food destinations.
A Bon Appetit Appalachia! online map of food businesses and entrepreneurs now contains more than 830 local-based farms, restaurants, bakeries, breweries, wineries and festivals operating in the 13 Appalachian states.
Agritourism generally is defined as opening up working farms or other agricultural settings for entertainment and educational purposes. “Agritourism is a relatively young industry,” Badgett said.
The overall goal of such sites is to “provide experiences of a lifetime to visitors,” according to the state marketing specialist, which can include tours of working farms and other educational or fun activities that might operate year-round. It can be as simple as offering natural beauty or peace and quiet.
“You have something to teach — you guys are experts,” Badgett told farm and other local representatives assembled in the viticulture center meeting room about the attraction. “You’re making memories, is what you are doing on your farm.”
Each agritourism site has its own unique story, which is a key factor in keeping that industry vibrant among the 55,000 farms in North Carolina, Badgett said.
Doing it right
Though a variety of farms and other sites can become agritourism enterprises, it was stressed Monday that this must include more than putting out a sign and saying y’all come. A well-thought-out plan is needed for both the operation and its marketing.
Site owners must ask themselves what exists on their property which could be opened to visitors and offer them good experiences in order to become a profitable endeavor, Badgett recommends, and this needn’t require a huge financial investment.
“Use what you have and what you know.”
Since some farmers inherently have lived a remote existence, there also are socialization factors to consider such as the developing of hospitality skills, Badgett said.
This involves identifying a “face” for the farm or other entity — the person who’ll be the host, educator or storyteller, she explained.
Provide gathering spaces, restroom facilities and a retail segment also are important enhancements.
A common denominator for successful agritourism is something everyone requires for survival — food.
Another speaker at Monday afternoon’s workshop, Matt Powell of Destination by Design, a promotional firm in Boone, told the participants that 131 million Americans are considered “culinary travelers,” which makes up 51 percent of all leisure travelers.
Badgett said when food is available at a location, the length of visitor stays and the overall value of the experience are increased, which has been manifested with the establishment of farm-to-table or gourmet restaurants at sites.
This requires adherence to food-preparation and other health regulations, along with maintaining liability insurance or bio-security or emergency plans.
Benefits of agritourism, besides profits, can include preservation of family farmland and inspiring children or grandchildren to farm.
Among reasons why such businesses fail, Badgett continued, are a lack of commitment to welcome visitors, providing no clear benefits to guests or a lack of authenticity — copying something offered by others.
Marketing a key
The key to a successful agri-business is to make it a “destination” rather than a location in the minds of consumers, workshop attendees were told.
This can be done with a marketing effort, which again needn’t require spending a lot of money, Badgett said, noting that grant programs are offered for such projects.
It should simply create a cohesive look, feel and message that can be put on a sign or incorporated when answering the telephone.
A number of Internet platforms can be relied on to promote agritourism businesses, according to workshop speakers.
“Social media is huge,” said Andre Nabors, manager of partner relations with Visit North Carolina, a unit of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, who also spoke Monday.
Social media, including Facebook, Twitter and others, has forever changed the way people talk about, experience and discover food, according to Powell, the Destination by Design representative.
About 70 percent of adults now use social media, he said, with 56 percent relying on word of mouth from others to guide their visits to tourism destinations.
“People trust what other people say,” Powell said. “That’s what influences their decisions.”
“It truly boils down to one customer at a time,” said Badgett. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Catching on here
The agritourism concept is making inroads in Surry, based on a list of about 16 attendees representing not only its healthy population of vineyards but farm and ranch operations and even sites specializing in coffee, pickles and other products.
Borrowed Land Farm, for example, a Pinnacle entity, offers cultivated mushrooms, and displayed its products at Monday’s workshop along with a handful of others.
One was Miss Angel’s Farm, a pick-your-own fruit and vegetable offshoot of the Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies business in downtown Mount Airy. Owners Angela and Randy Shur are launching it this year west of town.
Angela Shur said the new enterprise recognizes the trend of people desiring fresh food obtained close to where it’s produced — something stressed at the workshop.
People want items straight from the tree or farm to the table. “So it’s a different ballgame now,” Shur said.
“It goes right to the source,” she remarked while offering apples and other items to workshop attendees.
“That’s the whole thing about agritourism.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.