Have you ever wanted to have a picnic in a vineyard and see how your favorite bottle of Merlot was made? What about trying your own hand at milking a cow? How about something as simple as picking your own strawberries for preserves?
Farm experiences like these are not out of your reach. In fact, they are available across the commonwealth everyday at one of the many agritourism destination sites in Kentucky. Yes, “agritourism” – increasingly popular in today’s ever-more-urban world, it’s part of what’s made tourism a $10 billion business in the state.
When many of Kentucky’s early agritourism entrepreneurs began opening up their farms to visitors, there wasn’t a name for the experience they provided the public.
“When we began entertaining people on the farm with hayrides and other activities in the early ’80s we didn’t call it ‘agritourism,’ ” said Bill Jackson, owner of Jackson’s Orchard in Warren County. “We just wanted city folks to come out to the farm for a good time, and hopefully spend a little more money.”
The term agritourism was developed by the tourism industry as a way to define an emerging trend of people visiting a working farm or any agricultural, horticultural or agribusiness operation for enjoyment, education or active involvement in the activities of the farm or operation.
The agritourism industry has gained in momentum over the last 20 years across the nation, and Kentucky’s agritourism industry has exploded in the last few years. As more and more individuals are removed from the agricultural experience, even in rural areas, it appears there is a desire to learn more about the agrarian lifestyle that is a rich part of the culture of the commonwealth. Another trend that has fueled the growth of agritourism in Kentucky has been the move in the consumer culture to purchase locally grown foods.
“We have customers who will buy from us at the farmers’ market during the week, and still drive out to the farm on the weekend just for a visit,” explained Jenny Evans of Evans Orchard in Scott County. “It is amazing to me how important it has become for people to make that connection between the food they buy and where it is grown. It wasn’t like that when we began selling at the market 15 years ago.”
The consumer’s desire to get to know the individual that is producing the food their family consumes has been a boost to many agritourism venues in Kentucky. Yet, it isn’t just the Kentucky Proud food items that bring the people to the farm; it is the array of entertainment these venues offer their customers.
Hayrides, educational tours and corn mazes are found at many agritourism sites in the state, but the fun doesn’t stop there. On some farms, agritourism is really agri-adventure-tourism: Guests spend the night and work the fields or feed the animals. For those not up to such a full agriculture experience, other farms offer a little less intense farm experience with trail rides and focused experiences, such as winemaker for a day.
“People are going to farms for an experience,” explained Stephen Yates, the Kentucky Agritourism director. “For some it is just a chance to get fresh fruit and let their kids see where an apple comes from, while others are looking for a true on-farm adventure. The exciting thing for me is to see Kentucky’s industry growing to provide these opportunities for consumers.”
The agritourism industry has gained in momentum over the last 20 years across the nation. Trails from wineries to orchards have been developed in states from New York to Washington.
Even pop culture has embraced the agritourism concept. The award-winning 2004 movie Sideways showcased the winery trails of California, encouraging many to venture down small roads to experience on-farm wineries. In an episode of NBC’s offbeat comedy The Office last year, the character Dwight highlighted agritourism in a storyline pertaining to his infamous family beet farm B&B.
In Kentucky, the potential for this real-life industry was recognized in early 2000, and in 2002 the General Assembly passed a bill creating the Kentucky Agritourism Council and the Office of Agritourism, an interagency office between the state Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Tourism Department. The council and Office of Agritourism provide support through such initiatives as an agritourism marketing study and an agritourism Web site (http://www.kentuckytourism.com/thingstodo/agritourism.htm).
Though there are no formal statistics gathered yet on the agritourism industry by the Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service, growth in the industry can be seen in every county across the commonwealth. The marketing study completed in 2005 identified 268 agritourism businesses in Kentucky. Since that study was completed the industry has exploded according to Yates.
“We currently have 220 agritourism businesses listed on the new Kentucky Farms Are Fun Web site (www.kyfarmsarefun.com),” Yates said. “Yet according to lists created by extension agents, regional organizations and previous studies, we estimate there are up to 450 agritourism-related businesses in the state and probably another 30 potential businesses that will open in the next year.”
The diversity of these Agritourism ventures ranges from horse farms to herb farms and wineries to cider mills. Coupled with a tourism industry that attracts more than 40 million visitors a year, this diversity is creating a strong foundation for success of the agritourism industry in Kentucky.
The rich heritage and diverse industry of Kentucky agriculture created a perfect environment to develop diverse agritourism ventures in the state. However, as with nearly all new business, the financial hurdle kept many individuals from jumping in as the industry began to emerge.
“Many of the individuals who started their operations years ago did it by small steps,” explained Yates. “A shed to sell produce was turned into a store; a swing set was built for the kids, and so on. It was financially prohibitive for many to build the markets, restaurants and operations we are seeing today.”
So what did make it possible for Kentucky’s agritourism industry to make the leap from a few orchards and u-pick fields to the more than 300 venues in the state today?
Kentucky Agriculture Development Fund investments – a result of tobacco settlement programs – offered the financial incentive that many small farms needed to make their dream a reality. The agritourism grant program and support from the Kentucky Proud initiative of the Kentucky Agriculture Development Fund infused much-needed financial resources into these small operations to allow them to develop into agritourism businesses.
During this time, meanwhile, tobacco buyouts encouraged many small farmers to look at other endeavors. For some, agritourism has been a way to restore income by adding value to existing agricultural assets such as crops, livestock and the natural resources that the farm has to offer.
“Without a doubt the Ag Development Board’s early support of agritourism has made a big difference in this area,” said Jim Mahan, a Fayette County farmer and Ag Development Board member. “We have a strong agritourism industry in this region, and it has been very helpful to keep folks on the farm. Even more important, it gives folks who aren’t on the farm more opportunities to experience and understand the importance of agriculture to the area.”
Not only have Ag Development Funds been used to support individual agritourism endeavors, but the funds have also been used to develop the infrastructure an emerging industry needs for growth.
“The position of Kentucky agritourism director was funded in part with Agriculture Development Funds,” explained Yates. “It is designed to be a position that works with both the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and Kentucky Tourism as an advocate for the industry.”
Yates also works with regional organizations and individual operations to assist on issues ranging from grant opportunities to liability insurance for the operations.
“This year we had our first statewide agritourism summit focusing on education and resources for the agritourism business,” said Yates. “Plus, it was at the summit that we launched the new Kentucky Farms are Fun Web site focused on promoting Kentucky’s agritourism industry.”
“The most important thing in developing your agritourism business is to find what works for your operation, in your area,” explained Jackson. “For us it was taking the orchard that had been a part of our farm for years and then focusing on being a destination for families and kids.”
Jackson’s sentiment is the common thread among those successful agritourism ventures in the state. Producers have taken their passion or skill and built upon it to create a destination for people in the area.
“My husband, Chris, and I have always loved wine. When we put in our vineyard it was originally just to grow grapes to use in making our own wine. Now, that passion has grown into our business today,” said Denise Nelson, owner of Chrisman Mill Vineyards and Winery in Jessamine County. “Our success is in that we can still do what we love and at the same time provide a destination for people to come out and enjoy the day on a farm, a nice meal with wine and hopefully learn a little about Kentucky’s wine history.”
Some agritourism operators find real reward, too, in teaching others about agriculture. From school groups on learning field trips to families who make the farm a weekly destination, answering questions and giving tours tends to be a key to the success for agritourism ventures.
“To have a school group come to the farm and show them what a cow eats, then a cow being milked, and finally have them come back to the store and have fresh-made ice cream and see them make the connection from the field to the cow to the ice cream, that is amazing,” said Carl Chaney, owner of Chaney’s Dairy Barn in Warren County.
Many owners have seen, too, that the agritourism side of the business can provide their overall operation with the diversity needed to ensure financial growth as well as an incentive for family members to stay on or return to the farm.
Chaney, Evans and Jackson all have had family members return to the farm to help run the agritourism business, an option that might not have been possible had their operations remained strictly production oriented. In fact, Jackson said it was his agritourism operation that paid the bills last year as the production side was hit with a late freeze and a long, hot, dry summer. The upshot for his business is that it has taught the Jacksons what they have to do to survive on the farm – and that agritourism without a doubt is critical for success.
“The other day at church one of the college students came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Jackson do you know what “JO” is?’ She went on to say that on campus if someone says let’s go out to JO this afternoon that means let’s go out to Jackson’s Orchard,” laughed Jackson. “I guess that means we are a pretty fun place for kids of all ages.”