Farmers throughout the region are getting ready for farm tour season, and dozens of farms in the Southern Appalachians will open their gates to the public this month. At many farms, the community can walk through the fields, hear about the history of the farm, ask questions, and learn about the romance and realities of farm life.
Stephanie Boxberger of Stoney Hollow Farm in Graham County, North Carolina welcomes the public to her farm six days a week. It’s a u-pick farm where the community can pick their own berries, peaches, plums, and vegetables like snow peas.
“We are totally geared to agritourism,” she says. “We just enjoy showing people how things are growing and where they’re growing. We love to see families come out and spend time together doing an activity that everyone can enjoy.”
Regional farm tours and u-pick berry farms are both forms of agritourism, which is growing both as a concept and an economic driver for small and medium-sized farms. ASAP hosted two training workshops this spring to help local farmers learn how to incorporate agritourism into their farm business.
The most recent training was held in the rolling green hills of Jackson County, North Carolina. About 30 farmers came from the far western part of the state on a warm afternoon in late May. Shelton Family Farm hosted this year’s event. William Shelton runs a wholesale commercial operation that produces tomatoes, strawberries, and hydroponic lettuce. The farm hosts school groups from time to time, but it’s rare to see William Shelton giving a tour here.
“I’ve had a u-pick strawberry operation for 31 years, and I see a lot of familiar faces that come to the farm every year for various produce that they prefer to buy here, but I have not promoted it as a place for tourism,” he says.
Today is an exception. A group of farmers gather around while he walks through the strawberry fields and alongside his greenhouse. Molly Nicholie is here from ASAP to talk about ways to incorporate a greenhouse like this one into agritourism.
The group has lots of ideas about how to make agritourism part of their farms, but it’s not a good fit for every farm. Some farmers like William Shelton say hiring extra staff and taking time away from farming to lead tours is a challenge.
“I love people and I love to talk to people, but if people approach me throughout the day I’m going to talk to them and not get anything else done,” he says.
Molly Nicholie points out that there are ways to welcome the public to your farm without committing to a tour every weekend.
“We have some farms that are part of ASAP’s Farm Tour and that’s the only time they’re ever open to the public because they don’t have the time and the staffing to open up their farm every single weekend or every day. But they also see the value of connecting with the community, telling the story of the farm, and helping to build those relationships,” she says.
Those relationships can have a big impact on a farm business. Tours spread awareness about a farm so the public can recognize their products at farmers markets or in grocery stores, and visitors often want to extend their experience by purchasing produce or meat while on the tour.
Agritourism goes beyond dollars and cents; it also enriches the lives and connections for people who visit the farm. Meeting a farm’s animals or seeing acres of hot peppers can inspire a greater understanding of agriculture, and creates bonds between the community and the farmers who grow their food.
There are more than five regional farm tours in mountains each year, including The ASAP’s Farm Tour the weekend of June 25th and 26th, 2016. Find a schedule at www.fromhere.org
Here at Growing Local, we’ll be sharing the stories of farmers on the ASAP tour in the coming weeks. Learn how to purchase passes, see photos of participating farms, and plan your route on our website: www.asapconnections.org