Agritourism Workshop Encourages New Ideas

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Dana Gochenour Virginia Correspondent

EDINBURG, Va. — Thomas Edison said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

If that theory holds true, then many great ideas were born at the “Agritourism in a Creative Economy” workshop, held Sept. 19 at the historic Edinburg Mill.

The event brought nearly 50 farmers and tourism professionals together to share advice on operating a successful agritourism venture and brainstorm for new ways to make connections between farms and the general public.

The group included farmers with many years of experience in traditional farming endeavors, as well as those with well-established agritourism businesses and those with no prior farm experience who came in search of a place to start.

The backdrop for the event was the Edinburg Mill, which was built in 1848 and operated as a feed mill until 1978. The building was home to The Edinburg Mill Restaurant from 1979 to 1998, and was in jeopardy of falling into disrepair until it was purchased by the Town of Edinburg and the Edinburg Heritage Foundation in 2000.

“We didn’t want the building to be destroyed,” said long-time Edinburg mayor Dan Harshman.

The workshop was sponsored by the Fields of Gold Agritourism Initiative, which was created by the Central Shenandoah District Planning Commission to promote educational and recreational agricultural activities within the Shenandoah Valley.

Shenandoah County is the northernmost participant in the Fields of Gold Region, which stretches south to Rockingham, Augusta and Rockbridge counties and west to Highland and Bath counties.

Fields of Gold also has the backing of local tourism and elected officials, and several of both were in attendance.

“We are trying to be a destination for tourists,” said Shenandoah County Administrator Doug Walker, in explaining the logic of promoting the area’s large agriculture industry.

The sentiment was echoed by Steve Baker, a farmer and member of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors. Baker said his love of the area’s agriculture and open spaces is what drove him into politics.

“I wanted to make sure that agriculture has a future here in the valley,” Baker said.

One of the first things that the workshop attempted to do for participants was to explain exactly what agritourism is — and the answer is that agritourism is many things.

Leanne DuBois, of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, summed it up simply as “a marriage between two industries — agriculture and tourism.”

DuBois then pointed out that Wikipedia goes a step further and defines agritourism as “any agriculturally-based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch.”

The main focus of Dubois’ presentation was to get participants thinking about new ideas that could be implemented in their own operations. In between discussing new trends in agritourism and the reasons for beginning an agritourism venture, she tossed out more than 50 ideas of ways to add value to a farm.

Some ideas required no input from the farmer, such as charging a fee for an art class to use your landscape as the subject of a painting. Others involved much more work, like elaborate festivals arranged as a collaborative effort between several farms.

By the time the group broke for a lunch prepared from fresh, locally sourced ingredients, everyone looked a little bit overwhelmed, with their heads spinning from all of the possibilities.

After lunch, Martha Walker, a community viability specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, provided quite a reality check with a discussion about managing the increased liability concerns that arise when the public is invited onto a farm.

“There are a thousand ideas out there to generate revenue on your farm, but if you don’t work to prevent liability and protect yourself you can lose your farm,” Walker said.

She stressed that anyone thinking of starting an agritourism venture of any kind should meet with their accountant, insurance agent and lawyer before they begin.

“Every new event or activity you add to your farm brings a new risk,” she said.

Walker encouraged everyone to make safety a priority and to develop a checklist for daily use by employees to ensure that safety standards are met.

Walker also led a discussion on marketing strategies, and focused in on communicating directly and quickly with customers using outlets such as websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

She also encouraged folks not to be afraid to charge fees for farm activities.

“This is not missionary work, people!” Walker said. “This is not free! It is your business.”

DuBois pointed out that there are many low-cost or free opportunities for Virginia farms to promote their products and agritourism ventures.

The Virginia Grown program promotes fresh products, like fruits and vegetables, and there is no cost to create a listing on the program’s website.

The Virginia’s Finest distinction is available for value-added products, and requires completion of an application and approval by the Virginia’s Finest review committee.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has also begun an initiative called “Choose the Commonwealth” to encourage Virginia restaurants, events and other businesses to use food products grown in the state.

The overarching theme of the event was the importance of networking with other farmers and cooperating for the benefit of all.

“Word of mouth is your most powerful advertising tool,” Walker said.

With that in mind, Walker continued into a presentation on “over-the-top” customer service, reminding attendees that satisfied customers will tell their friends.

“Pay fantastic attention to detail in your product and property,” she said, noting that business owners must be willing to do more than the minimum to provide customers with an unforgettable experience.

The final speaker was Julie Haushalter, who owns and operates White Oak Lavender Farm in Harrisonburg, Va. She gave a first-hand account of the “brags and blunders” she has experienced since opening her farm to the public in 2009.

“People deeply desire a way to get out of the craziness,” Haushalter said.

To help make that happen, she and her employees focus on hospitality through an effort to “always get to yes” when making sales, leading tours and answering questions.

“This is a really cool time to be in agriculture,” said Haushalter.

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