Vermont Farms Attract Tourists
Published September 5, 2008
Set against the lengthy history of farming in Vermont, the term “agritourism” is a relatively new one — used to define everything from pick-your-own apples to a day spent petting alpacas.
For untold years farmers have welcomed visitors. Old farms were renovated into bed and breakfasts and farm stands dotted the country roads, but it wasn’t until 2000 that any state considered it as a significant factor in the farm economy.
Conducting two studies, one in 2000 and another in 2002, Vermont was the first state to study the economic impact of agritourism, finding the market to be a significant cottage industry for Vermont farmers. In 2002, agritourism represented 4 percent of the total farm income, nearly a 100 percent increase over just two years earlier.
These are the most recent numbers, says Beth Kennett, chairwoman of the Vermont Farms Association, adding that the association eagerly awaits the release of updated numbers in February 2009.
“Because of our efforts,” Kennett says, “we were able to get included, in the ’07 national ag-census, a question about agritourism.” This will be the first national set of numbers, she says, including updated Vermont numbers.
In 1998, Kennett helped launch the Vermont Farms Association as a way to enhance, encourage and support agritourism in Vermont. The association manages a Web site at www.vtfarms.org, connecting tourists to the association’s 75 participating members, as well as publishing a brochure sent to all inquiries received by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
“Each of our members is unique,” says Kennett, “in that it is the full range of agriculture in Vermont, from flower gardens to dairy farms and everything in between.”
Kennett says anecdotally that she has seen a real surge in agritourism since 2002. Kennett and her family own and operate Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester, a seven-room bed and breakfast and a fully functioning, 110-cow dairy farm. The Kennetts moved to the farm in 1979 and started hosting guests in 1984.
Along with taking in guests and milking twice a day, Liberty Hill boasts family-style breakfasts and dinners —featuring the best in local and farm-fresh ingredients — as well as tours of the farm and a willingness to educate its visitors.
Kennett says visitors will often come to the barn to watch them work.
“We get a lot of suburban folk who maybe remember their grandfather or great-uncle who had a farm and they wanted to expose their kids to where their food comes from,” she says.
Pam Allen is co-chairwoman of the Vermont Farms Association and part owner of Allenholm Farm in South Hero, where she farms with her husband Ray Allen, their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. The Allen farm has been in the family since Ray’s great-grandfather started the farm in 1870, involving, over the years, seven generations of the Allen family. Allenholm is the oldest operating orchard in the state and the only commercial grower of the Vermont Gold apple.
“It has been a wonderful way for us to have jobs for the grandkids,” says Pam, “which, I think, in many instances is what this is all about. Agritourism is the way farmers can continue to farm and hopefully turn it over to the next generation.”
Although Allenholm Farm continues to sell apples commercially, supplying several large supermarkets, the family has fully encompassed the ideas of agritourism. The farm offers a two-bedroom suite for guest accommodation and operates a farm store and a petting paddock (Ray doesn’t much like the word “zoo” — no lions and zebras here, he says). The Allens also make a number of their own products, selling their own fruits and vegetables, and offer bike rentals and tractor rides.
“What we are really selling now is a farm experience,” Ray says.
Ray and Pam Allen make an estimated 2,500 pies a year, while their daughter-in-law makes all the jellies and jams. The farm also produces dried apples, sells a renowned maple Creemee, and sends apples to Barre to be made into applesauce. The Allens started hosting guests in 1997, when the Allens’ two daughters moved out and left what Pam called an empty nest.
“It is wonderful for us because we didn’t have to give up any space of our own to do this,” she says.
The two-bedroom suite is located on the lower floor of the Allens’ home, separate from the couple’s living space above; a private deck overlooks the orchard. Ray says the income generated from the guest accommodation is an important factor in the farm’s economics, unaffected by the whims of a season’s weather.
Falkenberry Farm in Benson, owned and operated by Jacki and Bob Ambrozaitis, is a recent newcomer to the business of agritourism. The couple has owned the farm for seven years and two years ago began renting out a three-bedroom guesthouse.
Jacki Ambrozaitis says the house was originally used for farm workers and was rented out as a full-time residence before the couple considered hosting guests.
With seven children, Jacki wanted to work from home. She says rentals in the beginning were slow, but have picked up this year. The farm raises boar goats, dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys and bunnies.
“It has been really fun bringing in people from the city,” Jacki said. “The kids that have never touched a cow or seen a goat — it has been pretty rewarding.”
Through the Vermont Farms Association Web site, Falkenberry Farm has established a link to its own Web site and has been looking into other ways of marketing. Right now word of mouth is their best marketing tool, Jacki says.
“The biggest advantage of Vermont Farms,” says Pam Allen, “is the networking and support we get from each other, because we are all trying to do the same thing, so the frustrations or the successes are shared.”
One of the most significant benefits to agritourism as a whole, says both Pam Allen and Beth Kennett, is cross-marketing. No matter the reason one might first come to the farm, be it an overnight stay or a maple Creemee, the result is exposure to the farm’s other products and services.
Pam says this also helps other farms, both locally and in other states, in that it raises people’s awareness about life on the farm and the availability of local, farm-fresh products. She expects that visitors to her farm and others in the state are that much more likely to seek out their own local farms.
For more information on Vermont farms offering agritourism, visit the Vermont Farms Association online at vtfarms.org.