The Rise of Agritourism
In advanced industrialised countries, small farmers have been challenged by changing economic and social conditions, such as increased global competition, falling commodity prices, and capital- and technology-intensive agricultural production. In addition, there has been added public pressure to make expensive changes in farming methods, due to public environmental concerns about industrialised agricultural production in combination with political pressures to reduce agricultural subsidies. These changing economic and social conditions have disproportionately impacted smaller farms in Europe and the US.
Agritourism is becoming an increasingly popular way for rural property owners to earn additional income from agricultural properties. In addition to more traditional farm tours and seasonal activities, such as hay rides, corn mazes and u-pick fruits, farm owners are devising new ways to bring people to their door by offering more entertainment-oriented activities. Some farmers are offering their barns as venues for weddings, parties, dances and other special events. Others are opening their homes to visitors for vacations, so guests can experience life on a working farm by helping out with routine farm chores, such as feeding or herding the livestock, milking the animals, making cheese, collecting eggs, picking vegetables and preparing farm fresh meals. Agritourism works in combination with a growing public desire to engage in rural experiences and outdoor recreational activities. By combining agriculture and tourism, agritourism offers these rural experiences to urban residents and economic diversification to farmers.
Part of the attraction of agritourism is the nostalgia it creates for a simpler time and its authenticity. Tourists are being sold, not only on beautiful sceneries and visual aesthetics, but also experiences that are meant to open up a new world for these customers who are tired of the hustle and bustle of city life. Authenticity has been an abiding theme in tourism studies and it may have a special meaning in this combination of agriculture and tourism. For one thing, the image of the family farm remains imbued with deep authenticity, the surviving representation of an old world ideal. To partake in agritourism is therefore likely to convey the sense of having a deeply authentic experience. Critics have claimed that this desire to reconnect with the life world of one’s ancestors may conflict with the nature of modern agriculture and whether the tourist will want to face its true realities. It seems therefore that often the most distinctive innovative effort involves the reinvention of tradition and rural tourism products. Examples are the recreation of home-produced products long since replaced by manufactured commodities and the provision of hands-on-experiences in crafts often recreated for tourists. As a result, some critics argue that the tourists who are running to the countryside are over-crowding and ruining the pristine beauty that they so desperately want to experience.
Agritourism can benefit the life and economy of local communities, as well as the farms themselves. Agritourism firstly means that some farms can continue in business and employ workers. Employment underscores the genuine importance of agritourism farms to local economies, as rural communities are usually areas that both have high unemployment and few alternatives for the unemployed to find work. Secondly, a significant number of agritourists come from areas reasonably local to the visited farms. This means that tourist spending on agritourism often stays in the region, helping to generate taxable revenues and more disposable incomes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural census, taken every five years, found that last year approximately 23,000 farms took part in agritourism.
These farms each earned $24,300 from agritourism, compared to five years ago, when farms engaged in this brought in only $7,200 per farm. The trend is clearly growing and the money generated will stimulate local economies. Thirdly, agritourism benefits the local community in terms of education. Many farms offer tours for elementary school-age children, who can learn where their food is coming from and how it is produced.
Farms choosing to develop agritourism have had reasonable government support. Over the last 20 years, European Union countries have spent 2 billion euros to subsidise agritourism development in rural farming areas that cannot compete in a global market with declining commodity prices. This, in turn, helps governments by keeping farmers on land, protecting picturesque rural landscapes that attract tourists, and supporting the production of regional agricultural products. As well as finance, local and national governments should create in the areas under their jurisdiction favourable environments for the development of agritourism, by changing regulatory and tax constraints, so that more farms are encouraged to enter the industry.
It is clear that there are strong economic and social benefits that agritourism can provide farmers, customers and the local areas where the farms are situated. Agritourism contributes to and enhances the quality of life in communities by expanding recreational opportunities, differentiating rural economies, and promoting the retention of agricultural lands. Working agricultural landscapes reflect the efforts of generations of farm families and often provide a defining sense of culture, heritage, and rural character. Agritourism provides educational opportunities for school children and adults to learn about this agrarian heritage, the production of food, and resource stewardship. Finally, many agritourism operations provide consumers with direct access to fresh farm goods. Agritourism is an industry with an enormous potential for growth. With it, farming could become more efficient and sustainable, rural areas could become more beautiful and farmers could become better off and more significant employers and contributors to economies.
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