More than 150 farms dot the four towns of Brant, Eden, Evans and North Collins, representing one of New York State’s most diverse concentrations of commodities, including vegetables, fruit, dairy cattle and other livestock such as buffalo and alpaca, greenhouse goods and gardens, maple syrup and honey. For nearly two hundred years, these farms have played a central role in supplying food to the population centers of the region and across the U.S., while sustaining an important piece of the region’s rural and agricultural heritage and contributing to its economic vitality.
Yet the decades-long siege on farms continues, nationally as well as regionally, with farm survival threatened by challenging economics, including rising production costs and fierce global competition, infringing development and a short supply of next-generation farmers. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of Erie County farms declined 6 percent, a rate exceeding that of the state and most of the surrounding rural counties in Western New York.
As a result, farms are increasingly turning to alternative enterprises, one of the most promising of which is agricultural tourism, a burgeoning market drawing visitors to farms to reconnect with rural heritage and working farms. Agritourism experiences are engaging and authentic, from tasting fresh, local foods, to learning about how food is grown and harvested, to exploring and recreating in natural, rural landscapes. Approximately one-third of the U.S. population, or 63 million Americans, visited farms annually during a three-year period (2000-2003), according to a national survey.
Farmers engaging in agritourism are reaping tangible benefits, including diversified income and a buffer from fluctuating markets, new opportunities to engage family members and children in farm operation, and increased public appreciation and understanding of agriculture and agricultural issues. Rural communities and their surrounding regions are enjoying renewed economic vigor, preservation of farmland and sustained agricultural heritage.
During peak growing seasons, the Southtowns boasts a number of farms tours, garden walks and agricultural festivals to attract visitors and to tap into this burgeoning agritourism market. Yet developing a premier destination for agritourism is a complex undertaking involving the full range of tourism elements, from marketing and wayfinding to capital improvements on farm properties and customer service training. The Southtowns community leaders engaged in the Agribusiness Enterprise Assessment project to gain a fuller understanding of the range of offerings available as well as the capacity of farms in essential visitor-readiness elements, to guide strategic action to advance this market.
Guided by the conviction that the collective Southtowns area has the potential to become a first-rate tourism destination in the region and beyond, the seven municipalities worked together to complete a joint tourism plan that recommends strategies and action steps for coordinating tourism programming and marketing, improving tourism infrastructure, enhancing the competitive position of agriculture and advancing key tourism projects. The Tourism Asset Inventory and subsequent Strategic Plan were made possible through funding support from the New York State Department of State Quality Communities Program. Phase one of the project produced an inventory and digital map of all tourism assets and resources in the four towns and three villages. The compilation includes attractions (e.g. museums, galleries, historical/heritage sites, gaming venues, etc.), natural resources (e.g. parks, trails, farms, waterfront access points, etc.), agriturism sites (farm markets, pick-your-own sites, nurseries, orchards, tree farms), events (e.g. festivals, parades, etc.) and accommodations (hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, cafes, etc.). The inventory identified 52 agricultural assets in the Southtowns area. The strategic plan, completed in 2007, further identifies agriculture as a niche tourism area and outlines specific action steps to assist farmers in developing viable agritourism projects that will diversify/supplement their income and sustain the regions’ rural heritage.
Consistent with plan recommendations, the completed project represents phase one of the Agritourism Enterprise Assessment, which assesses the area’s agricultural vendor’s interest in and capacity for agritourism. The Coalition once again collaborated with the University of Buffalo Regional Institute to conduct a system-wide assessment of the 52 farm operators to gauge their interest and capacity for agritourism and identify opportunities for collaboration among farmers and their respective communities in agritourism enterprise development. The goals of the assessment were to help identify both opportunities and barriers to developing an agritourism enterprise.
The specific objectives of the project were to:
1) Measure farm vendors’ interest and capacity for developing or expanding agritourism activities to diversify income and improve the sustainability of their farm operation;
2) Highlight areas of opportunity and limitation for agritourism development for both individual farm vendors and the Southtowns agricultural industry as a whole;
3) Identify niche products or services that would distinguish the Southtowns agritourism market from others in the Buffalo Niagara region; and
4) Lay the foundation for subsequent training, education and technical support services for advancing agritourism enterprise development (business and market planning, product development, customer relations, staff training).
The Southtowns Community Enhancement Coalition – the Towns of Evans, Eden, Brant and North Collins, and the Village’s of Angola, Farnham, and North Collins, representing the southern tip of Erie County, New York, have come together with a shared vision to leverage their tourism assets in the pursuit of a sustainable strategy for tourism and economic development and an improved quality of life. These municipalities are linked by their tourism appeal, as well as the similar economic and quality of life challenges they face, including a threatened agricultural way of life and stagnant economic development.
The Town of Evans, acting as lead agent for the Southtowns Community Enhancement Coalition, requested funding assistance to develop an Agritourism Enterprise Assessment of the seven Coalition Communities. The Town contracted with the Regional Institute, a major research and public policy arm of the University at Buffalo, to conduct a system-wide assessment of approximately 52 southtowns farm operators to gauge their interest and capacity for agritourism and identify opportunities for collaboration among farmers and their respective communities in agritourism enterprise development.
This project was the critical first step to implementing the Tourism Development strategic plan, which identifies agritourism as having the greatest potential for growth in the southtowns. Residents of the seven southtowns communities have been working to encourage agricultural economic development, which allows for enhanced farm profit, increase in the tax base as well as preserving the region’s history and identity.
To support the survey effort, a project Advisory Group was formed. The seven-member board included three farm and agricultural business owners, the head of the county’s Cornell Cooperative Extension office, the coordinator of the Coalition and two leaders of Southtowns municipalities. The Advisory Group met several times and provided feedback at key stages of the effort, including identification of farms, development of the survey, and outreach efforts to engage the farm community and build support in the broader community.
More than 150 farms were invited to participate in the Sowing the Seeds for Southtowns Agribusiness survey effort, with participants identified primarily through agricultural assessment records for the four towns and in consultation with community leaders. A flyer describing the purpose of the effort and outlining the steps involved was mailed to farms in October 2008, with follow up telephone contact providing additional background, addressing farm operator questions and arranging appointments for survey administration.
Surveys were administered in person on the farm property with the farm operator and/or farm owner over a three-month period (due to farm and nursery growing and harvesting seasons, it was decided to administer the survey off season to engage the fullest range of farms – from approximately November 2008 through January 2009). A total of 45 farms agreed to participate in the effort. Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes to one hour, with the following information captured:
· Farm history and ownership structure
· Farm human, physical and natural resources
· Visitor services offered and plans for new enterprises
· Operator’s outlook for the future and assessment of agritourism challenges
· Agritourism enterprise’s marketing and business capacities
· Farm collaboration and community networks
· Quality of the visitor experience and condition of farm structures
Those farms that participated in the survey effort comprise a diverse sampling of the Southtowns’ agricultural community, varying in the commodities they produce, farm acreage, annual sales, the number of years in operation, ownership structure and geographic location.
Represented in the 45 farms are 13 vegetable or fruit farms, nine dairies, seven greenhouses and nurseries, four livestock operations, five multi-purpose farms, two horse stables and boarding houses, two hay farms, one egg farm, one maple sugar shack and one apiary. Together, these farms produce more than 60 different commodities. A majority of these farms offer visitor services – there are 28 existing agritourism enterprises; 10 others are considering adding visitor services.
An overwhelming majority of surveyed farms (38 or 45) either already offer or are considering adding visitor services. The more than 100 farm operators opting not to participate did not respond to inquiries or indicated a lack of interest, lack of time, advanced age, or plans to retire or sell the farm. Many of these farms could represent a potential audience for the future once agritourism is further developed in the Southtowns and their potential role in the market becomes clearer.
A century of farming traditions are represented in these farms, with 10 of the 45 founded before 1900. Farm operators are seasoned at their trade – two out of three operators have 20 or more years of experience. Not surprisingly, then, most operators are advanced in age. Seventeen owners and operators – more than one-quarter of the total – are age 60 or older; another 33 farmers are between ages 45 and 59. With many farmers noting a lack of next-generation farmers, this trend points to a major threat to the future of farming in the Southtowns.
Farms vary widely in terms of size, though the largest number fall in the range of 200 to about 400 acres. Farms are similarly diverse in terms of annual sales. In terms of farm finances, these farms are nearly universally in the black. All but a few participating farms have positive debt-to-asset ratios and positive net incomes for the last year, although overall farms still noted difficult economic circumstances.
A majority of the farms are structured as sole proprietorships, the least formal business organization. Not surprisingly, then, many farms are family-operated, with farming as the proprietor’s main occupation. Most operators are career farmers (but nearly one-third work off the farm, which presents challenges in operating agritourism operations, as discussed later in this analysis). Notably, operators of 10 farms turned to farming, and in some cases agritourism, after retiring from another occupation.
Those farms that do employ non-family labor have small workforces, with 13 of the 27 farms with hired labor supporting one to four non-family employees. Seasonal labor is a critical component of farm labor support, with 20 farms employing such workforces. Though most seasonal workforces are fewer than five employees, the area’s larger farms hire between 20 and 50 hands during their harvesting seasons.
Once the Agribusiness Assessment/Report was completed, a public forum was held to report on the details of the project as well as the findings and conclusions. Farmers, elected official, business/community leaders, stakeholders and the general public were invited to attend. Approximately 35 –40 stakeholders attended the March 5, 2009 forum held at the Eden Town Hall. Overall the meeting was very positive and the farmers in attendance were excited by the findings and recommendations, specifically the idea of a Farm Trail. Also significant, were pledges of support, both monetary and professional, form the Erie County office of Environment and Planning and Erie County Legislator Robert Reynolds. The detailed report was successful in reminding stakeholders the economic impact and importance of agribusiness in the Western New York economy, something that is often overlooked by regional economic development agencies focused on industrial and commercial development.
In the weeks following the forum, the Coalition has received numerous overtures from farm business and other stakeholder looking to become involved in the Phase II initiative. The project has also helped in the effort to forge strategic partnerships with the agricultural community. The Coalition will work to keep these stakeholder engaged in the project and strengthen the connection.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Publications and outreach materials that resulted from this project include:
1. “Sowing the Seeds for Southtowns Agribusiness: an Assessment of Farms and a Plan for the Future” (copy of the report available at www.regional-institute.buffalo.edu)
2. Detailed Profiles of 45 farms
3. Agritourism Case Studies
4. March 5, 2009 Public Form, which provided an opportunity to solicit feedback and suggestions from key stakeholders and discuss future plans.
The Southtowns Coalition Agritourism Enterprise Assessment project was very successful and produced the following outcomes:
1. Detailed profiles of 45 farms in the seven communities representing the Southtowns, including interest and potential for building agribusiness capacity, as well as potential for collaborations with other organizations.
2. Agritourism Resource Guide, which identifies resources for: marketing; funding; business and financial planning; product development; and, small business/new farm start-ups.
3. Agritourism Case Studies (regional and national models) that provides details of best practices for the Coalition to use as a guide for developing agribusiness initiatives in the Southtowns of Erie County.
4. Assessment of existing agribusiness resources, including recommendations for specific action steps to advance agritourism in the Southtowns of Erie County:
§ Step 1: Enhance Visitor Readiness
§ Step 2: Build Agribusiness Capacity
§ Step 3: Develop Products and Services
§ Step 4: Spread the Word
§ Step 5: Make it Happen
The complete “Assessment of Farms and a Plan for the Future” can be found on the UB Regiola Institutes webside at www.regional-institute.buffalo.edu.
Additional accomplishment include the numerous strategic partnerships that have developed from this project including:
§ Coalition and Farmers
§ Farm business to farm business
§ Regional economic development/business assistance organizations and Southtowns Coalition/farmers.
The Phase I Agribusiness Assessment to be key in implementing Phase II of the Enterprise Development Project. Through Phase I, the Coalition has identified those farms that are interested in expanding and/or improving their current operation. The assessment has also outline the opportunities and obstacles to such development as well as specific action steps that need to be addressed; potential partners; and available resources.
The project has also had a significant impact on public awareness and will assist the Coalition in establishing and maintaining strategic relationships to advance agribusiness in our region. The Coalition will utilize the momentum gained by this project to enhance and expand agribusiness opportunities in the southtowns of Erie County.
The Agribusiness Advisory Board will remain active and expand to add key members of farm/tourism community. The Board has already begun to implement the action steps detailed in the Assessment report. The Coalition will also continue to pursue funding for Phase II (Agribusiness Enterprise Development) of the project. The farms that participated in the assessment and the public forum have shown an interest in developing a Farm Trail to attract visitors and tourists to the Southtowns. The Agribusiness Advisory Board will meet in May 2009 to begin development of a Farm Trail, as well as implementation of the targeted strategies outlined in the Assessment.