Virginia Cooperative Extension, in cooperation with tourism agencies, the State Congressman’s office, farmers, and existing entrepreneurs in agri-tourism identified several needs related to economic development in Southwest Virginia. They included: the need for farm families to generate new income in order to retain family farms and sustain or improve their standard of living, the need for innovative strategies such as agri-tourism to combat unemployment and poverty in the area, the need for planned development and growth of communities, and the need for education for existing and potential entrepreneurs.
To address these needs this project: (1) developed and implemented an asset mapping tool to determine existing and potential agri-tourism businesses, (2) mapped the local tourism infrastructure, (3) assessed educational needs of existing and potential agri-tourism businesses, (4) conducted educational programming according to the educational needs determined through assessment, (5) provided consultation with individual existing or potential agri-tourism businesses.
As a result of this project we identified area agri-tourism businesses, determined their immediate educational needs, provided four educational opportunities which addressed their needs and two that were designed to educate the tourism industry, and developed new data bases.
The definition of Agri-tourism, that this project used, is offering a product/s AND/OR a service/s for profit, in a rural or farm setting, to tourists in a manner that will give them an “experience” while on vacation.
Virginia Cooperative Extension has many collaborators who share the idea that agri-tourism is an opportunity to value-add our local economies and a way for the farm families to generate more income for their farm and family budgets. Some of the collaborators in the district that extension worked with include: Blue Ridge Travel Association, New River Valley Visitors Alliance, Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority, farm committee members of several chambers of commerce, current and potential agri-tourism businesses, the Nature Conservancy, representatives of RC and D’s, and representatives of some local governments.
The majority of accomplishments were reached within an eighteen month period and several additional goals were also accomplished.
OBJECTIVE 1 – Develop mapping instrument of existing and potential agri-tourism businesses.
OBJECTIVE 2 – Develop and implement a local community asset mapping instrument of local tourism infrastructure. Review data base from Blue Ridge Travel Association and NRV Visitors Alliance and Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority
OBJECTIVE 3 – Educational needs assessment with those identified in objective #1.
OBJECTIVE 4 – Develop and implementation of an educational program addressing identified needs of agri-tourism business owners. Educational Outline; Introduction to agri-tourism, Is Agri-tourism for me?, Where does Tourism Fit into my Farm Plan?, What do I have to offer my guests?, How do I operate an agri-tourism enterprise on my farm?, Your Agri-tourism plan, Risk Management and other legal issues & One on one ‘evaluation’ of business to identify a) what they need b) interested in agri-tourism c) where are they in process d) what do they need
OBJECTIVE 5 – Provide educational assistance to agri-tourism business owners in implementation of their business plan.
Methods for this agri-tourism program were varied and include:
Meetings with collaborators for planning strategies for developing mapping instrument,
planning for implementation and assessing results.
Mailings using extension agricultural lists, tourism and home-based business lists and mailing lists from tourism organization data bases for implementation of mapping instrument with existing and potential agri-tourism business persons.
Distribution through selected sites, such as libraries, farm supplies, large animal veterinary clinics and other sites.
Large conferences initially to “launch” educational program, one in conjunction with an already established tourism summit, featuring an outstanding keynote speaker and some concurrent sessions that would be of interest to entrepreneurs already in business, as well, as those still processing information.
Seminars in different parts of the district explaining the different elements of what it takes to develop an agri-tourism business, some information on specific businesses and some testimonials from successful entrepreneurs.
Outreach to individual entrepreneurs as needed.
Outreach with display of project and presentations to groups on the local, state and national level to share process and outcomes.
The depression of traditional farm markets has limited the ability to produce an income from existing resources. This program increased the possibility of farm profitability through affordable educational programs and materials. It also provided additional resources for those who are interested in learning more about Agri-tourism and providing support for those in the business arena.
Asset mapping of the Southwest District determined that there is an interest in beginning or improving an Agri-tourism business. The mapping instrument to identify existing and potential agri-tourism businesses was developed and distributed both through Cooperative Extension and tourism partners’ mailing list and via the Internet. Responses were received from 487 people – seven (7) percent considered themselves to already be involved in an agri-tourism endeavor and twenty-two (22) percent were interested in learning more about the opportunity. A similar process revealed few of the local tourism infrastructures were familiar with the Agri-tourism concept.
Two databases were created one of those responding to the original asset mapping and another of referrals and new contacts. These used to assure that those interested in agri-tourism are receiving updates and resources in a timely matter.
The desired delivery methods for receiving additional resources were identified as seminars, ‘farm tours’ and one on one assistance. Three educational programs were provided for those interested in beginning a business or gathering more information; 120 participants. Cooperative Extension provided leadership for two of the workshops and a partner provided the leadership and financial resources making the third program a reality. Presenters included regional experts, local businesses and Extension agents. A ‘farm tour’ of three businesses was also conducted in conjunction with an area tourism association meeting. As they are requested, resources are shared on a one-on-one basis, also.
During the time of this grant a member spoke to the “Friends of Agriculture” in Richmond, one tourism partner included our effort in their annual report, our workshop programs have been used as models for other Extension programs across the state and we were asked to be part of an Extension In-Service training. Because of increased interest in Agri-tourism a state committee was formed and our asset mapping tool was used as the model for their assessment process.
The businesses that we have worked with have been varied both in type and stage of development of their business. They have included a buffalo farm, heritage farm, orchards and corn maze, added value food products, and those with recreational interests. And interest in agri-tourism continues to be present in the Southwest District of Virginia Cooperative Extension. While Extension did not always have a large role in each project their have been new developments across the district that will add to the success of Agri-tourism in this area.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Funding made it possible for participants of this project to receive a copy of Virginia Cooperative Extension’s publication; Agri-tourism. Our clients were also interested in what everyone else was doing, so we provided an overview of the latest “experiments” in Southwestern Virginia, the surrounding region and across the nation along with some current information. The information was delivered in the form of a regional newsletter, Mountain Vistas.
All indications are that Agri-tourism is a viable option for some private landowners/farmers and for communities as well. Continued effort needs to be made to assist those interested in pursuing an agri-tourism venue to help them be successful in accomplishing their goals. This can be accomplished by developing more partnerships with the tourism industry, creating more educational tools and involving other, less obvious, partners such as the insurance industry and hospitality industry.
Another key part to the success of Agri-tourism is educating the public, county Chambers of Commerce and tourism industry so they understand and want to experience agri-tourism. Better marketing and combined marketing ‘packaging’ by the businesses is the primary method of educating the public. A plan has been developed for chat sessions with county Chambers of Commerce and government leaders to be held in several regions. Another project in progress is the development of a training tool that will assist local businesses (hotel clerks, gas station attendants, etc.) in directing visitors to local agri-tourism experiences.