Evaluating agritourism strategies for small scale sustainable agriculture operations

Final report for ONC18-051

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2018: $29,620.00
Projected End Date: 12/01/2020
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
6166087436 Garrett Ziegler
Michigan State University Extension
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Project Information

Summary:

Small scale farmers in west Michigan are experiencing ever growing competition for their customers dollars. In an effort to provide additional on-farm income and provide further community involvement, farms are increasingly turning to agritourism opportunities. These opportunities include hosting on-farm dinners featuring local chefs preparing farm-raised food, local music events, weddings, U-pick produce, and several additional strategies. This project will examine three existing small-scale agritourism efforts by farmers involved in the West Michigan Growers Group. This examination will provide valuable information to other West Michigan and NCR region farmers who are interested in best practices for on-farm events and agritourism as well as show the value that each different approach provides for the farmer. The farmers involved in this project are primarily small-scale, diversified vegetable producers with little agritourism experience. This will culminate with an on-farm demonstration event to be attended by both interested farmers and the local community. The project will also include a series of farm field trips to better understand existing models for small and large scale agritourism enterprises. This project will also examine the potential impact on generating and retaining customers through deeper connections with farms who are hosting events.

Final Report Summary:

This partnership grant was meant to address local farmer’s needs and understanding of best practices in small scale agritourism. We were also hoping to investigate the impact of agritourism activities on consumer’s connection with local farms by surveying agritourism participants. However,  like many things in life, especially now in the time of COVID, work on this grant did not proceed as planned in the initial proposal. This was due to a number of factors that included partner farms changing leadership, farm activities being cancelled due to local zoning ordinances and conflicts and overall grant coordination difficulties given the changing landscape of farm partner realities. By the time we reconvened and moved past many of these difficulties we were hit with impacts of COVID-19 Pandemic which kept us from performing the main outcome of this grant project which was a demonstration agritourism event planned in partnership with the participating partner farms. This event was planned to be an opportunity for other local farmers to learn the in’s and out’s of agritourism event planning and development as well as an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of local farms in the community and impact of local agritourism efforts for farm sustainability. Despite the above challenges there were still lessons learned from the grant process.

As part of the grant partner farms developed descriptions of their current agritourism activities which were compiled into a best practices report for small-scale farmers looking to develop agritourism activities of their own. This document is in final development stages and will be added to the final report once final editing is complete. These best practices have evolved since the start of the project as farm partners have been through several transitions since the original grant was developed and submitted. These best practices are being combined into a small-scale agritourism users guide that will be completed during spring 2021 by PI Garrett Ziegler.

 

Project Objectives:
  • Research existing models of small-scale farm agritourism through regional “field trips”. – Unfortunately due to delays in project activities and COVID-19 impacts farm partners were not able to plan a field trip to visit regional agritourism operations.
  • Assess the potential ROI of different agritourism activities on small scale sustainable farms and develop case studies of each farm and strategy
  • Develop a “users guide” to implementing successful and relevant on-farm events and activities.
  • Hold a “demonstration” event for local farmers in the West Michigan region to give practical experience and training for agritourism activities. – This demonstration event was also postponed due to COVID-19 impacts and the inability to host large scale gatherings during 2020.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Lance Kraai (Educator and Researcher)
  • Andy Rozendaal (Educator and Researcher)
  • Leah Sienkowski (Educator and Researcher)
  • Heather Anderson (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

This project included planned research of specific agritourism related events and activities that have been undertaken by the cooperating farmers in the project. However, due to a variety of reasons this research was not able to be completed. We did however develop survey tools that we will plan to use with partner farms during the 2021 agritourism season as long as events are able to proceed as planned.

In addition to survey work with agritourism participants research is being conducted on best practices for small scale agritourism activities on small-medium-scale farms. These best practices are being compiled into a resource guide that will also include brief case studies of each farms agritourism strategies, prepared by each farm. This guide is still under construction and will be provided when final edits are complete.

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary

4 Farmers
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Much of the educational materials and outreach for this grant will be conducted during the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020 with the completion of the project. The project team is still working on final development of the West Michigan Agritourism Resource Guide.

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

4 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

Though much of the work of this project was unable to be completed due to a variety of reasons, there was significant lessons learned that support the importance of the project’s objectives and goals and future work in small scale agritourism. Agritourism continues to be an attractive way for small farmers to engage communities, increase farm viability through farm income diversification and help maintain the local agrarian landscape. Farm focused tourism activities are key for building a local or regional “sense of place” that can be used to leverage additional local tourism and quality of life opportunities. It remains a vitally important opportunity for smaller-scale farmers who are looking to create more authentic farm-focused experiences. Some of the challenges that arose from the work on this grant, related directly to conflicts between the participating farm’s agritourism programs and local planning/zoning and township officials. These conflicts between local farms and local townships have been on the rise across Michigan as farms are searching for more creative ways to engage customers on their farms. While this grant did not achieve the original One of the grants participating farms had been working on the development of a farm-based dinner program and after reaching out to their local township to ensure they were in compliance with local regulations, they were told to cease hosting these events and that they were not allowed under local zoning regulations. This led to a year-long conversation with the township economic development manager. This conversation ended a collaborative effort between the farmer and MSUE to offer an edited version of a local zoning ordinance that would allow for farms to host agritourism activities like farm dinners as long as certain stipulations were followed and approved by the township. After submitting this new ordinance language it become clear that this was either not a priority for the local township to incorporate this feedback and draft language and/or there was not enough time available for the local zoning administrator to put to addressing this issue. We then decided to pivot this approach to an effort to re-write the Michigan Farm Market Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices (GAAMPS) document to better reflect activities that many farms were engaging in through agritourism. The Farm Market GAAMPS are used as a way to provide guidance under the Michigan Right to Farm Act that can supersede local zoning ordinances and allows for protection for farmers from being sued or shut-down for basic farm activities. The re-write of the farm market GAAMPS was heavily influenced by the experiences of the farmers involved in this grant as well as other farmers who have had issues working with local townships on agritourism activities. New language was included in the 2020 version of the GAAMPS that allowed for activities like farm tours, dinners, educational initiatives and other farm based activities that relate directly to the marketing of farm-grown/produced products. Meaning farms are able to host those activities as long as they show that they are necessary for farms to sell their farm products. This change in GAAMPS language has given the farm participant the justification that they need to continue to host farm dinners (planning re-start this in 2021 after a two-year break).

Overall, this project has continued to demonstrate the importance of agritourism and farm events as an integral income generator for farmers and a key marketing channel to sell more product and connect with customers. There was much more that was hoped to achieve with this SARE funding and I definitely see the missed opportunity in not being able to build more educational programs as a result. I do plan to continue to work with these farm partners in building their agritourism enterprises and we will see where we may be able to provide additional education as a result. By working through some of the challenges that were discovered through working on the grant activities, I believe that these farms are better setup to build sustainable agritourism programs that will benefit the farms financially and continue to benefit local communities as well. 

Recommendations:

I have lots of recommendations for future study related to agritourism for small scale farmers. The growth of community engagement on farms and consumers looking for unique, authentic and close to home travel experiences as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic have increased the opportunity and challenges for farmers who are looking at agritourism as a potential income stream. The continued conflicts that have arisen across the state of Michigan related to farm based activities and local zoning/planning regulations are only going to increase as more farmers seek this opportunity. There needs to be more research that can look at the overall impact of agritourism operations for local townships, this includes from a sense of place as well as an economic impact. We believe that individual agritourism efforts can be collaboratively marketed and fostered in a local region to attract new visitors, residents and build a local economy based on local farms, a productive environment and connection to local places.

There is also a need to examine the different types of agritourism “products” or experiences that are offered by farms and what can be done to ensure these are truly successful and meet that farmers goals. I think many of the farms we worked with as part of this project see a struggle in how to balance the agritourism opportunities with maintaining a working and productive small farm operation. For many farmers that I have worked with on various agritourism projects there exists a disconnect between the perception of agritourism and the reality. For many farmers it can seem like a very easy add-on to a farm operation or be just bigger version of what they have been doing with CSA members or other family members. But there are still many legal questions that need to be addressed for these types of operations. Many farms dive in to agritourism activities with an entrepreneurial spirit and are not considering where these activities fit within local planning and zoning regulations. While the “ask for forgiveness, rather than permission” mind-set may work for a smaller, less visible farm, potential growth opportunities can be limited if these things are not considered from the beginning.

Additionally, based off of the farm market GAAMP re-write described above there exists a need to research the impact that attending a farm-based activity (dinner, educational event, farm tour, etc.) has on a participants connection to that farm and likelihood to purchase products from that farm operation as a result of attending. I think there is an assumption that a farm-based experience provides a deeper connection to the farm and the farmers themselves, but more data is needed to show how impactful that relationship really is.

This project also continues to demonstrate the need to educate those who work on local planning and zoning boards about the impact and importance of agritourism type activities for local farmers and the local community. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.