Increasing on-farm sustainability through agritourism research: An examination of agritourism visitors, farms, and marketing strategies

Final Report for OS10-055

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Samantha Rich
North Carolina State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

This study served as a pilot project and sought to better understand visitors to agritourism farms in North Carolina during agritourism operating seasons in 2010. Six farms across the state participated in the study and 137 usable surveys were collected. Overall analysis examined visitors’ most recent farm visit experiences, how visitors made their travel plans to agritourism farms, and farm owners’ perspectives of their agritourism businesses. Findings provide additional information regarding successful agritourism enterprises and future marketing strategies. Additionally, valuable lessons were learned from the methods utilized that will positively influence future projects.

Introduction

Agritourism, as defined in this study as any activity and/or service provided on a working farm with the purpose of attracting visitors, is a growing phenomenon among rural farms. As the popularity of agritourism grows, farmers are in desperate need of research relating to agritourism visitors and successful marketing strategies.

Agritourism has grown in popularity over the years due to changes in the economy affecting farmers and communities across the nation and throughout the state of North Carolina (NC). In recent years, the number of farms in NC has suffered a dramatic decline with the state now accommodating less than 17% of the farms it had in the late 1940’s (NC Rural Center). The changing economy combined with fluctuations in agricultural income and the desire to preserve land and resources has placed pressure on farmers throughout NC to examine alternative economic opportunities.

While more traditional sectors of the state’s economy have experienced a decline or shift, tourism in NC continues to grow. According to the NC Division of Tourism, NC is the 7th most visited state in the country, experiencing $16 billion in annual visitor spending across the state which supports over 190,000 jobs in NC (NC Division of Tourism). Thus, one promising alternative for many farmers includes the incorporation of various tourism-related initiatives (e.g., agritourism) as part of their economic development strategies. As noted by McGehee (2007), “When developed sustainably, agritourism can increase the long term potential for higher margin on-farm sales of value-added products and services, particularly for small farms in crisis” (p. 111). For these reasons, agritourism has seen a recent growth in popularity across the nation. For example, in 2007, the USDA reported 160,000 US farms were participating in some form of direct sales/agritourism with receipts totaling $566,834,000, an increase of approximately 180% from 2002. Of these, 23,350 farms (602 NC farms) claimed income from non-produce related recreational activities, such as farm tours, hunting and fishing (USDA, 2007).

Agritourism has the potential to provide farmers with the economic means to remain sustainable. However, given the relative newness of agritourism as a farm enterprise, little research is available from which farmers can make business decisions. Thus, farmer strategies to increase profitability and sustainability for agritourism ventures have been limited to past experience and best guess approaches.

While few other states have collected state-specific research highlighting the incorporation and importance of agritourism, these studies are limited in scope (majority from the farmer’s perspective, and not the visitor perspective) and are not generalizable.
In order for farms to fully benefit from agritourism as an economic resource, research is needed to understand the market and provide agritourism businesses with the tools to effectively market their farm to visitors. Understanding agritourism visitors, the types of experiences they are seeking, and how they are making their travel plans will allow farmers to make wise business decisions regarding where to invest money and how to maximize profit potential.

Project Objectives:

The overall objective of this project is twofold: to examine agritourism from the perspectives of both the farmer/producer and the visitor/user and to conduct a pilot study to test the methods and survey instrument to assist in developing a standardized means to properly evaluate and compare agritourism across states and regions. The end goal of this project is to use the findings of this study to inform agritourism business owners, landowners, and tourism officials of agritourism in North Carolina and to garner future grant funding to support the development of a multi-state agritourism research project.

Performance targets include data preparation, data collection (farmers and visitors), data analysis, information dissemination, and submit proposal for future funding. These performance targets are discussed in detail below in the Materials and Methods section and the Results and Discussion/Milestones section.

Research

Materials and methods:

This project utilized a multi-phase research plan consisting of data preparation, data collection (farmers/owners and visitors), data analysis, and information dissemination.

Data Preparation:
Before data collection began, conference calls were conducted and emails were exchanged with each of the participating farms to discuss the data collection process and to garner guidance from the farmers in developing the visitor survey. From this consultation, farmers had the opportunity to ensure the instrument properly addressed the variety of experiences offered at their farm and had the opportunity to ensure the questions that were included captured useful information for their business.

Data Collection – Farmers/Owners:
An online survey was conducted with each of the participating farms to provide a better understanding of their perceptions regarding agritourism, visitors to their farm, and their marketing effectiveness. An online survey was chosen instead of formal interviews to allow for ease of comparison between questions/answers obtained from the visitor surveys.

Data Collection – Visitors:
In order to collect information about visitors’ socio-demographic characteristics, motivations, preferences, and expenditures, an online post-visit survey of visitors to the participating farms was conducted. A post-visit online survey instrument was chosen to lessen the chance of data collection procedures inconveniencing the visitors and/or detracting from the visitors’ experiences while at the farms. Participating farmers were asked to collect email addresses and zip codes from visitors prior to their departure and then share this information with the researchers on weekly basis (via email or fax). Once this data was received, information about the study and a link to the online survey was emailed to participants within a week of their visit.

*Not far into the data collection process, it was determined that the farms/farmers needed assistance in obtaining emails and zip codes from visitors. Unfortunately, many of the farms are not already collecting information from their visitors so this added step proved more difficult for the farmers than first envisioned. As such, individuals associated with the project traveled to the farms on weekend to help collected emails and zip codes from visitors.

Data Collection –Participant Observation
A site visit was conducted at each of farms during the time the researchers spend helping to collected data from visitors (as discussed above). These site visits granted the researchers an understanding of the agritourism experience from a visitor’s perspective without disrupting the visitors.

Data analysis:
Descriptive analyses were conducted to illustrate overall percentages and relationships among the data. The data was analyzed individually for each farm and then aggregated to provide a summative overview of agritourism in NC. These analyses provided an overview of the visitors to the agritourism businesses in NC and provided a wealth of information relating to demand, impact, and marketing. Additionally, geographical information system (GIS) mapping technology, an innovative research tool used to map and interpret relationships, trends, and patterns, was incorporated to map and examine where visitors live and/or were traveling from to visit the farms.

Information Dissemination:
Individualized reports for each of the participating farms were prepared and presented to each of the farms, along with managerial implications and suggestions. Additionally, results from this study were used to develop educational, informational resources (e.g., overall report, presentation, factsheet, and webinar) for others in the agritourism business, for those considering the development of an agritourism venture, as well as for those promoting the tourism industry at the local, regional, and state-wide levels.

Research results and discussion:

A total of 6 North Carolina farms/farmers participated in the study and a total of 468 emails were collected from the farms. After the initial mailings, 77 of the emails were discarded due to bounce backs leading to an overall 391 usable emails. Upon completion of data collection, a total usable data sample of 141 completed online surveys was collected providing a 36% response rate from farm visitors.

A copy of the final visitor survey and a copy of the final farmer survey will be included in the Appendix of the mailed copy of this report. Additionally, a copy of the overall report (can also be accessed via www.ncsu.edu/tourismextension) and Factsheet will be included in the Appendix of the mailed copy of this report. These documents will provide a review of the findings and suggested implications.

In addition to collecting needed data about North Carolina agritourism farms/operators and visitors/users, the other goal of this project was to conduct a pilot study to test the methods and survey instrument to assist in developing a standardized means by which researchers and agritourism business owners can properly evaluate and compare agritourism and its consumers across states and regions to fully understand agritourism as an economic driver for rural communities and to increase on-farm sustainability. This project was used to seek funding to support the development of this standardized tool and the development of a multi-state agritourism research project. The follow-up project was submitted to SSARE for the 2011 Research and Education Grant. While we were invited to submit a full proposal to SSARE, in the end, the follow-up project was not rewarded (a copy of this full proposal will be included in the Appendix of the mailed copy of this report). Opportunities for other funding options are currently being evaluated.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Technical Reports – total of 7 technical reports were produced:
Rich, S. R., Tomas, S., & Xu, S. (2011). Agritourism in North Carolina: Visitor and farmer survey results. *This report is posted on the Tourism Extension website (www.ncsu.edu/tourismextension and has been shared via the North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association listserv.

Rich, S. R., Tomas, S., & Xu, S. (2011). Agritourism in North Carolina: Study Results for Farm A.
Rich, S. R., Tomas, S., & Xu, S. (2011). Agritourism in North Carolina: Study Results for Farm B.
Rich, S. R., Tomas, S., & Xu, S. (2011). Agritourism in North Carolina: Study Results for Farm C.
Rich, S. R., Tomas, S., & Xu, S. (2011). Agritourism in North Carolina: Study Results for Farm D.
Rich, S. R., Tomas, S., & Xu, S. (2011). Agritourism in North Carolina: Study Results for Farm E
Rich, S. R., Tomas, S., & Xu, S. (2011). Agritourism in North Carolina: Study Results for Farm F.

Publication:
Rich, S. R., & Xu, S. (in press). Agritourism in North Carolina: Summary of pilot study results. Agricultural Publication. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC. *Once published, this factsheet will be posted to the Tourism Extension website and shared via the North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association listserv.

Webinar Presentation:
Rich, S. R., & Xu, S. (in development for April 2012). Agritourism in North Carolina: Summary of pilot study results. Webinar presentation (live and recorded).

Farm meetings:
Meetings were held with each of the 6 participating farms and their staff to discuss the study findings and to provide suggestions for developing effective marketing strategies.

Conference Presentations:
In an effort to share the findings and need for further research, overall study findings were discussed with participants at the 2011-2012 North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association (NC ANA) workshops and conferences. Additionally, a conference presentation abstract will be submitted to next year’s National Extension Tourism (NET) conference.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This project provided an examination of agritourism from the perspectives of both the farmer/producer and visitor/user. This project was the first to examine farm visitors to North Carolina farms. Also unique to this project was the methods utilized in which some of the survey questions were asked of both the farmer and visitors allowing for comparison between answers. This ability to compare survey answers supplied a wealth of knowledge regarding how farmers’ perceptions of visitors compared to visitors actual responses. Overall, the project provided the first data from North Carolina farm visitors, provided valuable insight into the effectiveness of the farm’s current marketing strategies, and tested a potential methodology to use in a larger multistate study. In the future, this study will hopefully lead to the funding and completion of a multistate agritourism research study. Study results were used to develop a variety of reports and educational resources that have been shared with North Carolina farmers, landowners, tourism leaders, and others via the Tourism Extension website and North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association’s listserv and conferences. The participating six farmers in this study are currently reviewing the reports and discussions/suggestions to determine how they might incorporate the findings and implications into their currently business and marketing plans. For example, based on the study results and recommendations, one of the participating farms is incorporating additional farm tours around their farmland and in doing so is also incorporating self-guided tours of their farmland using technology (QR codes). The farm hopes to increase the experience of their visitors and provide additional opportunities for visitors to tour and learn about the farm and produce.

Farmer Adoption

Overall, the project provided the first data from North Carolina farm visitors, provided valuable insight into the effectiveness of the farm’s current marketing strategies, and tested a potential methodology to use in a larger multistate study. In the future, this study will hopefully lead to the funding and completion of a multistate agritourism research study. Study results were used to develop a variety of reports and educational resources that have been shared with North Carolina farmers, landowners, tourism leaders, and others via the Tourism Extension website and North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association’s listserv and conferences. The participating six farmers in this study are currently reviewing the reports and discussions/suggestions to determine how they might incorporate the findings and implications into their currently business and marketing plans. For example, based on the study results and recommendations, one of the participating farms is incorporating additional farm tours around their farmland and in doing so is also incorporating self-guided tours of their farmland using technology (QR codes). The farm hopes to increase the experience of their visitors and provide additional opportunities for visitors to tour and learn about the farm and produce. An undetermined number of farmers and landowners have received the results of this project. Specific recommendations to farmers would be to start or continue collecting data from their visitors and to use this data to plan for future business and marketing decisions. Additionally, agritourism farms need to illustrate their positive impact on the community to garner additional support.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Continued research examining agritourism from both the perspective of the visitor/user and the famer/provider is needed. Most needed is multi-state agritourism research using the same data collection methods so findings can be compared. A discovered difficulty within this project the ability to get farms/farmers to collect email addresses from their visitors – often because they were just too busy. As such, alternative methods need to be examined and shared with farmers to better collect emails/data from farm visitors/users. Farmers need to be collecting data about their visitors/users and better methods need to be identified to help farmers collected this data.

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.