- Farm Business Management: agritourism
- Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, leadership development, new business opportunities, partnerships
About 20 miles south of Buffalo along Lake Erie are the Southtowns of Erie County, including the towns of Brant, Eden, Evans and North Collins, and the villages of Angola, Farnham and North Collins. The area holds onto its heritage as an agricultural center for the Western New York region – Brant, Eden and North Collins have from 20 percent to 46 percent of their land dedicated to agriculture. Major enterprises include dairy, fruits and vegetables, forage crops, nursery and greenhouses, horses and other livestock, making this area one New York State’s most agriculturally diverse regions. Despite this bounty, the area’s agrarian lifestyle is threatened by increased competition, population loss, general economic decline and, at the same time, development pressure from suburban sprawl. A 2005 survey of agricultural landowners in New York State revealed 17 percent plan to sell some or all of their land in the future. Farmers are also feeling the pressure of competing with big box retailers that undercut them on price. Economic drivers such as big box price and convenience have deteriorated customer loyalty. As the business climate changes, so too must the farmers if they are to preserve their way of life. To diversify and sustain their business base, many farms are increasingly turning to alternative enterprises such as agritourism. Motivation for such investments is supported by the broader tourism appeal of the Southtowns, a rural region rich with natural resources, parks and beaches, historic sites and small-town charm. Also, agritourism has been identified as a key tourism niche for the Southtowns as part of a recently completed community-based tourism planning effort. Indeed, agritourism is already one of the area’s more developed tourism niches, with more than 20 farms across the four-town area operating farm retail stands or market stores, and many of these offering pick-your-own services and site tours. The area also hosts the annual Eden Corn Festival and Brant Tomato Fest, which together attract more than 250,000 visitors. Yet farm stand customers remain largely local. The broader market, including festival attendees from outside the area, those visiting the area’s Lake Erie beaches or the notable Frank Lloyd Graycliff Estate in Evans, or even visitors to the major tourism markets of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, are not made aware of the area’s agritourism bounty. System-wide coordination is also lacking, as exemplified by the inadequate cross-promotion among farm businesses and a dearth of central visitor information on agritourism. But the Southtowns’ agricultural enterprises’ challenges go beyond marketing to include a lack of diversity in agritourism activities. Although farm stands are plentiful, activities that might distinguish the area from other agritourism destinations – such as farm bed and breakfasts, a regional farmers’ market, farm recreational activities, process demonstrations, historic displays or coordinated multi-farm tours – are missing. Critical first impression elements are also lacking – many roadside farm signs are homemade and ineffective in catching the attention of passersby. Farm buildings need to be enhanced. Safe parking is not always accessible. Moreover, many farm operators are unaware of opportunities in agritourism, while limited financial resources and time prevent the development of new or the expansion of existing agritourism operations.
Project objectives from proposal:
Seven Southtowns municipalities (hereafter the “Coalition”) have come together with a shared vision to leverage their tourism assets in the development of a sustainable strategy for tourism and economic development and an improved quality of life. Indeed, these municipalities are not only linked by their tourism appeal, but also by the similar economic and quality of life challenges they face, including a threatened agricultural way of life, stagnant economic development, abandoned Main Street storefronts and, in some cases, a weakened sense of community pride.
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 have recently completed 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 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 proposed project is a phase one of the Agritourism Enterprise Assessment, which involves assessing the area’s agricultural vendor’s interest in and capacity for agritourism. The Coalition will collaborate 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 assessment will help identify both opportunities and barriers to developing an agritourism enterprise.
The assessment will provide crucial information for implementing Phase II of the project – Enterprise Development. The Coalition has recently created an Entrepreneurial Task Force to develop an agritourism education and training program for farmers, tourism professionals, civic leaders and current and potential stakeholders. The task force will partner with the Erie County Cooperative Extension, Small Business Assistance Centers and the Convention and Visitors Bureau to offer practical assistance to farmers on such issues as: staff hiring and training, business planning, marketing, customer relations and risk management.
This project is a critical first step for implementing the Strategic Plan, which identifies agritourism as having the greatest potential for growth. Residents of the seven Southtowns communities have expressed a strong desire for agricultural economic development, which allows for an increase in the tax base as well as preserving the seven communities’ history and identity.