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

Project Overview

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


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, value added, agritourism
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life

    Proposal abstract:

    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. This project will examine agritourism from the perspectives of both the farmer/owner and the visitor. With respect to examining the visitor, information will be gathered via post-visit surveys to identify: • Who is participating in NC agritourism? (socio-demographic characteristics of visitors) • Where do these visitors come from? (zip code data and GIS mapping) • Why do visitors choose to visit an agritourism farm? (motivations) • What are visitor preferences for amenities and services at agritourism farms? • How are visitors finding out about the farms? (success of current marketing strategies) • How much money are visitors spending at the farms and on what items/attractions? (expenditures/ consumptive decisions) Additionally, this project will include insights from current agritourism business owners regarding their perceptions of visitors to their farm and best practices relating to owning an agritourism farm. The importance of this project revolves around the fact that agritourism has the potential to enhance farm incomes, sustain farming operations, and add economic activity to rural areas. However, research examining agritourism and visitors to agritourism businesses is greatly needed but is lacking, particularly in NC. This lack of research and knowledge regarding the agritourism industry is troubling because proper tourism planning is dependent upon research. Tourism research provides the information base for effective decision making by tourism managers [and] allows [them] to develop policy, plan, operate, and control more efficiently and decreases risk in the decision-making process (Goeldner & Ritchie, 2006, p. 515). Moreover, van Raaij (1986) posited that consumer research on tourism should be a cornerstone of any marketing strategy given that knowledge of consumer behavior allows marketing managers the ability to understand their target audience, forecast future behavior, and provide the product/service that is wanted by the consumer. Additionally, the marketing concept asserts that the key to achieving organizational goals is determining the needs and wants of target markets and delivering the desired satisfaction more effectively and more efficiently than competitors (Kotler & Bloom, 1984). Therefore, in order for farms to remain sustainable in the business of agritourism, it is imperative they incorporate research into their planning and decision making. Accordingly, the primary objective of this project is to use a sampling of NC agritourism farms (varying geographically and in agritourism offerings) as a pilot study to provide agritourism businesses with much needed up-to-date research to allow for proper planning and decision making.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    In order to provide the needed up-to-date research surrounding agritourism, particularly agritourism in NC, this project proposes a multi-phase research plan consisting of data preparation, data collection (farmers/owners and visitors), data analysis, and information dissemination. The farmers/owners of the participating agritourism businesses will be actively involved in each of the phases described below:

    Data Preparation:
    Before data collection begins, the researchers for this project will visit the participating farms to discuss the data collection process and to garner guidance from the farmers in developing a visitor survey. From this consultation, farmers will have the opportunity to ensure the instrument properly addresses the variety of experiences offered at their farm and have the opportunity to ensure the questions included capture useful information for their business.

    Data Collection – Farmers/Owners:
    Formal on-site interviews will be conducted with each of the participating farmers. From these interviews, an understanding of their perceptions regarding agritourism, visitors to their farm and other agritourism-related businesses, their marketing effectiveness, and best practices will be obtained. This information will be helpful in providing the farmer perspective on agritourism in NC and will be compared to the similar questions/responses from the visitor survey. Several of the questions asked of the farmers will also be asked of the visitors providing an opportunity for comparison. For example, both farmers and visitors will be asked questions relating to how they learned of the farm/information sources used. This comparison between answers will supply a wealth of knowledge regarding how farmers’ perceptions of visitors compare to visitors actual responses. This will also provide valuable insight into the effectiveness of the farm’s current marketing strategies.

    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 will be 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 will collect email addresses and zip codes from visitors prior to their departure. Contact information will be sent weekly to the researchers. Surveys will be emailed to participants within a week of their visit. A variety of information will be collected from these surveys, for example:
    • Reason for the visit
    • Site-specific visiting patterns (first time/repeat visitors; primary attraction; last minute decision)
    • Visitation to other agritourism operations within last 12 months
    • Amount of money spent/products purchased and activities enjoyed on the day of visitation
    • Satisfaction with the farm visit and perceptions of the agritourism business.
    • Travel information visitors used to plan trip/how they learned of the farm
    • Travel party composition
    • Distance traveled/zip codes of residence
    • Socio-demographic characteristics (gender, age, income, etc.)
    Data Collection –Participant Observation
    In addition to interviewing the farmers, three site visits will be conducted to provide the researchers an opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of the experiences offered on each farm and the opportunity to conduct on-site participant observations between farmers and visitors. These site visits will grant the researchers an understanding of the agritourism experience from a visitor’s perspective without disrupting the visitors. Additionally, insights from these observations will assist the farmers in creating more valuable experiences for their visitors and in optimizing their marketing endeavors.

    Data analysis:
    Descriptive analyses and statistical tests will be applied to illustrate overall percentages and relationships among the data. The data will be analyzed individually for each farm and then aggregated to provide a summative overview of agritourism in NC. These analyses will provide an overview of visitors to agritourism businesses in NC and will provide 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, will be incorporated to map and examine where visitors live and/or are traveling from to visit the farms. In tourism, GIS is increasingly being utilized as a marketing tool to identify systematic patterns of travel behavior (e.g. Elliott-White & Finn, 1998; Farsari & Prastacos, 2004; McAdam, 1999). Moreover, GIS technology has the potential to provide an evaluation of the farms’ marketing effectiveness of promotional campaigns. For example, GIS maps identifying where visitors live/are traveling from can be compared to the location(s) of current marketing campaigns to illustrate the effectiveness of placement for advertisements and/or promotions.

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

    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.