As agritourism grows in Virginia, Hampton Roads farmers may be able to attract visitors and grow their base of customers by adding educational and recreational components to their businesses.
Agritourism, or the merging of agriculture and tourism, brought in $1.5 billion in visitor spending throughout Virginia in 2015, said Heather Wheeler, agritourism marketing specialist with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. That included $142.4 million in local and non-local visitor spending in Hampton Roads.
A state survey found 132 agritourism venues in Hampton Roads, including 19 farm-based wineries, vineyards, breweries and distilleries, according to her presentation during a regional agritourism workshop at The Smithfield Center in Smithfield on Tuesday.
What does agritourism look like? Wheeler said it can be field trips, farm tours or festivals, or it can be any unique opportunity a farmer identifies. Farms are finding success as event venues for weddings, concerts and reunions because folks like taking pictures in front of barns and animals, she said.
More farms also are partnering with chefs for on-farm cooking classes and on-farm dinners, Wheeler said. Recreational opportunities may include petting zoos, trail riding, walking trails, bird-watching, fishing, yoga, painting or even on-farm lodging, she added.
Agritourism efforts help farms add income while also marketing their farm products to consumers, like with farm stands and pick-your-own fields, she said. It also can help diversify the farm so future generations will want to keep it in the family.
State and local tourism partners also are beefing up marketing efforts to help visitors plan day trips or weekends through the use of promotional trails. For instance, Smithfield, Isle of Wight, Suffolk, Franklin, Surry, Southampton and Sussex are working with Virginia Tourism Corp. to develop the Salty Southern Route, which is a driving tour focused on connecting visitors with the area’s pork, salt-cured hams and peanut products and related businesses.
Pete Edwards of Windhaven Farm in Isle of Wight and Amy Drewry of Drewry Farms near Wakefield both said they enjoy families coming to their farms.
“As young parents have become more and more interested in health and food safety, we get a lot of those folks coming out to the farm,” Drewry said.
Aside from field trips, Edwards said he doesn’t delve much into recreational activities on the farm because he’s busy raising cattle.
“Agritourism is great, but you’ve got to be organized and have the help to do it,” Edwards said.
Darden’s Farm and Country Store in Isle of Wight has groups of people who come for “foodie tours,” particularly after being featured in the New York Times, said Dee Dee Darden, who runs the smokehouse, store and farm with her husband Tommy. Folks can eat on-site or take food home.
Darden’s Farm hosts school groups in October and offers a “meet and greet” with the cows, the opportunity to jump in the cotton trailer and feel the cotton, a small corn maze, hayride, pumpkin patch and petting zoo, Darden said.
The education helps adult consumers and young future customers understand the value of locally grown or produced products while also giving people something to do, Darden said. Folks come for an activity then can spread the word or come back as a returning customer, she said.
“Bringing more people onto the farms — these are experiences a lot of people don’t get to have on a regular basis, so it truly is a vacation for them when they get to come to the farm,” said event organizer Judy Winslow, who is the Smithfield and Isle of Wight tourism director.
For businesses wanting more information on the Salty Southern Route with an upcoming website at SaltySouthernRoute.com, email Winslow at firstname.lastname@example.org.