Is Agritourism Really Eco Friendly?

Courtesy of Kelly Pemberton, Ph.D., a mother and Owner of Green and Prosperous

Agritourism, or agrotourism, as it’s also known, is often described as the intersection between agriculture and tourism. Broadly, it refers to the activity of visiting a working farm (or ranch). These days, it’s considered a form of eco-tourism because it aims to be small-scale, environmentally low-impact, and involves educating paying visitors in some way. Farm owners also aim to showcase their products, and in many cases, invite visitors to harvest some of their produce. While agritourism is an increasingly popular activity around the world, it is not a new one. However, it has changed a lot in recent years, especially in the US.

Agritourism originated in Italy as early as the 1950s. Italian farmers began exploring agritourismo as an additional source of revenue following the economic decline of most small-scale farming in that country. These days, agritourismo has reached the heights of sophistication, sometimes offering guests luxury accommodations, fine wine, and high cuisine. Around the world, agritourism has come to mean a wide variety of things, from buying fresh goods at a farm or farm stand, to doing activities on a farm (like navigating a corn maze or going on a hay ride), to staying in traveler accommodations on a working farm, to traveling to natural and/or endangered areas with the express goal of raising awareness or helping the local environment. 

In the US, agritourism has evolved into one of the fastest-growing segments of eco-tourism, one that is increasingly linked with the issue of sustainability.

the hayride: attribution: By Virginia State Parks staff (NT Hayride  Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
the hayride: attribution: By Virginia State Parks staff (NT Hayride Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you like buying fresh produce or meats directly from farms or farmers’ markets, if you are thinking about traveling to a working farm or ranch, if you are an environmentally conscious person (or want to be), or if you’d like to do something to promote small-scale farms, there are a few things that have changed about agritourism that you should be aware of, five of which are discussed in this post.

First, agritourism farms tend to be more diverse than other kinds of farms. This is a good thing for many reasons, but one reason is that it means that farms offering agritourism are providing a much-needed alternative to the monocropping that is prevalent on large industrial farms. 

Monocropping refers to the practice of planting the same crops in the same places year after year. It’s the way that most corn, soy, and wheat are grown nowadays, all in the interest of feeding market demand (pun intended). 

Monocropping depletes the soil of nutrients, which means that the produce being grown in it also lacks the full range of nutrients it should have. All farmers agree that monocropping is a harmful practice, but many still do it out of perceived necessity or constraint. Obviously the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, the U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and the ongoing collapse of bee colonies around the world, all of which were brought on directly or indirectly by monocropping and its associated practices, has not been enough to teach the hard lessons of history.

Dane County Farmers' Market, Madison, WI: attribution: By Kznf - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2795390
Dane County Farmers’ Market, Madison, WI: attribution: By Kznf – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2795390

Second, agritourism farms tend to be more innovative and better integrated into the broader economy. According to the 2012 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), published by the US Department of Agriculture, Agritourism farms engage in more niche products and activities than their non-agritourism counterparts. For example, they produce “value added products” like fruit jams, floral arrangements, pasta sauce, or dried herbs; generate renewable energy or engage in machine hire or work for other farms; and engage more with their local communities. The farmers who run these operations are also more likely to be college educated, use the internet for business, and pay for management advice.

Third, agritourism is increasingly seen as a useful tool for rural development. In Italy, the highly developed agritourism industry has come to symbolize pride in regional history and connects local food cultures and international communities. Although there are challenges that rural farms in the US face that may not be faced by their Italian counterparts, like being more isolated, developing agritourism could work, over time, to produce the same effects: linking locally grown foods to regional history and providing new opportunities to younger farmers (especially those who might otherwise be inclined to abandon family farms). In some areas of the US, agritourism could provide a much-needed revenue boost to smaller-scale farms. As the industry further expands, it will make important and ongoing contributions to rural development.

Fourth, agritourism farms tend to earn more. However, they still don’t earn much. For example, in the US, only 1 out of 7 farms earn over $25,000 annually from agritourism operations, with most earning under $5,000. The one exception to this general rule seems to be with some hydroponic growers. Hydroponics is the art of growing without soil, with nutrients being directly added to the water or other growing medium). Indoor hydroponic growing operations are among the most lucrative small-scale farming technologies because they offer the ability to grow more produce, in less space, within a potentially shorter time frame, with less labor, and virtually no crop loss to insect and weather damage. Currently, however, hydroponic farms only account for a small percentage of growing operations. 

As I noted in an earlier blog post, the majority of small-scale, local farmers put in a lot of hard work with little financial reward and need your support. If the market for agritourism in the US continues to grow, it will likely spur the Federal government to offer incentives to farmers to participate in agritourism activities. The 2014 Farm Bill and the recently passed 2016 Ohio agritourism bill are 2 steps in the right direction.

Last, and maybe most important, agritourism – like with the entire green industry – has attracted its fair share of “greenwashing”. Greenwashing occurs when a manufacturer or provider of services markets his or her business as more environmentally sound than it really is. 

If you are considering agritourism, it’s important to ask the right questions. Does the farm practice low-impact, ecologically sound growing? Does it engage in sustainable practices, such as using renewable materials? Does it offer quality products? How does the local community feel about the farm? Do the tourist facilities damage the local ecosystem in unnecessary ways? 

Greenwashing has affected the travel and tourism industry just as much as any other, so if you are considering a farm stay or other form of agritourism, it’s important to make sure that you are not contributing to the problem.