Vermont can spark interest in agritourism

Picking apples, learning how maple syrup is made, tasting heirloom tomatoes, milking a cow — all of these activities are part of the growing trend of agritourism.
A few generations ago, most families had relatives, friends or neighbors living on farms, if they weren’t farmers themselves. Today the age-old tradition of visiting farms and ranches to experience agriculture and celebrate harvests is seeing a revival in Vermont and throughout the U.S. and other countries.
Understanding how food was produced was once as easy as visiting grandparents or neighbors on their farms. But the farming population has shrunk to less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and most people, especially in urban and suburban areas, have no connections to agriculture.
To remedy this disconnect, farms and ranches are opening their barns, fields, forests and farmhouses to the public. Visitors can learn about food and fiber production and experience firsthand the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of a working farm. This invaluable experience helps people of all ages better understand and appreciate the challenges of food production as well as the complexity of food systems.
One benefit for farmers and ranchers is that they can supplement their income through direct sales of local products and by charging for experiences from farm tours to farm stays on their farms. While it may seem like a win-win for farmers and for visitors, not everyone is in agreement about which activities should be permitted on farms and what constitutes agritourism.
Some researchers maintain that agritourism must take place on a working farm, while others include nonworking farms as well as farmers’ markets and agricultural fairs. The connection to agriculture and the engagement of visitors is also an issue, leading to policy controversies over whether activities on farms that have little to do with agriculture should be included, such as weddings and outdoor recreation such as mountain biking.
Led by researchers in Italy, where the term “agriturismo” originated, there is a push for a unified definition of authentic agritourism in the European Union. The definition there carries tax and policy ramifications that are critical for farm viability over the long term.
At issue are questions about whether the term “agritourism” should be limited to activities on working farms that are closely related to agriculture such as direct sales and education. Or whether agritourism also should refer to on-farm hospitality, outdoor recreation and entertainment.
The question of how to define agritourism also has important implications for policy, zoning, liability and programming that supports agriculture in Vermont and the U.S. The inconsistencies in how it is defined affect research, policy and programs to support agritourism and hinder the ability of researchers and agricultural interests to fully understand the sector’s economic importance.
In Vermont efforts are being made to clarify issues surrounding agritourism through the introduction of H.663, a bill relating to municipal land-use regulation of accessory on-farm businesses. The bill passed through the Vermont House of Representatives and Vermont Senate last week.
Although the bill does not directly address the question of what agritourism is, or how it should be defined in the future, it may help spark interest in, and start a dialogue about, agritourism and its implications for Vermont.
Editor’s note: Lisa Chase is director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center at the University of Vermont Extension.

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