by Jo Anne Bander
For tourists and Maine urbanites alike, agri-tourism is a way to get back to the land, learn how food is grown and support local farms. Whether through a blueberry pick, Open Farm Day, Maine Maple Sunday or a farm B&B, Americans are actively seeking ways to get to the source of their food and connect with those who grow it.
Consumer-driven on one hand by locavores, and on the other by small farms seeking to increase income by creatively developing value-added products and direct sales, agri-tourism is shifting the way farmers develop and market their products. This shift is boosting Maine’s small farmers’ income through an increasing array of products and by bringing new customers to the farm.
Numbers Tell the Story
University of Maine researchers Thomas G. Allen, Todd M. Gabe and James C. McConnon produced The Economic Contribution of Agri-Tourism to the Maine Economy (2006) to describe the types of agri-tourism activities offered on Maine farms and their contribution to the Maine economy. The 2006 survey results for 456 self-identified agri-tourism farms (6% of Maine farms) identified a variety of agri-tourism activities on various kinds of farms.
As a revenue source, agri-tourism is much more significant for smaller farms with such activities, accounting for 50% of farm income for those with total farm income in the $50,000 to $249,000 range (an amount which includes farmers’ market and CSA income). Some 25% of farms in the survey participated in Maine’s Open Farm Day, Maine Maple Sunday and The Great Maine Apple Day.
The Maine Department of Agriculture considers agri-tourism a significant component of what it calls “Maine’s Agricultural Creative Economy.” Defined as “Maine farmers who are directly marketing their farm products to retail or wholesale customers,” this sector also includes such nonfood products as raw and processed fibers, fiber arts, compost, greenhouse/nursery products and floral products.
The Department estimates that economic activity related to people seeking an overnight farm experience, “experiential tourism,” represented almost $600,000 in farm income in 2004. “Nature-based tourism, including agri-tourism, is the fastest growing segment of the tourism market,” says Allen. Fewer than 5% of the farms surveyed, however, had B&B operations or farm stays, with “time the biggest constraint,” says McConnon.
Fall Means Apples and Pumpkins
Crisp September days open apple u-picks, an attraction for those seeking a tasty fall outing and reasonably priced, seasonal fruit. Treworgy Family Orchards in Levant, Maine, “planned to be a u-pick, so we planted dwarf trees to make it easy for families to pick multiple bushels quickly,” notes Peggy Treworgy.
Treworgy Family Orchards opened its apple u-pick in 1995 and quickly sought additional agri-tourism activities, adding pumpkins by year two. Tractor drawn hayrides moved the pumpkins out of the lower pasture and quickly morphed into an added attraction, followed by horse-drawn hayrides for a fee.
Their gift shop, which also houses an ice cream stand, focuses on Maine jams, jellies and candies and the Treworgys’ honey – with hives where people can see them. Fall field trips for schools evolved into a comprehensive tour: apple picking and orcharding education; a visit with goats, a llama and sheep; and sometimes a sheep shearing and wool spinning demonstration.
Distinguishing Treworgy Family Orchards, and generating 25% of its revenues, is its 4-acre corn maze. The Treworgys also built on Peggy’s prior daycare experience to add a day camp in 2003. Future plans include u-pick highbush blueberries and raspberries.
The Treworgys belong to the Maine State Pomological Society and value its map of orchards. They also advertise in newspapers and generate TV coverage. “People want to visit farms, and will if they know when and where,” says Treworgy.
Bob Sewall started Sewall Orchard and u-pick in 1980, in Lincolnville. The oldest organically certified orchard in Maine now grows some 550 trees including New England heirloom varieties. Besides organic apples, Sewall presses unsweetened, unpasteurized apple cider in season. His cider vinegar is available all year.
Sewall’s u-pick has experienced a decline in the number of visitors and the amount they pick in recent years, from six or seven years ago when “families would pick 100 pounds and preserve them.” Following three years of crop failure before an abundant 2007 season, he has to rebuild clientele.
He has made up some of the difference in u-pick income with cider (70% of sales) and vinegar (20% of sales), split about 50/50 between farm-direct and store sales. Rather than seeking additional agri-tourism oriented products or promoting more, however, he is focusing on an energy-related business as another way to promote sustainability.
When Nezinscot Farm’s Greg and Gloria Varney took over his grandfather’s operation in Turner in 1986, they resumed the dairy operation; by 1994 they were the first certified organic dairy in Maine. Today they manage a diversified family farm with organically grown and processed dairy, meats, eggs, vegetables and cheeses.
They opened their farm-based yarn shop in 1990, their first agri-tourism activity, when a shop in a nearby town was closing. Gloria, who shopped there, bought the inventory and mailing lists and took a chance that the 10-mile distance between their shop and her farm would not be a business barrier. They built their inventory with yarn from their own sheep, angora goats, llamas and alpacas, some 400 to 500 skeins a year.
Today Nezinscot has a farm store, home-style café, bakery, root cellar of jams and similar products and natural gift baskets. It is an open farm with no charge for tours, because “this is a working farm and we want people to know how food is produced and where it comes from,” says Gloria.
They’ve held a women’s farming institute for two seasons and will open a farm day camp this summer. Their on-farm dining experiences, which on a March Friday evening was a participatory Mexican meal, and which include Canadian Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners featuring their own meats, cheeses and other foods, are expanding. Regarding farm stay holidays, Gloria says that would require “another level of commitment and financial resources.”
Sheep for Fiber, Meat and Milk
Jo Ann and Wayne Myers had a clear concept when they began Beau Chemin Farm in Waldoboro in 1998: to be a heritage farm and raise endangered forms of sheep and heirloom vegetables and flowers. Their commitment to preserving heritage livestock and heirloom produce is the essence of their operation, as is Wayne’s longstanding interest in antique spinning wheels and fiber arts.
They have organic vegetable, berry and flower gardens on their 1810 farm, with many of the offerings heirloom species, as well as heritage livestock. “People remember food from their childhoods – like winter squashes and heirloom tomatoes,” says Wayne, and they “like the variety. Those who come to the farm stand want different types of tomatoes,” so Beau Chemin sells tomatoes and tomato plants; hen and duck eggs; u-pick and farm stand raspberries, vegetables and cut flowers; Buff Orpington and Andalusian chickens and Dutch Hook Bill and Khaki Campbell ducks. They also sell sheep breeding stock from four heritage species.
On-farm sales of wool, produce, tomato plants, breeding stock and hay generate some 80% of product income. In the offing for summer 2008 are u-pick highbush blueberries and grapes. Visitors may also wander a half-mile path through various ecosystems to a pond, with an ornithologist-developed identification list of some 80 bird species. “We try to use the opportunity with a captive audience to engage and teach about preservation breeds, sustainable agriculture, small farms,” says Jo Ann.
Wayne teaches about fiber, using their wool room to demonstrate spinning and to sell wool from their rare breeds for spinners and yarn from their sheep’s wool, much of which he dyes using natural processes and dyes from their plants. Supporters of Maine Fiberarts, and appreciative of its map for tourists, they have participated in Fiber Art Day.
Wendy and Bruce Reinemann of Guini Ridge Farm in Union also offer agri-tourism that includes animals. They bought their farm in 2001 in order to produce food, live more sustainably and possibly provide food to their community. “Ma,” a Katahdin bottle-baby ram that they purchased after they fell in love with him at stables where Wendy rode, took them in an unexpected direction. “You can’t just have one sheep,” explains Bruce, so they expanded their Katahdin flock to 15 within months. The farm has evolved from a 25-acre parcel with a small barn to two fenced farms with sheep, a vegetable garden and a blueberry and pumpkin u-pick.
Some of the 80 Katahdin and Suffolk ewes will be sold as breeding stock; others will provide a specialty linked sausage. The Reinemanns are trying to increase sales beyond u-picks, fresh and frozen meat, pelts and hand-dyed yarn by adding more year-round greens and legumes to their vegetable garden and selling a custom blend of seasoning.
At the 63-acre family-owned Ellsfarm in Union, Perry and Nate Ells milk 60 naturally-raised ewes in their Maine licensed and inspected dairy. They sell their milk to Appleton Creamery for cheese and occasionally to restaurants, and they sell fresh and frozen meat, yarn and sheep skins. As participants in recent years in Open Farm Day, Fiber Frolic at the Windsor Fairgrounds and Aldermere Farm’s Calf Unveiling, all places where they sell their wool, they are now looking at increasing their income by developing additional value-added products and ways to bring people to the farm. “Times are changing,” notes Perry, “and just producing a single traditional commodity like corn or milk is not how farms survive these days.
“It has taken 10 years to have the vocabulary and knowledge to talk with world-renowned chefs,” Perry Ells says about her lamb customers. “This is a new generation of farmers that needs to business plan, budget, package, label and market.” Her next agri-tourism activity may offer a weekly tour of Sweet Grass Winery, which also has a small flock of sheep; Ellsfarm Sheep Dairy; and possibly a cheese maker to visitors staying at Hartstone Inn in Camden.
The Farm Stay
The Morrill Farm B & B in Sumner, a 217-acre working organic farm, has room for nine guests and describes itself as a place to step back in time. Owners Patricia and Larry Perron had a simple goal when they bought the property 19 years ago: self-sufficiency. Their gardens, hens, milking cows, pigs, goats, beef cattle and B& B provide that.
With its location near hiking trails and ponds, and its traditional farm fixtures and practices (water pump, lanterns and icebox), the Perrons are squarely in the agri-tourism business. They are hosting an increasing number of families, says Larry, “who seem to have tired of Disneyland and sought a reality vacation, a time when the family connects shoveling manure to the nature experience.”
Their deep Catholic roots led them to build a chapel on their farm and to use their property regularly as a religious retreat center. By modeling 19th century farm life, they offer three- or four-day living history programs for some 50 or 60 students from Calvin College in Michigan and academies in Maine. What they provide all their guests is simple: how they live every day as a self-sufficient farm family.
Shalom Orchard B& B in Franklin Maine, near Bar Harbor, with an 1840s farmhouse, owned by Charlotte Young and husband Jim Baranski since 1995, is a certified organic farm and winery with an orchard of some 1,000 apple trees as well as blueberries, cherries and raspberries used for wine production and wholesale or retail sale. While the wine operation generates some 50% of farm income, they also grow vegetables for retail sale through their CSA and farm store and raise chickens for eggs and meat and about a dozen registered Rambouillet sheep for wool and meat. They sell yarn, handspun and organically mill-spun, in natural colors and plant-dyed, as well as tanned pelts and fleece.
They began a three room B& B in 2004, plan to expand to five rooms in 2009, and are offering a real farm stay starting in the summer of 2008 for people who “really want to experience staying on the farm – building activities, spinning, getting hands dirty,” says Charlotte. “Each stay would be individually designed and balanced between working on the farm and touring, maybe four mornings on the farm for instruction and hands-on work and the free time.”
The farm stay will flesh out their other agri-tourism activities: u-pick blueberries and apples; apple blossom and blueberry festivals; and a fall weekend on cooking with seasonal foods. For Charlotte, “the most important thing is to help people learn about organic growing and to connect with local foods and local produce.”
Donna Coffin, a Piscataquis County Extension Educator since 1980, works to preserve small farms by helping farmers develop direct sales. She helps farmers “attract non-farm people to the farm to build their agricultural literacy and get local people to come buy direct from the farm.” Maine Highlands Farmers, established five years ago to serve Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset County farmers, is a concerted effort to increase sales and expand markets by promoting locally raised products.
Maine Highlands Farmers distributed a map of local farms to tourist outlets but “it was their friends and neighbors who were doing the purchasing.” Focused now on advertising to nearby year-round residents and increasing signage, their strategy is working. At a May 2007 gathering of 10 of about 20 participating farms, the farmers estimated that their sales have increased from between 15% and 60% with the majority of sales in direct marketing. Many are opting to reduce their wholesale marketing in favor of direct sales.
Cathe Morrill bought State of Maine Cheese with partners in 1996 and, in 2001, moved it to a larger building on US 1 in Rockport to showcase Maine-made foods and have a larger cheese production plant. She believes “ the biggest agricultural opportunity in Maine is value added products, whether on the farm or off the farm.”
Morrill is working with the state and with the Maine Cheese Guild, which she helped found, to map all Maine cheese makers so that tourists can do cheese tours. Morrill believes “the breadth and depth of cheese making in Maine is soon going to rival every other state in the union.” Some five cheese makers are working with Union’s Savage Oakes and Sweet Grass Winery on a combined wine and cheese event in June 2008, and Morrill sees this as only the beginning.
Guini Ridge Farm’s Reinemann is looking for good ways to leverage his farm’s natural amphitheatre – possibly with a lecture series. Or maybe he’ll find out more about the summer concert series run by Sid and Rainie Stutzman of Stutzman’s Farm in Sangerville. Or maybe he’ll use the model of his picture-perfect barnyard October harvest supper, featuring his own roasted meats, currently a thank you celebration with friends and neighbors, to begin a Dinner in the Field series for paying customers. Perry Ells is wondering whether the on-the-farm Dinner in the Field-type event could work for her, but she has her farm tours to launch first.
Agri-tourism. The pieces are in place; the potential is limited only by the time, imagination and resources of Maine’s farmers, their partners and supporters.