‘Backbone’ Businesses Boost Agritourism

Robert Sabbatini, Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce executive director, speaks during an agritourism workshop at Eastern Shore Community College on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

By Carol Vaughn —

Agritourism is a growing part of the Virginia economy, according to speakers at a workshop held April 13 at Eastern Shore Community College.

The daylong workshop, sponsored by Virginia Tourism Commission, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, Farm Bureau Insurance, and the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce (ESCOC), attracted both new and experienced farmers, along with agency representatives.

The event included networking exercises as well as information from experts on marketing, farm safety, and insurance.

Attendees in introductions at the start of the day noted their operations produce products ranging from cut flowers to organic produce and herbs, among others.

Some said they have held or plan to hold farm-to-table dinners or even plan to open a farm-to-table eatery on their farms.

“You are the backbone of the country,” Robert Sabbatini, ESCOC executive director, told the farmers.

Agritourism includes a range of farm-based activities geared toward visitors — from festivals to farm-to-table dinners, corn mazes, u-pick operations, farm markets, weddings, breweries and wineries, trail rides, bed-and-breakfasts, and more.

Agritourism in Virginia accounts for $2.2 billion in economic activity, supports more than 22,000 fulltime jobs, and is responsible for $134.7 million in state and local tax revenue, according to a 2017 study from Virginia Tech.

Of 7.5 million visitors to agritourism operations, 40% were non-local, according to the study.

Agritourism accounted for $40 million in economic activity on the Eastern Shore and included 30 venues in 2017, according to the study.

Those figures likely have risen since the study was done, according to speakers.

Livvy Preisser, of Virginia Cooperative Extension, gave an overview of what agritourism is and how to address liability and plan for safety on the farm.

It is a growing sector of agriculture, she said, noting farmers who go into agritourism do so in large part in order to share the farming lifestyle with visitors, as well as to generate income.

“Most everybody in the general public is three or more generations removed from the farm. … Folks want to know your story. … They want to go experience something,” Preisser said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been particularly eager to engage in outdoor activities, making certain types of agritourism even more popular, she said.

While event-based operations such as wedding venues and festivals were hard hit, others such as u-picks and farm markets saw increased sales. Farmers adapted their operations to be safe, including using personal protective equipment, offering online sales, or having customers reserve times to visit.

“We saw a huge, huge interest in local foods,” Preisser said.

She advised people interested in starting an agritourism operation to visit other farms for ideas; check on what local permits or licenses are needed; talk to their agricultural extension agent; talk with their insurance agent; have a business plan and an emergency plan; figure out who is their target audience; create a website and social media presence; and have fun.

A slide from a presentation at an agritourism workshop held at Eastern Shore Community College on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

Sabbatini and Emily Machen, ESCOC marketing director, spoke about how the chamber of commerce can help market agritourism operations.

Sabbatini recommended targeting families with children, a market that “has really exploded with the pandemic.”

“Folks are wanting to get outside. … You all are in a perfect position to capitalize on that,” he said.

Machen noted the chamber’s tourism website, visitesn.com, offers free listings for local businesses.

Additionally, individual businesses may be featured on its blog, she said.

“Folks visit this website. They visit our social media. … Folks come here to this website and they want to see what’s going on,” Sabbatini said.

The chamber is in the process of developing an agritourism trail on the Eastern Shore, similar to the WanderLOVE Lovin’ on the Water Trail, for which a rack card was made.

The agritourism trail also will include a clickable Google Maps feature.

Keeping information on Google updated, including correct days and hours an agritourism business is open, is critical, according to Sabbatini.

The chamber also is creating an app focused on the trails.

“Basically, people are going to be able to search by interest,” said Machen.

“If you have something of interest, please send it to us,” Sabbatini said.

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