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Director's Column. Agri-tourism: A Desperate Last Straw?

by Desmond Jolly, director, Small Farm Program

Editor's note: In this column, Desmond Jolly responds to a letter recently submitted to Small Farm News.

November 7, l999

Dear Editor:

I was really very distressed over your Summer issue on Agricultural Tourism. I think you should be honest about what Agricultural Tourism really represents \'d1 the desperate grasping at straws on the part of people who cannot make a living farming because of concentrated markets, unfair world trade agreements, terrible media coverage of farmers and farming, and monopoly capitalism in general.

If I had wanted to run a theme park or become an innkeeper, I certainly would not have gone into farming. Let\'d5s be clear on the real issues \'d1 we have a farm crisis in this country unlike any seen in the past, and if something doesn\'d5t happen soon, the only people who will still be in business will be the theme park operators. But that is not what most of us want to do with our lives and our farms and ranches.

Sincerely yours,
Jeanne McCormack

Desmond Jolly responds:

I am not just respectful of Ms. McCormacks opinions; I am very supportive of the basic concerns she raises. However, I do believe in strategic thinking, and in this context, a focus on agri-tourism to bolster the portfolio of enterprises that a family farm might engage in to diversify its income sources seems quite rational. Regarding national farm policy, I, along with more than two dozen other commissioners, devoted a significant portion of my life to influencing and changing national policy through our work on the National Commission on Small Farms during a two-year period.

But even if the commission's 146 recommendations were taken and acted upon, individual farmers and farm entrepreneurs would still need to think strategically and find niches that they can fill in the emerging marketplace. Clearly, the traditional, conventional approaches of producing commodities and selling them to the grain company or the packer/shipper is not optimal for most smaller scale producers. Additional, higher value products and services are needed to meet operational expenses, to more fully utilize the assets of the farm, and to meet emerging consumer needs. One does not have to envision oneself as a theme park operator to value the potential benefits of more direct engagement with consumers through on-farm visits and on-farm sales.


What are some of these benefits? Through direct engagement with consumers, farmers are able to share the challenges and satisfactions of their lifestyles. Direct engagement with non-farm people is a potentially effective way to rebuild connections between urbanites and rural people, and may enhance chances for a more pro-family farm policy environment.

Farmers can develop interpersonal and communication skills through their interactions, and those skills can have payoffs in other important areas. Agri-tourism increases the potential for higher margin, on-farm sales of value added products, further diversifying the product line of the farm operation. The increased revenue may reduce the probability of an early exit from farming.

Diversification into more direct consumer relations through such opportunities as agricultural or educational tours, u-pick operations, farm stands, pumpkin patches, agricultural festivals, and farm stays are not a substitute for a pro family farm agenda. But neither are they irrelevant or merely a desperate grasping at straws. Sometimes we must learn to make lemonade.

In fact, one of my fears is that if farmers and ranchers are too tardy in their responses to this emerging opportunity, theme park operators will develop simulated farms and operate them as agri-tourism attractions.