Agricultural tourism or "agritourism," as it's commonly known, offers an increasingly viable alternative for improving the income and sustainability of small farms and rural communities.
According to the latest Census of Agriculture, the average agritourism operation reported income of more than $24,000 in 2007 – up more than 300 percent from 2002.
The endeavors rely heavily on a loyal support base and often capitalize on specialized marketing. A case in point can be found in Idaho, where one producer's hospitality and marketing savvy add up to a solid bottom line. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID –"No one knows what the future holds for agriculture. The farms are getting bigger and bigger, get big or get out. Everyone's nervous about the bankers involved with their farm and we don't quite know where we're going with all this."
For the past two decades, MaryJane Butters has carved a life for her family in rural Idaho by taking a different trail from mainstream farming. Instead of the more traditional row crops or livestock production, she has opened her farm up to agri-tourism, as well as many other alternative enterprises.
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID -"It's different kinds of things that diversification agri-tourism is a big deal now, inviting people to enjoy what you know, what you value very much which is your sense of place. So agri-tourism is something that farmers should buy into on some level."
According to the Department of Agriculture, some 52,000 U.S. farms earn income from agri-tourism, which can take many forms. Some farmers and ranchers promote new crops or livestock while others focus on organic, educational or recreational agriculture. But there is a common theme -these niche marketers rely on what is available to keep the family on the farm and the farm in the family. Butters claims farming organically makes the most sense for her operation.
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID -"I've probably been involved in organic farming my entire life because we grew all of our own vegetables and sewed our own clothes, a very self-sufficient family. My father subscribed to Organic Gardening. In fact, when I left home, my present was a subscription to Organic Gardening."
Considered an organic pioneer, Butters has found success on the land while maintaining environmental integrity. MaryJanes Farm is nestled in the stunning Palouse region of northern Idaho, where for 22 years, Butters has raised everything from bees to chickens to garlic to wheat. She's even raising crops for biodiesel to fuel her pink Mercedes Benz.
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID –"I'm like a good farmer. You have to diversify. You have to, if one crop fails, you try something. You get up the next morning, you try something else. We have a very diversified farm here."
Recently, Butters started offering local residents something she calls the Country Club. She describes it as "a piece of her farm for their very own."
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID –"The Country Club was my answer. I tried the farmer's market for years. My husband enjoyed the social aspect of it, but we didn't make enough money. Then, I moved into the CSA program and I think it's a fascinating concept, but it didn't work for me either. I still felt people were not connecting enough with their food. I didn't just want to drop it off on their doorsteps.
Andrika Kuhle, Moscow, ID -"I am a supporter of trying to eat what's grown nearby and especially having kids, knowing where food comes from. Food really doesn't come from a grocery store. That's where most of us get it, but it really does grow!"
The $100 seasonal membership buys people a "key" to the farm. Members have access to the farm from dawn to dusk seven days a week and are able to pick a large variety of fruits and vegetables at market price.
Andrika Kuhle, Moscow, ID -"Many people have farm fantasies. Everyone wants their farm, but it's cost prohibitive sometimes. They have other jobs. So I want them to experience the aesthetic, the romance of the farm. I think it's a model other farmers could use."
Another element to Butter's agri-tourism empire is a chance to stay off the beaten path in her Bed & Breakfast. She offers visitors unique wall tents, where they can experience rural life in a rustic environment with no electricity or phones. And, she created the "Farmgirl Connection," a website that brings women across the country together.
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID –"The old farm clubs that women formed years ago, I decided to create that version online and it's exploding. There are thousands of women on there chatting."
One of the most successful aspects of Butter's business is her line of organic backpacking foods sold online and in camping stores across North America. The organic food is easy to prepare for outdoor enthusiasts, something Butters says she dreamed of having when she lived in Idaho's backcountry several years ago.
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID –"That is actually our biggest source of revenue is our food business. It's a big part of our budget. We probably do a million dollars worth of food every year from that little daylight basement over there…All of it's done right here. The food is mixed here. It's packaged here and shipped from here. I invented the recipes for the foods and the labels."
Editor and author are two more hats Butters wears. She has her own nationally distributed magazine called MaryJanes Farm, and her most recent book is entitled MaryJane's Outpost that came with a $1.35 million advance.
Though Butter's agri-tourism enterprise may not fit mainstream farming models, she has created a business that promotes sustainable farming and traditional family values while maintaining that ever-important bottom line.
MaryJane Butters, Moscow, ID –"Do what it is you love and let the money follow, truly. Take those risks and especially for women entrepreneurs, we've kind of been disenfranchised all the long in agriculture. We're better risk takers and that's why we're the fastest growing people, group of people buying small farms and we come up with imaginative ideas like the bed and breakfast, Country Club, etc., that kind of female energy. I think it's important to follow those whims."
For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.