Friday, March 31, 2017

Agritourism creates memories, economic boost


Here's a column I wrote for the Charleston Gazette-Mail about agritourism and how it benefits all of us.

An endless field of bright orange pumpkins with green vines sprout from the earth. Tots bounce from patch to patch eyeing which orb they can fashion into the perfect jack-o’-lantern.

The hayride circles back around to retrieve the next crop of farm-goers. Farm workers regale visitors with the history of the farm and agriculture. And, a few rows over, families reach up to pluck fresh apples from bushy trees.

This beautiful scene painted at Orr’s Farm Market in Martinsburg is an essential part of fall in Appalachia.

Is it really autumn if you don’t leave a family farm with a pumpkin or two under your arm and a peck of apples at your side?

Many farms are no longer simply planting crops and raising livestock. Rather, they are destinations that provide experiences and memories that last a lifetime — otherwise known agritourism.

Agritourism, by broad definition, encompasses farms providing additional activities, events or education at the property that draw visitors to generate additional income.

West Virginia farms are incorporating corn mazes, produce picking, hayrides, educational activities, games, restaurants that use local food and even bed-and-breakfasts, often known as farm stays.

More and more local farms are investing in this concept of agritourism, which has served small West Virginia family farms well and can contribute to growing the state economy.

“I’ve heard a lot of customers tell me how much it means to them to come, relax, pick berries and get away from everything,” said Katy Orr-Dove, retail market manager at Orr’s Farm Market and third-generation family member to work at the farm.

“From years of working with the customer, we have heard what they want and are constantly wanting to incorporate what they are asking for,” she said. “As our community becomes less agricultural-based and more urban, a lot of people that live around here no longer have their own backyard garden and they want a place where they can buy fresh, local produce and even more, they want to take their children with them and experience it together.”

Not only do these experiences define the season, the additional profit farms receive also makes an impact — one that could be crucial to the success and future growth for family farms.

“Our sales have greatly increased ever since incorporating the pick-your-own fruits — and especially with the pumpkin patch,” Orr-Dove said. “It’s brought a lot of new guests to our farm. And, whenever we have school trips, that’s up to 120 people who have never been here before, and it’s almost like free advertising because then they want to come back again with their families at another time.”

These farm-based tourism opportunities are another way for farms to diversify their income, and judging by the success of farms like Orr’s, it may be time to evaluate this new opportunity.

“If you’re in an area like us where you have access to enough people who find apple picking or pumpkin patches to be a novelty, it can be very beneficial for the business,” Orr -Dove said. “Because for us, we’ve probably increased business five times in 10 years —just incorporating activities brings in so many people for market or retail.”

Other farms like Gritt’s Farm, in Buffalo, offer playgrounds, apple slingshots and even a giant corn bin in which to play. At Sickler Farm in Moatsville, you can purchase mums and flowers. Byrnside Branch Farm in Union has bonfires and kettle corn.

As Cindy Martel, marketing specialist with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said in a previous story in the Gazette-Mail, this concept tends to work best when several operations “cluster” to create an area with several attractions, rather than just one, to help draw in folks.

This concept may not work well for every farm, I realize that. Many face location, staff or safety concerns. And others may struggle with activities outside of fall. But the potential is enormous.

These farms have integrated themselves into our experiences as West Virginians. The thrill of finding the perfect pumpkin to set out at Halloween is a cherished memory, and peeling freshly plucked apples for a homemade applesauce makes that farm — those people — part of our family.

“It’s very special to me ... it’s a lot of work and we have some days where we’re just exhausted, especially this time of year. But I go stand by the registers and watch kids come through with pumpkins and see how excited they are to be here,” Dove-Orr said.

“It reminds me why we do this. To see that joy when they get on the hayride to go to the pumpkin patch. To us, it’s just a pumpkin, to them, it’s a huge adventure to go on a hayride and to the pumpkin patch. It’s a memory.”

Fall in West Virginia isn’t complete without a trip to the pumpkin patch and apple orchard, and our small farms are integral to that experience — all while working together to grow our state’s economy.

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture, The West Virginia Division of Tourism, West Virginia University Extension Service and West Virginia State University are all working to make this opportunity available for more farms.

For more information on venturing into the agritourism market, visit http://anr.ext.wvu.edu/agritourism.

Candace Nelson is a marketing and public relations professional living in Morgantown. In her free time, Nelson blogs about West Virginia food culture at CandaceLately.com.

Follow @Candace07 on Twitter or email Candace127@gmail.com.
Katy Orr-Dove’s homemade applesauce

This recipe, which can be made with apples from Orr’s Farm Market, is simple, and Katy said it has been enjoyed by many folks for many years.

12 medium-large apples (McIntosh, Cortland, Golden Delicious or others of your choice) peeled, cored, and sliced

1 cup fresh apple cider

3 tablespoons local honey

1 teaspoon lemon juice

spices to taste: 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger (Katy’s picks)

Place all ingredients in a Crock-Pot on low for 4 to 6 hours.

Stir occasionally, adding more cider if needed. The key to this recipe is serving it warm at the end of a long cold day.

Add a little cream on top for a special treat.