Making Agritourism the Flavor of the Hudson Valley

By Katharine Millonzi | March 15, 2015
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Betting the Farm
 

Illustrations by Lucy Engelman
 

As an imagined source of refuge, and remediation, “the countryside” has long gripped our collective imagination. Indeed, the idea of the country underpins the historic popularity of agritourism, the practice of touring farms and participating in farm activities, which dates to the late 1800s. As cities and their correspondent woes grew, urbanites fled to recuperate among rural relatives. In the 1920s, with the invention of the automobile and an expanded road network, New Yorkers took up travel to rural areas with gusto, especially as other forms of re-creation dwindled during the Great Depression and World War II.

Today, we continue to fill the 19th-century prescription to “take some air” as part of our recuperative agendas. We believe that farms help us reaffirm our bond with the natural scheme of things. Against refrains of alienation in an increasingly digital world, the current surge in agritourism reflects our dogged impulse to re-ground. Suddenly, we not only want to know where our food comes from but also just how the field biology of our CSA relates to our inner landscapes. We want to talk about sustainability, yes, but more so to know how it sounds, smells, feels and tastes. Even if it’s dirty and unglamorous. And we are willing to pay to find out.

Over the past year, interviews with over 30 agritourism entrepreneurs in the Hudson Valley have revealed compelling findings. The particular incentive that jumps out is the one shared by visitors to farms: the desire to reconnect. Apparently, we go to work, or stay or eat on farms seeking a connectedness that we sense has been lost. We are hungry to step out of our daily lives and experience different and, we imagine, better ways of being. We tell ourselves that if we “get away” for a little while, we might be OK, maybe even flourish. If we go someplace where the air is clean, and the living cleaner, perhaps then we would come to our senses, by activating our senses.

PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION
 

There are many pursuits categorized as agritourism in the Hudson Valley. Traditionally, these enterprises include: outdoor recreation (fishing, hunting, wildlife study, horseback riding); entertainment (harvest festivals or barn dances); and on-farm direct sales (pickyour- own operations or roadside stands). However, the emerging agritourism ventures tend to show more rigor and intent in a different way, with a focus on: educational experiences (skills workshops/classes); hospitality services (farmstays, guided tours); on-farm weddings (venue rental); and culinary tourism (farm dinners, tasting events).

The new agritourism paradigm is an entrepreneurial merger of the hospitality, educational, and agricultural sectors—three sectors just getting to know one another in many ways. The type of farm where this occurs is marked by a communications approach that synchronizes the tourism sector with the craft–oriented aesthetic of sustainable agriculture. The character of this aesthetic reflects simplicity, authenticity and abundance. This type of emerging agritourism also mirrors environmental values and land-use management practices; according to research done at Glynwood in Cold Spring, over 60% of the farms offering guest experiences in the Hudson Valley are found on ecologically managed properties, revealing an ethos of sustainability and the sort of practices that lure city folk and the like away from their urban experience.

The principle of the new agritourism is participation. Moving away from the entertainment-based “hands-off ” approach (e.g., visiting a corn maze) and gravitating toward on-farm hosting, agritourism ventures in the Hudson Valley are shifting to programs that promote sensory education. As a crossroads of artistic, scientific and physiological knowledge, farms grow more than food; they also cultivate an experiential reality people crave. New agritourism caters to a new brand of agritourists—engaged, conscious eaters that want to learn while they habituate. In a world of instant fixes and self-proclaimed experts, farms, and farmers, offer an antidote: a substantive life rooted in time, craftsmanship and soil.

RECIPROCITY
 

For the group of lawyers who recently signed up for Stone & Thistle Farm’s “Farmer for a Day” program, the upshot of their search for reconnection was entirely expected. Upon the group’s arrival, farm proprietor Denise Warren informed the men that the day’s activity was to assist in castrating young piglets. A standard farm duty, perhaps, but this formative visceral experience of their pork dinner shook the young city lawyers to the core. “You should have seen the look on their faces!” laughs Warren. “Especially when they remembered that they were paying for it!”

Generally speaking, agritourism allows farmers to diversify their operations, spread financial risk and, in many cases, keep family farmland in production. The majority of hosted activities rely primarily on family members to operate. While only a supplemental source of income for most farms, agritourism supplies important seasonal income—on average it could amount to a third of a farm’s total revenue. For many farmers, the hospitality component of their businesses, even something as simple as farm tours, has become sufficient enough that it “is impossible to stop doing.” Farmers also consider the nonfinancial benefits of agritourism integral to the overall viability of their enterprise, as it raises awareness as well as regard for the farming enterprise. Most farmers say that opening their doors makes the farm feel like a vibrant center of reciprocity, rather than an isolated entity.

Farmstays, when individuals are hosted right on the farm with room and board as well as an expectation to join in the effort, offer guests the opportunity to expand their educational day on the farm into a weekend or sometimes a week. Farmstays are the most underrepresented areas of agritourism, though this niche has great prospects.

East Coast farmstay pioneers in on-farm accommodation, such as Kinderhook Farm and Sprout Creek Farm, enjoy full occupancy rates each season. Lodging type and luxury level range from high-end farmhouses, such as Mud Creek Farm in Livingston, New York, to renovated barns, to “glamping” tents, such as those available to guests at Stony Creek Farm in Walton, New York. Their tagline, “Let your family free range” says it all. Farmstays in the Hudson Valley are available for nightly or weekly stays at average prices of $150 to $500 per night and $1,500 to $3000 per week.

hanging with farm animals

AG AND MARKETS
 

Ten years ago, The New York Times called the Hudson Valley the Napa of the East. The region is replete with entrepreneurial farmers making high-quality artisanal foods and, in turn, receives lots of tourism press. The majority of Hudson Valley farms interested in hosting guests have the advantage of proximity to a large metropolitan area with multitudes of potential customers, as well as the personalities for promoting their business. Agritourism contributes toward goals of land conservation, environmental education and even food security as it fills empty tourist beds, contributes to on-farm livelihoods and translates the region’s best natural assets into the regenerative economic ones. While hardly a panacea for the complex food and farm viability issues we face, agritourism can supply a path toward sustainable, regional economic development.

Yet, despite such a range of benefits to farmers and tourists alike, the sector remains noticeably underdeveloped, this is partially due to the investment needed, as it is not enough to just open your doors to the public. Visitors are increasingly drawn to experience the region through the lens of agriculture and cuisine. However, there remains a need to better develop these experiences and the opportunities for farms alike. The story of Jody Somers and Luisa Scivola-Somers, artisan farmers of Dancing Ewe Farm in Granville, New York, illuminates both the obstacles and opportunity for agritourism in New York State. Jody and Luisa have all the pieces in place for a thriving, diversified farm business, except two main things: money and marketing.

The farm’s products, which include sheep ricotta, aged pecorino and cured meats, are excellent and have garnered a following throughout the Valley as well as in the Greenmarkets in NYC. Plans for a brick pizza oven in the tasting room, and a farm store, are natural next steps driven by demand from the enthusiastic visitors who attend the weekly farm dinners, tours and tasting events, all guided by the couple’s Italian-infused conviviality. Upstairs in the barn loft, half-finished bedrooms keep Jody up at night. “We are up to our eyeballs in loans,” he explains. “We are 60% there. We have people and the will, but no access to capital to take it to the next level. Frustrating.”

Dancing Ewe, like many other farm entrepreneurs, are at a crossroads with growth. Having maximized personal resources, farms need start-up capital and technical assistance to move forward with their visions. While it is unlikely that the US government will subsidize agritourism anytime soon, as is customarily done across Europe, what can be encouraged here are new forms of focused investment in this exciting field.

New venture development and innovation funds for farmers, through both private and public monies, are key to unlocking this burgeoning industry in a conscientious way. Some movement is afoot on the state level to get New York onboard with a grant or subsidy program to support such an industry, but this is still very much in the talking stage.

Alongside investment, the new expression of on-farm hospitality requires new sets of skills, which is often a stretch for those more accustomed to dealing with livestock rather than tourists. Agritourism obliges farmers to wear many hats: interior decorator, innkeeper, chef, tour guide and, importantly, start-up entrepreneur. Not every farmer is cut out to be a host.

“You have to see what works best for you over time,” says Mary Koch of Thyme in the Country, an eco-friendly, country farm B&B in Hudson. “It’s a constant balancing act, and you really, really have to like people.” Job requirement: patience. Agritourism activities also fall into a gray zone between hospitality and agricultural land-use regulations, thereby making local permitting, coding and land-use controls tricky to navigate. Add then to these insurance concerns, should, say, a guest’s child try to pet a snapping turtle in the pond. Job requirement: perseverance. If you do manage to build it, and insure it, they will probably come—but not if they don’t know about it. Add, then, “marketing/ PR expert” to the new farmer job description.

camping

THE EUROPEAN MODEL
 

The heart of the matter is geographical. We must be drawn to a place because we crave the flavor and experience that place represents. Identity via gastronomy is a European regional specialty. European tourism boards are longtime pros at articulating the defining characteristics of their respective regions and tying these features to standardized products that lure tourists. Within this, provincialism is encouraged as a positive concept that constitutes the very charm of old-world food culture. Limits create context, and context creates the very sense of belonging and embodiment that agritourists often seek. Tourists flock to engage with, and unknowingly perpetuate, carefully constructed narratives of tradition. Drawing boundaries pays off.

These European models of terroir, which demarcate the geographic origin of a particular product, present challenges when applied to the diverse topography and business spirit of the Hudson Valley’s artisanal food-craft. America, founded upon inclusiveness, and unbounded scale, may fetishize European cuisines, but we also balk at the rigid adherence to the old-world tradition and scale. After all, who determines these boundaries and standards of taste and quality? How does the Hudson Valley region best identify itself within the mind of the tourist, especially in this highly artisan food culture relatively untethered to a set tradition? Do Hudson Valley dairy, apples, wine— or simply the region’s farming culture itself—best provide a sense of place for prospective visitors? And how is this message best conveyed?

Drilling down to define a region is no easy task, but a necessary one to build the profile of the Hudson Valley as a destination for food and farm experiences. Food, more than an au courant trend, outlines an inclusive public interface for a mighty River Valley no stranger to attempts at unified storylines. Regional food unites the region’s diverse characters in a future-oriented narrative that nods to our collective gastronomic heritage. This redrafted image for the Hudson Valley, led by farms, restaurants and food producers, needs new support by way of creative and cohesive branding.

Facilitating the creation of such a regional identity is of interest to many stakeholders, including Glynwood, the nationally renowned, Cold Spring–based organization dedicated to sustaining regional agriculture. Agritourism in the Hudson Valley presents an opportunity to connect place under a larger, food-focused banner identity, in service to environmental stewardship and localized economies. The “countryside” need no longer be a staid and distant concept. Farmers and the like can spotlight and protect what is unique to this landscape and create new forms of reverence grounded in our senses. We can stop to eat, and sleep in the view.

pick your own berries

Learn more: farmshareny.com

FARM STAY

The locations below are just a few of the emerging Hudson Valley farms that are now offering overnight accommodations. Visit websites for details.

DANCING EWE FARM
181 Country Route 12, Granville
518.528.5933

KINDERHOOK FARM
1958 Co Road 21, Ghent
518.929.3076

STONE & THISTLE FARM
1211 Kelso Road, East Meredith
607.278.5800

STONY CREEK FARMSTEAD
1738 Freer Hollow Road, Walton
607.865.7965

THYME IN THE COUNTRY
671 Fish and Game Road, Hudson
518.672.6166

Article from Edible Hudson Valley at http://ediblehudsonvalley.ediblecommunities.com/things-do/making-agritourism-flavor-hudson-valley
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