Agritourism summit looks to enhance Va. industry

Farmers and lawmakers will gather for Virginia’s first-ever agritourism summit next month in Staunton to learn more about enhancing the economic impact of the industry.

Officially defined by the state code of agriculture as an “on-farm experience” for residents, agritourism has been a growing aspect among one of the state’s largest points of economic wealth.

“People are becoming more aware of what they are eating, how things are raised and how it gets from farm to the table,” said Joyce Hall, co-owner and operator of Posey Thisisit Llama Farm in Toms Brook.

This inaugural summit will be held March 10-11 in Staunton and has been a coordinated effort organized by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as well as the Virginia Cooperative Extension – with many agencies serving as sponsors.

Martha Walker, extension specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said the summit’s goal is to serve two key purposes.

“It is going to give the farmer exposure to new ideas that can be implemented,” Walker said, adding, “You got to have a takeaway that can make you more money on the farm.”

Some of the ideas that Walker said will be in discussion are marketing and simply how to start up an agritourism business.

The second purpose, Walker said, is to “give local governing bodies opportunities to explore” key questions that they have had concerning agritourism.

In addition, Walker noted that there will be attorneys there to discuss concerns such as zoning and planning.

Across the two-day conference, there will be representatives from the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, Fields of Gold, VDACS and even the Tennessee and North Carolina Departments of Agriculture.

On that note, Walker said that there will be information on how to create “a network of agritourism [similar] to what Fields of Gold has done.”

Fields of Gold is “an agritourism initiative” based in the Shenandoah Valley that promotes agricultural resources, attractions and localities. More than seven counties are in the Fields of Gold, including Shenandoah and Page counties.

Walker explained that Staunton was selected as the location because of Fields of Gold and the farms associated with it. The upcoming summit will include tours of four farms that are members of Fields of Gold.

“It will give those participating in the conference a chance to get out on the farm, hear their story … and how they fit into the Fields of Gold program,” said Elizabeth McCarty, program manager and economic development manager with Fields of Gold.

Hall’s Posey Thisisit Llama Farm has been a member of Fields of Gold since its inception and has been involved in agritourism since 2003.

“I do hands-on tours. You get into every area and every barn that I have here,” Hall said, adding that the tours help give visitors an inside look into the wool shearing process.

In providing this inside glimpse, Hall said that it gives residents a chance to see “what goes on in a farmer’s world.”

Hall explained that part of the benefit of providing agritourism aspects, like tours, is that the farm can financially benefit. “Basically, I get enough from agritourism to help with the upkeep.”

Between providing tours, hosting birthday parties and selling wool, Hall said that it is enough “to help keep the animals on the farm.”

Hall will be attending the second day of the of the summit and said she will look to “update, learn and improve on the different techniques … that we use for agritourism.”

The idea for the summit came from an economic impact study conducted by the Virginia Cooperative Extension through Virginia Tech, Walker said.

Walker said that, according to the study’s findings, “a majority of Virginia’s agritourism operations reported a profit” that even exceeded the farm’s operations in some cases.

Despite this, Walker explained that the study also found that agritourism “has not and does not appear as if it will take the place of traditional agriculture.”

Nevertheless, Walker and farmers like Hall see the upside of using agritourism as a “supplemental revenue stream” for farming operations.

The 2015 Agritourism Summit will take place at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton March 10-11. The cost of a single-day ticket is $95 and a two-day pass is $135. The final day to register is Feb. 16.

Although Walker noted that registration is “going well,” there is a limited amount of space with no more than 200 people allowed. “First conference, I hope that we make it, that we get to 200.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com