Fields of Gold aims to grow agritourism

Fields of Gold, the marketing group behind the Shenandoah Valley Farm Trail, is planning to make the region a top destination in agritourism.

The Office of Governor Terry McAuliffe announced this week that the group will be receiving $35,000 in planning grant funding from the state for its “Mooving Ahead” marketing program.

Tracey Coltrain, agritourism coordinator for the group, said the point of the program is to advance the farm trail “to the next level.”

“It’s going to help us dedicate more staff and resources to doing more marketing to visitors, providing more business support … and developing partnerships,” Coltrain said.

The Fields of Gold Farm Trail region stretches from Roanoke to areas just north of Strasburg, and includes operations such as Posey Thisisit Llama Farm in Toms Brook.

Coltrain joined the organization in January as its first agritourism coordinator, and indicated that she is hoping to do even more in a sector of agriculture that appears to be growing at a rapid rate.

According to a report by Chmura Economics and Analytics, the industry in the Fields of Gold region totaled $22 million in sales alone in 2011. Total economic impact was estimated at $34 million in that year.

Chmura also estimated in the 2012 study that agritourism visitors could grow by 6.2 percent in the coming decade, with sales possibly increasing at 9.3 percent per year.

The full 2012 study is available at http://bit.ly/1TBlWgB.

Coltrain said the trail is at 189 member farms, many of which are located in Shenandoah County. She added that they are in the middle of processing five more member applications.

“It’s definitely growing, and I think [this grant] is also going to give staff more time to really work closely with our members and then grow their businesses as well,” Coltrain added.

“Ultimately, our goal is to be recognized … as the number one agritourism destination in the state, maybe even the nation,” Coltrain said.

North Carolina appears to be the top agritourism state in this region, with a reported income of $17.6 million from agritourism on farms in 2012, according to a report from Virginia Tech’s Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics.

The department’s report looked at data from the three previous agriculture censuses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There was a reported $15.6 million in income from Virginia’s agritourism on farming operations in 2012. That figure represented a 436 percent increase from 2002.

With the state’s agritourism on a steep incline, Coltrain and Fields of Gold are looking to enhance this growing business from within the valley.

“We do have four of the top five agricultural counties in our region, so we really are asset-rich when it comes to all different varieties and categories of farms,” Coltrain said.

In addition, Coltrain said she will be looking to spend more time out in the region, visiting member sites and looking into potential future group members.

One project the group will be working on is Fields of Gold signage for member sites, similar to what the Shenandoah County Artisan Trail provides for its members, Coltrain said.

“Another thing we want to do with our members is develop a survey that can help them track who is coming to the farm, where they are coming from and why they are coming,” she said.

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