Agritourism: The farmer’s side-hustle

Wendy and Ed De Mello, co-owners of Third Hill Winery, relax behind the bar. The two moved from San Francisco to retire before starting a vineyard and winery.

In a sluggish agriculture economy, farmers are looking for new revenue streams to complement their crop sales. Given Virginia’s recent tourism boom and a worldwide trend toward craft breweries and getaway wineries, more and more Shenandoah Valley farmers are creeping their way toward agritourism as a means of revenue diversification.

Agritourism is the concept of using a farm as a destination and attraction in itself instead of simply a food source. It’s a vineyard inviting guests to stay for a wine tasting and a cheese platter, or an orchard offering apple picking or hard cider on the farm.

Martha Walker, an extension specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech University, said Virginia’s agriculture industry is tilting toward attracting tourists to keep farms profitable with new tactics.

“People want to come on site, and they want to explore,” Walker said.

Looking at the Shenandoah Valley exclusively, the agritourism movement is gaining more traction every year as more farms are adding on-site attractions, and some are working together in the effort.

Wendy De Mello, co-owner of Third Hill Winery, describes the wines grown from on-site grapes for a wine tasting. Third Hill Winery is the newest winery to open in Shenandoah County, an addition to the area's agritourism sector. Jake Zuckerman/Daily

Jenna French. director of tourism for the Shenandoah County Tourism Board, said a unique quality of the Shenandoah Valley is that area wineries tend to grow their own grapes to brew into wine as opposed to importing them – either from within or across state lines.

This independence, she said, creates a connection to the land that doesn’t exist elsewhere. From this connection, she said, farms can draw not only Shenandoah Valley residents, but city dwellers from Washington, D.C., and other metro areas throughout the region.

“When you’re down in the city, you don’t get to have these experiences picking your own berries or going out in the orchard,” French said. “People from the city are excited to experience that because it’s not something they can do in their own backyard.”

Following the surge in wineries and breweries, French said the businesses have realized they’re in it together as much as they are competing, leading to the cooperative efforts of building different wine and beer trails through the valley.

Walker agreed this communal effort is crucial to understanding the industry. She added that with more attractions, people come in from farther out if there is more to do in a day.

Third Hill Winery grows its own grapes for wine. Jake Zuckerman/Daily

“Wineries want to be able to send people elsewhere,” she said. “Networking between agritourism businesses is important so they can make a day out of it for tourists.”

Another aspect that makes agritourism so attractive to farmers is the relative ease for them to set up the side business. The highest startup costs to a farm are the land and the equipment; adding apple-picking revenue to an orchard requires minimal additional capital and moderate increases to monthly overhead in service, legal and labor costs.

Two new entrepreneurs on the agritourism block, Ed and Wendy De Mello, opened Third Hill Winery in November 2015 on their preexisting grape farm, DeMello Vineyards, at 2110 Quicksburg Road in Quicksburg.

The two originally planned to stick to farming, but as they honed their skills as vintners, they saw an opportunity for their business. They saw the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail growing in popularity, and decided to come on board and add to the trail.

Wendy De Mello said the two took on minimal costs to add the service side of the business. Ed De Mello, who has a background in engineering, repurposed materials purchased from flea markets and donated from neighboring farmers to create the bar area – a homey, wooden complex.

Instead of hiring a lawyer to work on alcohol licenses and city zoning requirements (as most wineries do), he took on the burden himself while his wife worked on the marketing side of things.

All in all, when the two put aside their added labor, they said the cost of adding the winery was low, and they find the work and the social aspects of owning a winery extremely enjoyable.

To potential newcomers, French said any farmers looking to build an agritourism business of their own can contact the Shenandoah County Tourism Board for any support or guidance they may need.

However, Walker said it’s important farmers do all their homework before adding to their ag business, including understanding the new challenges involved in staffing, liability, zoning and legal issues.

“When you add another business entity to a farming operation, you have to do the due diligence and a business plan to ensure you get a return on investment,” she said. “Nothing you do is free, it all has a cost.”

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com