Keeping 'Green Fields Green'

Effort To Promote Agriculture In Region Under Way

Posted: March 26, 2013

HARRISONBURG — Regional efforts aimed at integrating agricultural experiences with the tourism industry are under way.

Visitors are typically drawn by outdoor activities in George Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park and the Shenandoah River, ranging from kayaking to hiking to mountain biking.

Organizers of the Fields of Gold agritourism marketing campaign want the Shenandoah Valley to also be recognized as an “agricultural destination.”

“It has a heritage … that people can learn about and come and enjoy what this area has to offer as far as farms and the agricultural community and the opportunities that are here,” said Bonnie Riedesel, executive director of the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission.

The commission is developing the program with input from a steering committee made up of local government representatives and producers.

“I see this program as something that supports the local efforts by the individual agricultural counties in our area,” said Billy Vaughn, director of community development for Rockingham County.

The Fields of Gold region includes the counties of Augusta, Bath, Highland, Rockbridge, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Page, along with the cities of Harrisonburg, Lexington, Staunton, Buena Vista and Waynesboro.

Fields of Gold started two years ago and since then, more than $100,000 in grants have been secured to go along with funding from participating local governments.

Part of the funding was used for a survey to identify agritourism destinations and to develop a Web page and map showing where those businesses and farms are. It can be found at cspdc.org/fieldsofgold. So far, more than 130 operators have been identified.
For its purposes, Fields of Gold identifies agritourism fairly broadly.

Its definition includes wineries, breweries and cideries; farmers markets and produce stands; farm tours and farm stays; hay rides and corn mazes; ag festivals and county fairs; farm-to-table restaurants; trout farms; pick-your-own farms; and event facilities and ag venues.

An economic impact study conducted by Richmond firm Chmura Economics and Analytics used a slightly more narrow scope, omitting fairs and festivals.

Chmura Economics and Analytics estimated there were 226 businesses in the region participating in agritourism. Its July report estimated the industry had $22.4 million in sales in 2011, with a total economic impact of $34.8 million when multiplier effects are included. Overall, the region has three of the top five ag-producing counties in the state, with Rockingham topping the list.

For Michelle Martin, co-owner of Middle River Farms near Grottoes, it was a no-brainer to sign up to be included in Fields of Gold’s database. Middle River Farms specializes in pick-your-own strawberries and pumpkins.

“Hopefully, it will bring out more people,” she said of the marketing program.

Farmers and others are hopeful that agritourism can help to preserve farmland by bringing in additional revenue.

“What we’re after is to keep more green fields out there. … Green fields are always better than our parking lots,” said Curt Hartman, owner of Bluestone Vineyard outside of Bridgewater and a member of the Fields of Gold steering committee. “It enables us to not only help the atmosphere of the area but also economically we’ll be bringing everything from tax money to jobs.”
Vaughn described the venture as “another tool [farmers] can use to find a means to surviving and keep that operation viable.”

John Welsh, who heads up the Rockingham County extension office, said agritourism has grown more common in recent years out of necessity. (But he also notes the concept isn’t new, with orchards and you-pick operations being around for decades.)

In the past when farmers faced stagnant prices, they’d expand to keep up with inflation, Welsh said.
That only works when there’s more land to expand to.

“What we’re seeing now, they’re selling a service of the farm, whether it’s a you-pick pumpkin patch or corn maze,” he said. “It’s just a whole way to generate additional income for that producer.”

But Welsh doesn’t expect agritourism operations — which he considers to be on-the-farm activities — to become commonplace in Rockingham County.

For one, there are a lot of farms in the area and not a whole lot of people.
In Northern Virginia, agritourism operations can draw from a potential customer base of millions of people, he said.

“We hope we never get to be the Northern Virginia agritourism, where you’re the last farm in a sea of suburbia,” he said.

Another reason why Welsh says agritourism will affect a small number of farms in the area is that farmers tend to be people who value their privacy and won’t want to open up their land to visitors.

“It’s not going to be like the saving grace for agriculture in Rockingham County,” he said. “Agriculture in Rockingham County will exist because it’s able to be profitable.”

Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or jhunt@dnronline.com


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