By Mindy Bridges
Did you make your way through a corn maze this year, pick a pumpkin, blueberries or apples, or enjoy a socially distanced wine tasting or gourmet dinner at a nearby farm?
They all fall under the umbrella of agritourism and are increasingly seen as a way for farms and ranches to broaden their appeal and add to their bottom line. State policymakers are supporting these efforts, and the interest in agritourism is growing across the country.
Agritourism includes a range of educational, recreational and entertainment activities that allow visitors to engage directly with agricultural businesses.
Depending on the state’s definition, agritourism often includes pick-your-own farms, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, hayrides, school field trips, farm stays, hosting events (i.e., weddings, birthdays) and much more. These activities link the agricultural and tourism industries and connect consumers directly with agricultural producers.
Agritourism tripled between 2002 and 2017 with industry revenue of almost $950 million in 2017 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Census of Agriculture. Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers are exploring expanded agritourism opportunities to diversify and provide additional revenue.
With state COVID-related public health orders and guidelines, farmers had to decide how to adapt and look for new ways to operate their businesses. Some activities have been able to continue with the addition of mask-wearing, increased cleaning procedures and limited capacity. With many classrooms learning in a virtual setting, some farms have offered virtual tours to replace in-person field trips.
To support agricultural producers, state governments and university extension centers have stepped up. For example, New York announced new state guidance for the fall season, and Cornell University’s Small Farms Program provided five steps to prepare for agritourism activities during the pandemic.
Researchers and policymakers are examining the impacts of the pandemic across the industry.
While some are struggling, many agritourism operations in Illinois expected “higher profits than 2019, driven by an increased demand in safe, socially-distant outdoor activities” according to a University of Illinois study.
Agritourism also plays a role in broader policy efforts that support local food systems by connecting directly with consumers to purchase produce and other local products. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has convened a project team, including partners from the University of Kentucky, Colorado State University and the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, to examine the impacts of COVID on local and regional food systems.
Recent State Action
States have responded to the growing interest in agritourism through legislation and collaborative efforts among state agencies, universities and other partners. These efforts have continued amid the changing landscape of the pandemic.
States have enacted statutes on agritourism for several years. Kansas enacted its Agritourism Promotion Act in 2004 and made amendments in 2012 and 2013. In recent years, state policies have:
- Defined and expanded definitions of agritourism.
- Provided for liability protections and guidance.
- Addressed zoning and building codes.
- Encouraged the promotion agritourism activities through state marketing and tourism efforts.
Massachusetts established an Agritourism Study Commission in 2019 (House Bill 4962). The commission is examining ways to support and expand agritourism, including a review of national best practices.
States enacted agritourism-related legislation in 2020, such as:
- North Carolina Senate Bill 315 added hunting, fishing and equestrian activities to definition of agritourism and expanded agricultural outdoor advertising.
- Tennessee Senate Bill 2423 extended immunity from liability to include property damage caused by the inherent risks of agritourism activities under certain circumstances.
- Utah House Bill 232 created permitting guidelines for agritourism food establishments.
- Virginia Senate Bill 24 added horseback riding or stabling to the definition of agritourism activity.
State legislatures are debating these issues and many more through a COVID lens in 2021.
NCSL’s Task Force on Agriculture engages on agritourism and other agricultural policy issues. For more information about the task force, contact Ben Husch and Mindy Bridges.
Mindy Bridges staffs the Task Force on Agriculture and is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Environment, Energy & Transportation Program.