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Partnerships needed to grow agritourism

June 11, 2012

Breanne Coats

Business Examiner

Years ago, folks in the tourism industry started to hear rumblings that agricultural tourism might be gaining momentum.

Fast-forward to the present and this “trend” not only has gained momentum, it’s going full speed ahead — without any signs of stopping.

And according to Suzanne Fletcher, executive director of the Washington Tourism Alliance, these visitors are breaking loose from the Eastern Washington wine district and coming to Western Washington.

“We see opportunity and potential here,” Shelly Schlumpf, chair of the Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitor Bureau board of directors, said about agritourism in Pierce County. “We are trying to grow that because of the popularity both in the nation and internationally.”

Schlumpf, who also is executive director of Puyallup/Sumner Chamber of Commerce, said that another thing business owners should take note of is that agri-tourists are willing to pay a premium price for the experience.

While some South Sound businesses have taken advantage of this opportunity, many believe more could be done to benefit the area.

But for South Sound communities to make the most of this tourism niche, industry professionals like Jeff Bowe of the Hotel Murano say there needs to be more partnerships among hotels, restaurants, tourism groups and farmers.

“We have just literally scratched the surface of these things,” said Bowe, who is senior sales manager for the downtown Tacoma hotel. “There are a lot of parts of the world that are interested in what we have here in Pierce County.”

Bowe said that as more travelers look for agritourism experiences, tourism companies seek out hotels, farmers and convention bureaus for pre-packaged itineraries that they can sell to their clients.

“We are looking to partner with these farms, and really anyone that wants to capture this market,” he said. “When I say anyone, I mean the Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, the observatory at Mount St. Helens. Any of the organizations that want to see more tourism, we want to partner with them.”

While boutique hotels are not the first thing people think about when it comes to agritourism, Bowe said it makes business sense to support the trend.

“We decided this is a very lucrative market for us,” he said. “People who would want to spend a little more for organic food are the same people that would spend a little more for a luxury hotel.”

What is it?

Typically, when people think about agritourism, a picture is painted of visiting a farm or ranch. However, Sound South agritourism experiences don’t have to be that limited.

In fact, some partnerships have formed to provide visitors with an agritourism and culinary tourism experience as part of a single package.

For example, visitors to local farms can select fruits or vegetables that a local chef will use a part of a cooking demonstration.

“It’s a big difference on the level of freshness,” Bowe said. “People are willing to pay more for that.”

He said the basic idea is to give guests an experience they can’t get on their own.

Fletcher said it’s important for folks in the South Sound to understand that agritourism doesn’t have to be limited to visiting a farm.

“This state has so many fairs and festivals, and that’s becoming very popular,” she said.

Schlumpf said that if cities want to effectively market themselves to niche travelers, they have to use their farmers and local restaurant to promote the area’s “uniqueness and authenticity.”

“You are trying to differentiate your quality of life with some place else,” she said.

Education

While agritourism would appear to be a win-win for the farmers, restaurants and hoteliers, Bowe said one of the hardest things to do is ask a farmer to allow tourists to come visit.

“Fairly, they should also look at ways this can make them more money,” Bowe said. “You don’t necessarily want people to come to your farm unless there is something it can do for you.”

But rather than giving up, or just working with more established farms, Bowe has been trying to educate farmers and ranchers about what these opportunities can do for their businesses — and how they can best take advantage of these opportunities.

For example, beyond charging an admission fee, Bowe said Murano is often interested in making that farm a supplier of the hotel.

“If we are buying our food from them, they would be more willing to partner with us if we have guests that want to visit them,” he said. “Everyone can be a part of tourism, but you have to want to be. We can send people to your farm, but if you don’t act like you want them, you won’t get them back. We all have to act like ambassadors of this region.”

Success story

Prior to the agritourism boom, Olympia-based Lattin’s Country Cider Mill and Farm had already developed a recipe for success that included diversification as a main ingredient.

From its fresh, award-winning cider, which is sold both at the mill and in other locations, to various animals and crops on site, to selling 52,200 apple fritters in 2011, the company has found a variety of ways generate revenue.

“I just have been very blessed,” said owner Carolyn Lattin.

And the farm has a history of providing tourists and locals with unique experiences.

In fact, the mill was started because people needed a place that could make their freshly picked apples into cider. However, the health department eventually said people couldn’t bring in their own apples for pressing anymore.

But that didn’t stop the mill from offering a unique agritourism experience to visitors, who can literally make their own fresh cider and drink it on the spot.

The business also offers two other tour options: pumpkins during the fall and an animal tour throughout the year.

At the end of May, the farm had a variety of animals, including baby goats, lambs, pigs and chicks.

“Some families come once a week to just see the farm,” Lattin said.

And these tours and services are genuinely part of the Lattin Country Cider Mill and Farm culture, which is accentuated by the community activities held on the site.

For example, the farm made 45,000 candy-filled eggs for an Easter hunt this year.

But part of the reason the farm draws visitors from all over has to do with the quality of its products. Lattin’s cider has won numerous awards.

“We cut out everything. That way our cider is the best you can do. Five or six people look over those apples and they are perfect,” Lattin said. “We really like what we do.”

And it took a lot of work for her to make it to this point of success. For example, Lattin remembers helping start the Olympia Farmers Market and the Proctor Farmers’ Market — which involved a lot of time and not a lot of initial return.

“It takes a lot of commitment,” she said. “I enjoy what I do and it’s brought a lot of enjoyment to others.”

Farm to table

While it’s important to have farmers and ranchers at the tourism table, Schlumpf said that restaurants are critical for any successful tourism campaign.

Fletcher said one trend that is getting a lot of attention is the “farm to table” concept.

“You are seeing so many restaurants that are opening now with this niche,” she said. “They pride themselves on the freshest of everything coming from local suppliers and local waters. That’s something that is really appealing.”

These restaurants are not encouraging their customers to pick their own berries, dig their own clams or really work at all to get their entrees, but they will provide information about where the food they are serving comes from.

Lisa Owen, owner of The Mark restaurant in Olympia, has worked to build relationships with local farmers. And while The Mark is a destination for folks wanting to eat at a certified organic restaurant, Owen uses any notoriety business receives to help showcase the local farms.

“My rule is to help get the community excited about purchasing directly from the farms,” she said.

Protection

Beyond the business partnerships, some local governments are working to protect and encourage farmers.

Cultivating Agritourism in Thurston County was an event that helped explain to the public why Thurston County created an Agritourism Overlay District.

Cliff Moore, director of Thurston County Department of Resource Stewardship, said the county has lost a lot of farmland and many large farms have gone out of business during the last decade.

However, Moore said there has been an increase in the number of small, start-up farms — and county commissioners wanted to find a way to help support this “boom” of new farmers.

“Rural portions face a lot of pressure for economic development. That’s what it’s all about: to protect these agricultural resources we have in the county now and to encourage new production,” he said. “What can we do to protect the farming industry we still have in the county and what can we do to help those smaller producers that are starting out?”

The answer apparently was creating an Agritourism Overlay District.

Most of the farms are in the southern end of the county, and the farmers typically do not have the benefit of being near the main markets of Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater.

Part of the idea behind the district, Moore said, was to put a “spotlight on this part of the county.”

“If you are way out in the south part of the county, it’s harder and more expensive,” he said. “The easier we can make it to get permits, and the easier we can make it for folks to be successful, the longer they will keep farming.”

With the adoption of the Overlay District, the commissioners told staff to monitor how the new regulations play out during the first 18 months.

“There’s a possibility it could be expanded or possibly we could add additional regulatory reform,” Moore said. “We are looking forward to working with folks as they bring us innovative ideas.”

Writer Breanne Coats can be reached at bcoats@BusinessExaminer.com.

 

 

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