December 16, 2012

University extends a hand to teach finer points of agritourism in Maine

Agritourism 101 offers workshops to help farmers analyze the costs and benefits of an endeavor.

By KAITLIN SCHROEDER Morning Sentinel

FARMINGTON - For decades, Herbert "Bussie" York tinkered with running his farm.

YORK
click image to enlarge

Herbert York said for traditional farmers, the idea of branching into agri-tourism can be daunting for more than financial reasons. He said it takes not only cash but courage to open something such as a farm stand.

AGRITOURISM IN MAINE

THERE WERE 8,100 farms in Maine in 2010, the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

IN 2006, about 10 percent of Maine’s farms were involved with some form of agritourism, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture,

MAINE IS one of 23 states with laws promoting agritourism. State Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, sponsored a bill to limit a farmer’s liability if a visitor has a farm-related accident. The Legislature passed the bill in April.

He started producing organic milk, experimented with different crops and adopted new technology.

Four years ago, he made another change, that time to draw visitors to Sandy River Farms with a corn maze and a pick-it-yourself pumpkin patch as part of Maine's agritourism movement.

Then, in June 2011, he opened a farm stand on his Farmington property, selling his and other farmers' products and bringing even more people to his family farm.

Now an agricultural education program of the University of Maine is branching into agri-tourism to help farmers like York across the state. Some examples are corn mazes, pick-your-own fruit and vegetable operations, cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, bed-and-breakfasts on farms, produce stands and farm-education programs

"We're trying to create awareness of this as a business opportunity," said John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

He said Maine is a good place for agritourism because it has a history of diverse agriculture businesses.

"It's really a part of our heritage and economy," he said. "We've got everything from eggs to apples to aquaculture."

Since May, the extension office began statewide programming to teach farmers about this growing business trend.

Marc Edwards is the person focusing on agritourism statewide for the extension office. He works from the Franklin County office in Farmington.

He said agritourism is broadly defined as any visit to a farm to buy farm products or for a farm-related activity.

Edwards said as part of the developing program, he is hosting workshops called Agritourism 101 through the different county extension offices. The program walks farmers through the benefits and costs of starting various agritourism projects.

Through the workshop, he said, he tries to help farmers consider an historic farmhouse, a crop that could become pick-it-yourself or another current aspect that could bring people to the farm.

York, 73, said he opened the maze and the farm stand because he is always searching for another way to get his farm products to people.

"I try to take advantage of opportunities as they come," he said.

He said the location of his farm, which U.S. Route 2 winds through, lets him take advantage of Maine's growing buy-local culture.

Attitudes have changed, he said, from 25 years ago, when professors and doctors looking down on the idea of buying milk straight from a farm.

Now, he said, the area's well-off residents are creating market value for farm stands such as his, where they can pull off the highway and buy milk that was walked from his cows to his store.

York said starting an agritourism business can involve large upfront costs.

He estimated the farm stand cost $250,000 to build, furnish and equip, including several commercial refrigerators. The corn maze cost $20,000 initially, and he said he puts more work into the maze infrastructure each year.

He said it was expensive to hire help, construct the building, route utilities and furnish a building to hold meat and dairy.

"That's not the kind of cost you'll be able to recoup in five years," he said.

He said he is considering creating a small food-processing business where local growers could can and package their fruit and vegetables.

York said for traditional farmers, the idea of branching into agritourism can be daunting for more than financial reasons. He said it takes not only cash but courage to open something such as a farm stand.

"It's always a risk to start something new like that. You don't know how it's going to turn out," he said.

His new ventures make only a fraction of the farm's total profit, he said, but he thinks agritourism also is indirectly valuable because it creates awareness.

He said he hopes the more people interact with local farms through activities such as a corn maze, the more they think about where their food comes from.

"I think there is more indirect benefit, because it helps people value small farmers and want to buy their products," he said.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Kaitlin Schroeder can be contacted at 861-9252 or at:

kschroeder@mainetoday.com

 

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