From U-pick farms to winery tours to unique destination wedding spots, agritourism is bustling in Georgia, offering visitors a first-hand look at the people and places that make farming the state's economic bedrock.
By Stacey Norwood
For Saltshaker Marketing & Media
Though "agritourism" is a buzzy, relatively recent term to the hospitality trade, the concept itself is nothing new. Almost anyone born and raised in the South has attended, participated in, or at least heard of a local tomato festival, peach jubilee, or apple-pickin'. We've all made a pit stop at a pick-your-own peach orchard or berry patch so the cobbler pan or ice cream churn could be filled and fresh before "mama and them" showed up for a summer cookout.
Farming isn't just confined to soil here; it's in our cultural DNA. And in Georgia, this homegrown trade is more than that—it's a key economic driver, to the tune of nearly $73 billion in annual revenues. With nearly 5 million acres in cropland spread out across the state, that leaves plenty of room for the growth of an experiential brand of tourism that brings the people who produce our food and drink directly in contact with the people who consume it. The result? A study conducted through the University of Georgia points to just under $200 million in annual revenues, the creation of more than 5,000 jobs and an overall economic impact of $351 million.
Here, Cynthia Norton, Agritourism Manager at the Georgia Dept. of Agriculture, shares what's drawing both hometown tourists and out-of-state visitors to the state's farms and related facilities, and offers insight on why she believes agritourism is a sustainable trend that's here to stay.
Q: Georgia Grown recently won a Power Partner Award for its outreach through the state's Visitor's Centers. What's the strategy behind that partnership?
A: The 12 Georgia Visitor Information Centers present a huge opportunity. They see more than 13 million visitors a year and provide those visitors with hundreds of brochures at no cost to the advertising businesses. Their "Georgia on My Mind" days allow organizations to visit with travelers and explain what their location has to offer. This also presents a training opportunity with the centers beyond the events, because the more the staff learns about your location, the more likely they are to refer people to it.
Most of the centers also have events during Georgia Agriculture Week in March that specifically focus on farms and food. It is a great way to promote what is in the state and where you can find it. Some farms even have outside advertising in the form of plants and trees. Ringgold and Lavonia have apple trees on site, and Tallapoosa has grape vines. They allow agritourism farms and trails to have advertising and displays at a very low cost. When you want to promote agritourism and food specialties in Georgia they are good friends to have and to utilize.
Q: What have you found to be the most meaningful touchpoints for tourists between Georgia's agricultural bounty and a family enjoying a summer vacation or off-time together?
A: I think it is the “experiential tourism” that is what people are looking for. They want to be able to post that photo on Facebook with their toddler covered in strawberries or blueberries all over their face and hands. Or the video of the kids nose-to-nose with an alpaca. Or spending the night on a farm where you can hear and see the animals; getting up to help feed or gather produce. These are moments they will always remember. When you can see and understand where your food comes from and how it gets to your supermarket, it becomes educational and family fun.
Q: What are the most challenging aspects of promoting and positioning agritourism for in-state vs. out-of-state tourists?
A: Probably having to promote in the most cost-effective ways; most farms don’t have an advertising budget. People are interested in what they have to offer, but we have to get them there. An in-state visitor might think about asking locals at a restaurant or gas station or even stopping at a local Chamber. An out-of-state visitor may not use those same venues. Unfortunately, very few hotels display local activities. That is one of the reasons building a working relationship with the visitor centers at the state lines is so important.
Q: What kind of impact is sustainable agritourism having on local communities, both economically and culturally?
A: It most definitely has an economic impact. Agritourism is ranked 14th in Agricultural commodities, bringing a farm gate value of over $156 million, or 1.12% of the Georgia total farm gate value of $74 billion. Most of your larger corn mazes (in the north part of the state which has a higher population) for example see 30,000 to 40,000 people in a six- to ten-week season. Those people will stop for gas, food, shopping, and maybe even stay the night. All of those things add to the economy of the area. And every culture throughout time has had an agricultural component that can be appreciate by all cultures as well as ages.
Q: How do tourism cycles follow the growing and harvest seasons? For example, when is the best time to visit?
A: Most farms are closed during the winter months, January through March. They use that time to plan new projects and take care of the facilities. Some that have retail stores, restaurants and have processed products are able to remain open, but may have reduced hours. The spring starts as produce is available and continues on. Farms are open based on what they grow. Fall is probably the largest tourism season with pumpkin patches and corn mazes (and more moderate temperatures)! As the fall winds down, the Christmas tree farms are opening, along with some other farms offering holiday functions. I don’t think there is necessarily a best time as visits depend on what you like to do. I personally would go early in the season when it is not as crowded. But look out for festivals and events on the farm because they have more offerings during those times.
Q: What have been the most successful promotional channels to get the word out to tourists (i.e., ads, social media, print collaterals, etc.)?
A: I think almost every avenue has been explored by someone at some point in time. We have a few venues along major highways that find billboards to be very useful to draw business to their location. Social media is very helpful provided it is done appropriately and regularly. We have a statewide brochure of agritourism locations; some farms have their own brochures or rack cards that are at visitor centers and chambers of commerce. The creation of the farm trails allows tourists to pick up one brochure that will show them multiple places to visit. Having a website and/or Facebook page is an absolute must for businesses today. Spots on local television and special interests pieces do get a lot of attention.
Q: How does agritourism connect and collectively strengthen ties between Georgia's farmers, producers, processors, suppliers, distributors and retailers?
A: Most agritourism operators do this as a side to their other business. Some operate farms or dairies and do tours to supplement income. Some processors grow their own product and/or tour the facilities. A large number of operators have retail sites and not only sell their own farms products but other farms and food products also. They are all interrelated and many of them already know each other.
Q: How do "small-batch" farmers and food producers fit into the picture?
A: There is certainly room for everyone—the more the merrier! Not every farm can handle 1,000 people a day. Some people prefer the experience of going to a retired couple’s back yard with an acre of blueberries as opposed to being in a huge field with lots of acreage. I had a farmer tell me a few weeks ago that she wanted her items to be “boutique.” If everybody had it, it would not be unique. It also allows them to experiment in small quantities to find what works and doesn’t work for their lifestyles.
Q: Are there additional benefits or takeaways to agritourism, such as education, community pride, etc.?
A: Of course! I have never gone to any farm that I didn’t learn something! And sometimes it may be something from the visitors. You may learn something historical (there are some great farm museum locations in Georgia); some about the growing process; how something is made; or just something about the farmer. I think you can come away with an appreciation for how hard a farmer works to get the food to you. I think I learned more about community pride when working with the farm trails. The farmers may start the push; but in most cases it has been the county officials that kept them going. A very small county may not have funding to promote on their own but they can work with other communities to promote the entire area. And they are incredibly proud to do so.
Q: What's next for Agritourism in Georgia?
A: I think it will continue to grow. With over 650 sites, who knows what we will see? New things are started every day. We grow new things and people want to see them. Olives and ginger were some of the things that were started in the last few years and people have flocked to buy the products. And most sites add new activities or items to purchase every year, so if you return it won’t be exactly the same.