Colorado already draws thousands of visitors each year for skiing, hiking, beer drinking and, most recently, marijuana sampling. In 2012, those visitors spent more than $16 billion in the state. Tourism officials want more and they’re looking to do it by bringing well-educated “traveling foodies” to the state.
It’s called agritourism and it’s a growing sector nationally, according to recent USDA census data. Think pick-your-own fruit orchards, farm-to-table dinners and dude ranches. Economists say the growth is linked to the local food movement.
And across the Midwest, more farms want a piece of the action.
From 2007 to 2012, the number of U.S. farms engaging in some form of agritourism went up 42 percent, bringing in more than $700 million, according to the latest Census of Agriculture. Since 2007, the amount of money brought in by agritourism rose by 24 percent.
During that span, Colorado saw a 27 percent increase in the number of farms with some kind of tourist attraction. Over the same period, agritourism revenues dropped 14 percent. To keep it growing, and boost those revenues, state officials are working to iron out some kinks.
“Farmers and ranchers have no idea how fascinated urban America is in what they do,” said Laura Grey, director of heritage and agritourism at the Colorado Tourism Office. “Even the most basic things that a farmer can do, like irrigation, is fascinating. People want to come and they want to pay them to know about this.”
Agritourism is becoming bigger business all over the Midwest. The states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska all had more than 2,000 farms with some kind of agritourism, according to the Census of Agriculture.
Already number four in the nation for ag tourism revenue – behind California, Texas and New York – Colorado is starting to market its agricultural wares across the country and internationally. In 2012, tourism officials rolled out a flashy campaign telling urban visitors to “Come to Life,” complete with billboards and TV commercials, mostly with a focus on mountain hiking and craft beer. A new generation of “Come to Life” ads are touting the state’s dude ranches, farm-stays, and wine tours, trying to appeal to “local food eaters, fresh fruit pickers and tiny lamb pet-ters.”
The ads have already started showing up online and in niche foodie magazines like Modern Farmer and Edible.
“I think the outside world has no idea how aggie we are,” Grey said. “I really don’t. We have huge numbers nationally in ag and I don’t even think Coloradans are aware of that.”
The growth in agritourism is still being snarled in some cases, Grey said. Farms and ranches interested in agritourism have been reluctant to welcome visitors for fear of being liable if an accident happens. A new Colorado law limits a farmer’s liability if they put up signs telling tourists about the dangers, but some insurers are still unclear what constitutes agritourism and may choose not to cover it.
More than half of the states in the country have some laws dealing with agritourism, according to the National Agricultural Law Center. Kansas was the first state to enact farm liability protection laws, a decade ago. But some Midwestern ag states don’t have any statutes protecting farmers from liability, Nebraska and Iowa among them.
Carol Zadrozny, who runs Z’s Orchard in Palisade on Colorado’s Western Slope, has been ready to capitalize on the growing interest in food. She put in a commercial kitchen, with the idea that people could pick their own fruit, pluck some greens from the garden, grab a few eggs from the chicken coop and make a meal. Her insurer wasn’t so keen on the idea.
“My insurance says, ‘Well... somebody might get hurt.’ It’s very frustrating,” Zadrozny said.
A couple months ago, Zadrozny’s insurance agent said her policy wasn’t going to cover agritourism. City folk wandering around the property with the potential to get injured would make Zadrozny liable. A lawsuit could put her out of business.
Her policy goes through the end of the year.
“But next year, what do we do? I mean we have to get insurance or all of our energy and effort and momentum has kind of flat lined,” Zadrozny said.
If she puts up signs, or has guests sign waivers, the new law could limit Zadrozny’s liability in case of an accident, but she’ll still need insurance. In other parts of the state where urban areas butt up closely to rural ones, strict zoning rules can prohibit certain commercial activities notes the Colorado Tourism Office’s Laura Grey.
“Sadly, what happens is that a farmer or rancher will get the idea of having a dinner or they’ll have an event and somehow county commissioners will come in and say no more,” Grey said.
It’s one thing to promote an already existing industry, and another to build it up even more. That’ll take cooperation and entrepreneurship on behalf of farmers and ranchers, though as Courtney Frazier, director of the Colorado Dude Ranch Association said, they’re surprised at the level of agritourism interest.
“It’s one thing to just say, ‘Hey, why don’t we add on this extra aspect,’” Frazier said. “It’s another thing to say, ‘We’ve got people coming to our business specifically for this, who may not have gone to a dude ranch otherwise.’”
Some ranchers are reluctant to ask visitors to pay extra for certain amenities, Frazier said. Or they have no idea how much to charge for a farm to table dinner.
But innovation is happening. On its face, Moon Farm in Fruita, Colo., looks like nothing more than a pumpkin patch and petting zoo. Owner Dave Moon is beginning to bring in even more money from people who want to stay on the farm. Fruita is a sought after destination for mountain bikers, so Moon renovated old farm buildings into vacation rentals. He charges for birthday parties and weddings too. He could soon start welcoming people who want to do farm work during their vacations. That’s an area with increased interest too.
“That’s another way to book our properties is maybe have some kind of where people come out and help plant pumpkins and drive the tractor and get their hands dirty again,” Moon said.
He pays a premium for insurance to cover all those activities. Having been in the ag tourism game for decades, he’s used to the high costs of having visitors on site. As interest in local food keeps chugging along, Moon said he’ll happily welcome any competition.