Agritourism might be growing, but is it sustainable?

The question is pondered while visiting Whidbey and Orcas islands in Washington.
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The Turtleback Farm Inn on Orcas Island, Wash.

The question is pondered while visiting Whidbey and Orcas islands in Washington.

The West's tourism industry is worth billions of dollars, and an increasing number of visitors are leaving behind jobs and worries for a few days not only to fish blue ribbon streams or ski the perfect powder. They are coming west to don a pair of spurs, rustle some livestock, and sleep in a farmhouse on working farms and ranches.

From 2000 to 2001, 62 million adults visited farms and ranches across America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This agricultural tourism, better known as agritourism, includes farm tours, you-pick operations or country stores, as well as farms that provide accommodations. Agritourism has become popular for some producers, as well, because it can provide a new source of income for farms and ranches and in some cases encourages visitors to take part in the farm work. But most often, visitors come to enjoy the serenity of the rural landscape and the idyllic view of the farm and ranch. From New Mexico's El Rancho Nido de las Golondrinas to Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming, places of work are becoming places of play and respite.

This month, I joined my husband's family for a trip to Whidbey and Orcas islands in Washington. My mother-in-law had carefully organized and planned the entire trip for her children and their spouses in celebration of my father-in-law's 60th birthday. The eight of us piled into a large car and ferried from Mukilteo to Whidbey Island. We drove around the island, chatted and played games, and stopped in the small hamlets for food, short walks, and views of seals and seabirds.

As planned, we arrived one evening at the Greenbank Farm, a sprawling complex of large barn-like structures with locally made jams, honey, wool hats, and an antique store, for the opening event of the annual Whidbey Island Farm Tour. We had come primarily for the pie-tasting and an art show, but at the large barn's entrance I got sidetracked. The pie and the cute paintings of pigs and cows could wait. Sarah Richards, the owner of Lavender Wind Farm, wanted to tell me about her place.

Richards has grown lavender on her two-acre "microfarm" since 2001, and because her operation is so small, she relies on tourists for a successful business. While Richards does not currently house visitors at her farm, they are welcome (and encouraged) to walk the lavender labyrinth with its geometrical pathways. To entice visitors to her farm and on-site store, she advertises online and has placed brochures on the ferries describing her lavender lotions and soap.

But Richards says that this advertising pales in comparison to the simple roadside signs that lead travelers to her farm. "In rural areas, signs are important," she said, wearing a lavender tunic that highlights her bright eyes. There aren't many markers for tourists to follow, and signs are the only way people will find her farm, tucked above the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Once the signs went up, her business increased by 50 percent.

But getting state and local approval to put up the signs was a difficult task. At first, there was no process at the state level for her to use. It took tenacity to develop the process with the state, and once she received their approval she also had to get it from her county commissioners.

For Richards, clear processes for simple things like sign approval and overall legislative support are vital for providing local farmers and ranchers with the options that can keep them farming, protect the land, and inform the public. For Richards, microfarms will only "feed us and guard the land" if legislators and citizens create systems that make it easier for smaller producers to diversify their work and stabilize the income of a farm by using different sources for that income.

Regulations and bureaucratic systems like the ones Richards experienced can be a deterrent for farmers and ranchers hoping to get involved in agritourism. While some states like Oregon have embraced agritourism as an important way to increase revenue and sustain local farm operations, other states, such as Utah, have had trouble implementing the programs and legislation Richards believes vital for success. This year, a recent agritourism bill in Utah that would have defined it and codified it as an "affirmative defense for operators," failed to pass.

But there are other reasons that many farmers and ranchers may not take part in agritourism. Primarily, agritourism adds work where the work is already endless. Bringing visitors to the farm brings added responsibilities of running a comfortable and inviting home while keeping up with all the normal duties of farm life. This added work can require more staff and increase costs. According to the USDA, liability concerns also increase costs for visitor accidents and even vandalism.

Perhaps the largest issue with agritourism stems from the rather unsustainable practice of tourism. In the 1990s, the idea that tourism could provide low-impact and non-consumptive economic development garnered intense public interest. But in his article "Tourism – Sustainable Development Option?" Stefan Gossling states that evaluations of tourism have not included the impacts of energy use. Relying on tourism means relying on fossil fuel consumption, and because tourism accounts for 50 percent of traffic in the world, it significantly contributes to the greenhouse effect. The prime culprit of pollution associated with travel comes from passenger jets, the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. And according to the article, "Applying the Ecological Footprint to Ecotourism Scenarios" by Colin Hunter and Jon Shaw, 80 percent of 14-day vacations produce a larger ecological footprint (a calculation of natural resource use) than the average annual ecological footprint of people living in low-income countries.

Even with these deterrents and issues, it is possible that tourism to farms where food comes directly from the field outside the farmhouse window might reduce fossil fuel use while we vacation. But just as tourism is only a part of a state and country's economy, it seems clear that agritourism can only be a part of a diversified agricultural economy.

On our last night, we stayed at Turtleback Farm Inn on Orcas Island, a working farm with a renovated farmhouse and comfortable rooms with views of the undulating hills and the Crow Valley. We sipped sherry in the dining room and watched the sheep ramble below. When it grew dark outside, we moved into the living room and looked through scrapbooks of pictures and thank-you cards from previous guests. One former guest wrote of her gratitude for much needed solitude and for the kindness of her hosts. Another thanked the innkeepers for letting his daughter help with the new lamb.

Late that evening, we dined on a local dinner at Christina's Restaurant (recently featured in Gourmet Magazine's October issue as one of America's "Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants"), and the next morning ate another local meal of salmon and cheese omeletes. It was the last morning of what had been an unexpected agriculture vacation, defined by delicious local food and the people who raise it. We savored each bite before boarding the ferry for home, craving more.


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