Agritourism: An Economic Opportunity for Illinois

In a research report published by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, coauthored by Bruce Wicks, University of Illinois Extension and Christopher Merrett, Western Illinois University, a number of interesting factors concerning agritourism as an economic development tool were addressed. The following article highlights the main points of the report.

What is agritourism? While no single definition is widely recognized, agritourism is a hybrid concept that merges elements of agriculture and travel/tourism to open new profitable markets for farm products and services and provide travel experiences for a large regional market. Although agritourism is unlikely to ever be the dominant sector of agriculture in most areas of Illinois, it may however, play a significant support role for many agriculture enterprises especially where direct marketing is concerned.

At the foundation of marketing is the need to give the consumer what he or she wants for a price that is acceptable to both the buyer and seller. Although many people involved in agritourism continue to focus on the commodity grown or raised, the real issue is fulfilling the motives of the traveler. It might surprise many product focused producers that, in many cases, the cost of the product sold to the traveler is almost irrelevant. A family going to a fall pumpkin patch is likely to buy a jack-o-lantern or gourd but what they really purchased was a family experience. And the real value of that experience may far exceed the cost of the pumpkins. Not only is that grower benefiting from direct marketing by selling at retail prices or above, but they are not competing with other producers on price. This is a completely foreign concept in most agriculture-related markets.

For farmers and other rural landowners, there are many agritourism options that may be considered. For those with an interest in developing such an enterprise, the Merrett/Wicks report suggests this five-step process.

  1. Create an idea. The starting point is to generate an idea for a new enterprise that has potential for travelers and other markets. New and creative ideas can be difficult to generate, especially if one is not accustomed to thinking outside of the production-oriented mindset. Critical assistance for developing an idea may be obtained from friends or family members or agencies such as Extension, Farm Bureau, Illinois Department of Agriculture or USDA. Joining organizations such as Specialty Crop Growers or Direct Farm Marketing Association as well as visiting established agritourism destinations is also suggested.

  2. Develop a business plan. The business plan will tell us if our idea is a good one and lay out the plan to achieve the goals of the business opportunity.

  3. Examine available farm/land resources. Be sure your physical resources can support the proposed activity. Lack of space, poor location, road access, proximity to neighbors, soil attributes and available wildlife habitat may limit or accentuate the viability of a particular agritourism idea.

  4. Conduct a risk assessment of the proposed agritourism endeavor. Depending on the type and location of an agritourism enterprise, there may be a range of liability, licensing and zoning issues that must be addressed prior to inviting tourists onto your property. Parking, bathroom facilities, adequate shelter in the case of inclement weather, food preparation requirements, access to livestock or moving farm equipment are also factors that might be of concern.

  5. Critically look at yourself and/or your team. Agritourism enterprises are not for everyone. Having visitors on your farm on their terms or schedule may totally disrupt your lifestyle. New revenues are great, but if you or your family are miserable as a result, is it worth it? In many cases, others can do tasks we are not particularly well-suited for. A family member or employee might assume that responsibility; you need not do it all alone. The big challenge with this step is admitting we may not have all the needed skills and having enough sense to know that we need help.

For full access to the entire research report Agritourism: An Economic Opportunity for Illinois please visit the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. Farmers and landowners interested in more information concerning the development of an agritourism enterprise can contact John Pike though this website.

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