Colorado agritourism experiencing a boom

In Vermont, tourists can visit any number of maple tree orchards, tour the facility that produces the famous maple syrup, and buy the farm’s product. Farmers’ markets open every summer and fall across America, bringing fresh produce, eggs, milk and meat directly from the farm to the consumer. And in the Colorado high country, ranchers guide sportsmen to some of the best flyfishing spots in America.

It’s called agritourism and it’s emerging as a viable adjunct to production agriculture.

According to the USDA National Agriculture Library, agritourism is “a form of commercial enterprise that links agricultural production and/or processing with tourism in order to attract visitors onto a farm, ranch, or other agricultural business for the purposes of entertaining and/or educating the visitors and generating income for the farm, ranch, or business owner.”

Agritourism has been around for a long time. The dude ranch probably originated in the Dakotas in the mid-1880s; the first recorded ranch was near Medora, N.D., in 1884 owned by the Eaton brothers, businessmen from Pittsburgh. The previous winter had been one of the harshest on record, devastating the cattle herds on the open range. The Eatons bought a busted ranch and began offering hunting and fishing tours.

Most people think of “guest ranches” as places where city slickers mount gentled horses for trail rides through breathtaking landscapes, but tourists have been increasingly interested in actually experiencing the ranching way of life. Cow-calf operations sometimes offer the opportunity to participate in spring branding, or just a week or two of dawn-to-dusk ranch work.

But is there opportunity for agritourism on the working farms and ranches in northeast Colorado? According to a couple of experts in the field, the answer is definitely yes … but …

Marilee Johnson, director of public information and tourism for Logan County, said there’s plenty of opportunity, and it doesn’t have to be confined to production agriculture operations.

“Our area is ripe for (agritourism,)” Johnson said. “There’s the benefit to the producer of additional income, there’s the educational experience that links agriculture and tourism, and it promotes your product.”

Johnson said that during a series of workshops on how to make Logan County a tourism destination two years ago, agritourism came to the top as a possibility. She said there already is some agritourism occurring with corn mazes and pumpkin patches being fun spots for family recreation. And Sterling’s annual Sugar Beet Days and area county fairs are examples of agritourism that has been going on for years.

Then there’s the Brompton family of Iliff, who still use oxen to do much of the work on their cattle and sheep operation. Because of their years of experience, the Bromptons are sometimes called on to hold clinics on their farm, and to help other ox owners with the training process. They also host agri-tourists in a spacious but spartan cabin on the farm, and can accommodate up to nine visitors.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture’s website devotes one whole subsection on agritourism with a long list of things that fit into the genre. Agricultural festivals, birding resources, corn mazes and pumpkin patches, county fairs, distilleries, wineries and breweries, and farm and ranch vacations are among the possibilities listed.

But, Johnson said, the impetus has to come from the producers themselves.

“That’s kind of the barrier we have to get past because producers just don’t have time to show a bunch of tourists around their operations,” she said. “They really have to see an upside for them.”

Johnson suggested that someone with ag contacts in the area could take on the project, relieving the producers of the “tourist guide” role and organizing events and tours.

“Certainly (the county) could lend our expertise and advice, but it’s not something we could take on full-time,” she said.

Dennis Kaan, northeast region director for Colorado State University Extension, prepared a presentation on agritourism several years ago and said there is always potential in this corner of the state.

“What we had looked at years ago was experiencing ranch life,” Kaan said. “It has the flavor of mountain tourism, and there’s an element of interest here.”

Kaan’s presentation, “Assessing Your Agritourism Resources,” is a step-by-step guide for producers who want to add tourism dollars to their operation’s revenue stream. It lays out the various kinds of activities that can drive new income, including demonstrations, exhibits and lectures, festivals, alternative crops and value-added products among others.

Again, however, there are hurdles to overcome and the biggest one Kaan sees is liability.

“Liabilities became the biggest thing that became the roadblock to those plans coming to fruition,” Kaan said. “Bringing people onto private land is risky stuff.”

Kaan agreed that someone who wants to develop an agritourism program would relieve producers of much of the burden and could ameliorate the liability problem. His presentation is still available on the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s web site.

As enthusiastic as CDA is about agritourism is, there is the reality that tourism activity in ag land must be subordinate to the primary farming/ranching operation. Allowing tours and birdwatching and hunting and fishing can never hinder the production of food and fiber. The word itself clearly states this: Agri comes before tourism.

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