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Farmers Turn to Tourism to Stay in Agriculture


A growing number of family-owned farms in the United States are making tourism part of their business. Farmers aren't doing it because they want to change careers, but because they want to stay in agriculture.

Smithfield Farm in Berryville, Virginia, raises cattle, pigs, lambs, goats, and chickens. And the animals are one of the main reasons tourists like Nancy and Michael McNiff come from nearby Washington, D.C. to stay at Smithfield Farm Bed and Breakfast.

"We decided to come here because it is a working farm with animals and I thought that would be really neat," Mrs. McNiff says, adding, "we live outside of D.C. and we don't get to see animals close up that often."

But the animals here are more than a tourist attraction. "Everything is meat," says Betsy Pritchard, "meat sheep, meat goats -- everything ends up being a meat product, except the eggs."

Ms. Pritchard is the seventh generation to farm at Smithfield, which has been raising cattle since 1816. She, her brother and their parents were the ones who decided to open the Bed and Breakfast end of the business. For her, it's all part and parcel of direct marketing their organic, free-range meat and eggs to customers.

"They [guests] may have just picked us off the website," she says. "They think we are a lovely bed and breakfast and they come. But while we have got them, we say, 'here's what we do [on the farm].'" Breakfasts offer guests an opportunity to taste the farm products. "If they liked the bacon and the eggs and sausage and the ham here at breakfast, they might like a steak for dinner, and they will purchase that from us," Ms. Pritchard says.

Guests can take home meat and eggs from the small shop in the former schoolhouse next to the large brick house that serves as the bed and breakfast, or find the products at various farmers' markets in the Washington area.

Driving her truck through the 140 hectares where the animals graze, Betsy Pritchard says her main motivation is to preserve the farm, which she feels she holds in trust for future generations. "I want to conserve this. I want to see that this stays in open space for eternity if I could manage that somehow," she says. "That's our vision that it just remains open for folks to enjoy and animals to live in a wholesome environment."

But keeping that space open takes money. So, in order to meet rising expenses, more and more farmers are welcoming paying visitors. "It's a matter of survivability first for a small farm," says Charlie Touchette, Executive Director of the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association.

"The ability to produce food and earn a reasonable living to pay the tax base of land value and fuel costs and all the other costs are getting difficult for farmers," Mr. Touchette says. "So many farmers are diversifying. They're still producing food products, but they are diversifying into other areas, and agritourism is one of the most significant ones."

Mr. Touchette notes that fewer Americans today have friends and relatives who are farmers, so there is a growing market of people who are willing to pay to visit a farm. "And that's not to say that Americans want to go back and be farmers, all of them, but they certainly want to be able to walk in the fields and see cows for real," he says. "And they don't have that opportunity through family members as much as they did a decade ago."

And it will become more difficult in the years ahead to have that opportunity. Betsy Pritchard says more farmers in Virginia are getting out of the business than are trying to stay in it. But as a young farmer in her 30s, she's hoping Americans will continue to show an interest in farm life, and pay a visit to Smithfield Farm.

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