As the weather gets cooler across the United States, and the days grow shorter, many American families head to the farm. Whether they go to pick their own apples, take a hay ride, or wander through a corn maze, they are part of a fast growing sector of the U.S. economy - agricultural tourism. Agritourism, for short, helps farmers generate additional income and boosts the rural economy.
Montpelier Farms in Prince George’s County in Maryland, about 40 kilometers from Washington offers a corn maze, a hayride, a pumpkin patch and farm animals.
Debbie Pierson brought her elementary school class here on a field trip. “We go on this kind of field trip so that the children will have hands-on experience of what it is like to be on a farm,” she said.
Amy Esty-Smith came with her children. “We come about once a year," she said, adding that choosing the pumpkin for the upcoming holiday of Halloween was their favorite part of the visit.
Mike Dunn opened his family farm to agritourists in 2008 with just a corn maze, pumpkin patch and hayrides. But before long, he says, he had to make additions and renovations to keep up with the growing crowds.
"Our agritourism revenue might be 30 percent of our entire farm income. We like to grow to one day maybe 60 percent,” he said.
The latest figures from the U.S. government show agricultural tourism generated over $700 million in 2012 - a 24 percent increase over five years.
Maryland's Agriculture Secretary Earl "Buddy" Hance says even though it represents just a small portion of overall farm earnings, agritourism helps boost the local economy.
"Farm operators who have these operations generate significant portions of their income from this opportunity. So it is a great revenue stream for the county, state, and farm owners.”
In neighboring Virginia, Loudoun County is part of the growing agritourism trend. It is home to 40 wineries, many of which host wine tastings. Bill Hatch, owner of Zephaniah Farm Vineyard, uses the living room of his almost 200-year-old house on the farm as the tasting room.
“We are doubling the number of visitors to our farm every year," he boasted. "We have an average of 250 people on a weekend. That’s pretty much average throughout the year.”
As more farmers see agritourism as an additional source of income, they further diversify their operations. Malcolm Baldwin, who owns WeatherLea Farm and Vineyard in Loudoun County, started hosting weddings and overnight farm stays six years ago. Thanks to those businesses, Baldwin says, he can sustain his small operation.
“But without the animals, without the vines, the wedding business wouldn't be profitable, because people like to see the vines. They like to see the animals and without which I don’t think this will be a popular place,” he said.
Industry experts expect as consumer interest in local farms increases, agricultural tourism will continue to grow.