Capitalize on your agricultural heritage in the tourism industry

Agricultural tourism is blooming! Our land, community experiences and stories invite visitors to explore and learn and make memories in your community.

Jan Jantzen, director of the Rural Tourism Development in Kansas, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) define ag tourism as anytime the public travels and pays for agriculture products, education and experiences. The National Trust for Historic Preservation adds authenticity, noting that the stories and life experiences of people are critical elements that bring a place to life.

That “sense of place” is both unique and about a universal experience – everyone can connect. Cultural and natural resources are intertwined. Elements of place include the natural resources, the built environment, the intersection and influence of people, past and present. Nature influences what follows – types of farming, vocations (lumbering, maritime, etc.), what our houses are built of and how people came to live on and from the land. These elements are the foundation of our communities.

Cultural tourists are more inclined to stay in an area if there are numerous authentic things to do, places to stay and local food to eat. You are not in competition with others, but together will create density and a destination to attract visitors to come, to stay and return.

Dezso Kovacs, a Hungarian professor visiting to learn about U.S. tourism, points out the differences between European and U.S. ag and rural tourism. The U.S. focus is on produce, products and tickets for daily experiences. In Europe, the effort is to provide a full rural experience or holiday around the rural way of life. Often U.S. governmental or university entities organize for tourism; in Europe it may be civic, local or regional organizations. A major concern in the U.S. is with liability and zoning; in Europe the concern is about quality control of experience and the capacity to provide beds and services.

Michigan examples showcase a variety of activity and approaches:

  • Sixteen wineries link with local activities to enhance day or weekend adventures.
  • State and national parks collaborate with nonprofits for programs and to restore and maintain natural and cultural sites.
  • Barns and farming are at the center of educational programs.
  • Community nonprofits partner to use and preserve barns and farmsteads as a unique community center.
  • A working farm and education center is creating a welcome and interpretative center in their main barn silo –sharing their history and grounds.
  • Quilt barn trails draw visitors to learn about art, rural life and small towns.
  • History and tourism projects connect youth to their communities in new ways.

Several elements are critical. Our goal is to provide experiences and activities that educate and make memories. Secondly, we are working with heritage. This is not just the past; it is what we identify as important enough to steward and pass on to future generations. For tourism to be sustainable, what we are working with must be carefully cared for so it will continue to exist – the land, the experiences the stories.  And, from the beginning, think about how you will know if you are successful.  Money is only one factor.

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