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Visiting working farms is attractive to many people and is increasing in the U.S.  According to an article in the spring 2018 issue of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, this form of recreational tourism yielded $2.01 billion in revenues in 2012, the latest year for which data are complete.

The industry is growing annually in a range of 2.5-15 percent, depending on the year and the region of the country.  A 2016 analysis in Western Economics Forum says agrotourism “can be a viable diversification strategy in a wide array of farms and ranches across the U.S.”  The West and the Northeast are experiencing the most growth in agrotourism, according to the 2016 article, but increasing in all 50 states.

Dude ranches which offer visitors the opportunity to participate in the activities of a working ranch in bygone eras, such as living in a bunkhouse, eating meals from a chuck wagon, and riding horses to herd cattle, are popular.  If these activities are available in places that offer awesome scenery, so much the better.

Tours and overnight stays at U.S. vintners and cheese-makers also appeal to many people.  Visitors like touring vineyards and dairy operations to learn how wine and cheese are processed; they enjoy hearty meals that include locally-produced foods and drinks.

In all parts of the country, touring and sometimes staying overnight at farms, ranches, aquaculture enterprises, and such atypical operations as sugarbush (maple syrup) farms, appeals to a largely non-rural population that wants to escape their citified lifestyle, especially on weekends.  Bed and breakfast vendors are particularly attractive if they provide bucolic experiences that are a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Several years ago we invited two medical students from Japan, who attended the University of Iowa for a semester abroad, to our home for a weekend in mid-September.  They had never visited a farm previously in Japan or elsewhere. 

After supper and when darkness had set in, we went for a walk on the country road that runs past our house.  It was a moonless and cloudless evening with low humidity. 

The entire sky was completely lit by the Milky Way and millions of other celestial bodies.  Our Japanese visitors had never before seen the sky filled with bright stars because they lived all their previous lives in cities where urban lights and air pollution obscured the apparition of stars. 

Topping off the evening experience, a green aurora borealis shimmered over the northern horizon.  When our Japanese guests evaluated their semester in the U.S., they shared their impressions with us: Walking on an Iowa country road at night was the highlight of their visit to the U.S., surpassing even their academic experiences.

Business surveys and reviews of agrotourism, which consists only of a few recent publications, say the location of a farm or ranch, and the amenities it offers are strong selling points.  Proximity to a population wanting an agrarian experience is important, as well as proximity to other outdoor attractions, such as hiking, fishing, hunting, and state or national parks. 

Why do people want to visit crop and livestock farms, ranches and other agricultural operations such as aquaculture farms and tree farms?  Although I could find little information to answer this question, I have some hunches.

Many people want to connect with their agrarian roots.  Most Americans are two or more generations removed from the farm.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1820 72 percent of our nation’s workforce was engaged in agriculture; by 1920 only 30 percent of all Americans were engaged in agriculture.  Today, just 2.1 percent of U.S. residents are engaged in agriculture.

Despite a much reduced proportion of Americans involved in agriculture, many people in the U.S. revere farmers.  People want their children to know where food comes from; they recognize the strengths of agrarian values of hard work, self-reliance, independence, practicality, and common sense.   

Non-agricultural people seek connections with the producers of essentials for life and with land and bodies of water.  I suppose this is a manifestation of what I call “the agrarian imperative.” 

We all want insurance for our futures; connecting with agricultural producers is one of the ways we feel reassured, whether the connections are with farmers, ranchers, fishers, tree farmers, hunters or other producers of food, fibers and fuels.  We want to know where our next meal might come from and if it is secure for our survival. 

Agrotourism is an enterprise that an estimated 20,000 agricultural operations currently undertake, says a 2014 report that is the most up-to-date until the 2017 Census of Agriculture is published.  In 2012 the average income was $20,670 per operation, but 51 percent earned less than $5,000. 

Agrotourism is a growing, attractive, and complicated venture to undertake.  But might we say, it can be a good field to enter?

Dr. Mike is a psychologist who lives with his wife on their farm near Harlan, Iowa.  Contact him at: mike@agbehavioralhealth.com. 

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