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On family farms, 'agritourism'; Rural revenues rise with smart marketing

You've heard of farmers' markets -- how about farmers marketing?

In an attempt to make smaller, family farms more profitable, many owners have turned their pumpkin patches and apple orchards into family entertainment and retail destinations.

Such "agritourism" attracts paying customers directly to the farm, increases sales and produces revenue in the way of admission and event prices.

"I wanted to farm, but I knew I could not make a living farming commodities," said Dan Pawlowski, owner of Pumpkinville in Great Valley. "Without owning giant assets -- which could break you -- you can't do it."

A fan of the outdoors and eager to become his own boss, Pawlowski left his career in accounting behind in 1996 to take over a pumpkin farm in Cattaraugus County. Once little more than a roadside farm store, Pumpkinville now employs 100 people and has a full-fledged bakery, cider mill, food service program and several stores.

The 200-acre farm now regularly hosts roughly 90,000 visitors during its six-week season who come to buy pumpkins and take part in a variety of free and paid fall activities such as hayrides, a corn maze, petting zoo and pony rides.

"Farmers are doing a lot more direct marketing," he said.

Melinda Vizcarra says she knew 30 years ago, when she inherited 340-acre Becker Farms from her mother, that traditional farming was not profitable.

"We had tart cherries, and we were totally dependent on the producers who made them into pie filling," Vizcarra said. "We had no control over pricing. Sometimes they would give us 5 cents a pound, sometimes they would give us 20 cents a pound. Sometimes they'd say they didn't need any, and [the crop] would all fall on the ground."

When they did get paid, the check wouldn't come until eight months to a year later. At the time, the interest on a savings account paid more than the profit margin on their fruit.

So in 1979, Vizcarra started offering pick-your-own strawberries. But her city-oriented husband, Oscar, had a vision for using the crops to make and sell homemade goods, and to monetize the farm experience for people unfamiliar with life in the countryside.

"He showed me people from the city value the things we who live here take for granted. People want to come to the farm," she said. "When he took our first school tour through the barn, I said, 'Why would they want to go in there?' "

The switch from straight farming to direct marketing was "an adjustment," Vizcarra said, because she was shy and used to working alone.

"The first time we opened I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, there are all these people on my land.' It's not something every farmer can [deal with]," she said. "But now we're used to it."

Today, the Gasport farm sports a winery, brewing company, cider mill, cantina and bakery. It is also a popular destination for wedding receptions that are catered on-site using the farm's food.

More and more consumers want to know the source of their food. The emphasis on fresh, local food has been a boon for local farmers.

"It has grown over the last 40 years, and in the last four to five years, it has taken another leap. The 'buy local' campaign and people wanting to support the local economy and wanting to keep small, family farms going has helped it to grow," said Julie Blackman, a sixth-generation farmer at Blackman Homestead Farm on the Niagara Escarpment in Cambria.

The 160-acre Blackman farm grows heirloom apples, pears from 100-year-old orchards and Concord grapes. Blackman occasionally writes about the family farm and direct marketing experience on her "Apples Don't Fall Far" blog.

"My whole product line of fruit butters, sauces and juices use the fruit that couldn't sell as Grade A, or what we call 'seconds.' These value-added products actually allow us to profit on the imperfect," Blackman writes. "At the sorting table, my grandpa says, 'There's nothing wrong with that piece of fruit. It tastes the same!' "

In addition to working on the family's farm and making specialty packaged items, she has an artisan bakery and local food market on East Spring Street in Williamsville called Farmers & Artisans.

Her parents made the switch to direct marketing in 1971, so dealing directly to the consumer has always been her way of life. Having done business with seasonal, outdoor farmers' markets, an off-site retail store was the next evolutionary step.

"We needed a brick-and-mortar store for all of us. It connects the consumers to the farmers," Blackman said.

"So much of what we do is year-round: maple, honey, dairy, meats, cheeses. We can freeze crops and use them in prepared foods. You can eat local every day of the year, even in our climate."

email: schristmann@buffnews.com

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