November 4, 2011

Picking blueberries, winding your way through a corn maze, watching cheesemakers at work, learning how ice wine is made — these are just some of the activities Lamoille County farms offer. Agritourism gives visitors a chance to experience life on a farm and escape urban pressures, while helping local farmers to earn extra income. The Lamoille Economic Development Corp. wants to develop a lot more opportunities for local agritourism. The nonprofit organization works to boost the local economy by supporting businesses and creating new jobs with a focus on agriculture, tourism, and web-based enterprises. “In Lamoille County, in particular, two-thirds of the economy is driven by travel and tourism,” said John Mandeville, executive director of the economic development group. “This is a way to drive it further, not just for tourists, but for second-home owners looking for things to do.” The idea is to introduce people to family farms, where they could learn how food is produced, buy meat, cheese and produce, and even do a few chores. Vermont is well-positioned to take advantage of the growing agritourism market, Mandeville said. Farming is the No. 1 industry in Lamoille County, where 357 farms sell at least $1,200 worth of products annually. “This is something that's very much supported by state travel and tourism people,” Mandeville said of agritourism. “They're very enthusiastically behind it. There's a large and growing interest in agritourism. People want to go to a farm and see where milk comes from, what a farm really smells like, and how food is grown and harvested.”

Nationally, consumer demand for farm experiences has led many farmers to diversify their operations. Now, they're providing tours and other activities to visitors who want to spend time in rural places. Some farms offer packages where guests can stay overnight and help with farm chores, such as planting crops, milking cows, and even shoveling manure. Farm shuttle The economic development group is looking at launching a shuttle service that would connect Stowe with several area farms. The service could begin as early as next spring, said Mandeville, who has discussed the idea with the Stowe Area Association, Stowe Mountain Resort, and town officials. “We can promote agritourism to people staying in and near Stowe,” Mandeville said. “We're going to be developing a farm trail map that would be on our website and in a brochure. It would include farms in Lamoille County that welcome agritourists.” Tom Jackman, Stowe's director of planning, says the shuttle could help expand local agritourism offerings. “We already have it to some degree,” Jackman said. “(Paul) Percy's corn maze is a perfect example. It's very popular, and it's been a boost to him. We have maple syrup operations at Trapp Family Lodge and in the Nebraska Valley. “It's very much a positive. It provides another activity for our guests, and we're all about providing experiences.” Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park has offered tours and hosted school field trips for more than a decade. Visitors can meet the animals, learn about organic and sustainable farming processes, or take a wagon ride or llama trek. Judy Clark owns the farm with her husband, John. Localvore connection Agritourism has become more popular in recent years in part because of a U.S. trend toward eating more organic and locally produced food for their health and environmental benefits. “It's a branch of tourism that's becoming much more interesting because of the localvore movement,” Mandeville said. “People want to know where their food comes from.” Agritourism also fits in with a trend toward more active vacations. “People don't want to go to as many beaches,” Mandeville said. “They want to go somewhere where they can be active and do hands-on activities.” Lamoille County could provide almost limitless agritourism possibilities, given its wide range of food producers, he said. There are enough local cheesemakers to organize a regional cheese festival, Mandeville said. Lots of farms grow food and raise livestock. Tours could include Boyden Valley Winery, Rock Art Brewery, Mt. Mansfield Creamery, and Worm Post Vermont, a vermiculture farm in Morristown. The farms would benefit from tour fees and onsite purchases, while the surrounding areas could gain business from lodging and meals. “It's a win-win situation for everyone,” Mandeville said.

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