For maple farmers considering agritourism, state resources abound
Sugaring in Putney.

For maple farmers considering agritourism, state resources abound

Maple sugaring operations can boost their bottom lines by embracing visitors to the farm

It's a buzzword that conjures sunny visions of hayrides and wine tastings.

Agritourism, however, serves two purposes: it educates the public about farming and the local food system, and then it supports farmers by increasing sales opportunities and building a loyal customer base.

The term is a multicolored umbrella covering an array of on-farm attractions, events, or services, any of which could be helpful to the bottom line of maple-sugaring operations in Windham County and other regions in Vermont.

The term - which dates to 1978, according to dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster - can take a simple and limited form, such as a state maple weekend. Or it can define something as complex as the launch of a sugarhouse restaurant.

Agritourism in the maple milieu can also include school field trips, bed-and-breakfasts, pick-your-own fruit enterprises, and wine tastings.

The common threads of this sometimes fun, sometimes educational concept are connection and experience.

According to the most recent census data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, in 2012, farms participating in agritourism numbered 33,161, with $704 million in sales.

“I love agritourism - it contains great potential for sugar makers,” said Lisa Chase, natural resources specialist at University of Vermont Extension and director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center, also based at UVM.

Chase, co-author of Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems (with fellow UVM Extension specialist Vern Grubinger), collaborates on projects with peers from across the country and welcomes questions from all maple producers, regardless of location.

A public service

Chase points out the economic potential of agritourism, which she also views as a valuable community service.

A few decades ago, almost everyone in the United States operated a farm or knew someone who did, she noted. Now, few people interact with agriculture, their food system, or farmers. Agritourism can step in as that missing link in keeping people mindful of where their food comes from.

“In a sense, you're doing a public service,” she said. “In general, the population really needs to understand what's important about their food production.”

Visitors come away from a tour of a sugaring operation with a better appreciation of the effort behind - and reason for the cost of - that jug of syrup sitting on the kitchen table, she said.

Adding agritourism components to a farm or food enterprise can also take advantage of more skills of family members, Chase said.

For example, she said, maybe siblings hate collecting sap, but they are natural teachers. They can help the business by creating an educational brochure or conducting school tours.

She noted that the concept of the public visiting a farm is as old as the hills - or the maple trees. Throughout history, cultures held feasts around the agricultural calendar. Travelers stayed at farms and traded work for a dry bed and hot meal.

Modern agritourism took a formalized turn in Italy. According to multiple sources, in the mid-1980s the Italian government sought to protect small, rural farms abandoned when residents moved to the city.

The government responded by developing a formal definition of agriturismo and, in some cases, providing funding for farmers.

While agritourism helps sugar makers build their bottom lines, “it's not for everybody,” said Chase.

As with any change to one's business model, agritourism requires time, energy, and resources.

Start small and move slowly, she said. “The most successful operations come from people who genuinely enjoy hosting visitors.”

Chase said that “the first question to ask yourself is: who am I, and what do I want to put my energy into?'”

Before renting out the farmhouse for a B and B, Chase recommends doing homework.

“What is your lifestyle like?” she suggests entrepreneurs ask themselves. “Do you have small children? Work off the farm? Is your whole family willing to take on more work?

“What do the sugarhouse's financial resources look like? What size investment can you make into a new business venture?

“Do you enjoy working with the public? If so, what do you like to do? Hike? Teach? Work with children?”

“These are the same qualities you'll want to attract in your visitors,” Chase said.

Insurance? Zoning? Safety?

“Yes, you need insurance,” Chase said.

Whether hosting a weekend event, building a seasonal corn maze, or opening a B and B, Chase stressed that sugar makers must ensure they have appropriate and adequate insurance. Safety is non-negotiable. Depending on the local municipality, zoning permits or special town licenses might also come into play, she added.

“It shouldn't be scary,” she said. “Because it's all solvable.”

Extension services will help, and Chase said insurance carriers are also good resources, as are local fire or EMS services.

Most departments provide a safety walk, which serves two purposes.

An emergency responder can point out safety problems and offer solutions. The walk-through also helps the responder better understand a sugarhouse's layout - knowlege that in an emergency can reduce response time, Chase said.

According to Chase, some visitors hold idealistic visions of sugar making. They don't understand that the steam can burn them or that they can trip on an uneven floor.

Never underestimate the power of signage to help avoid such injuries, she advised.

If sugar makers want to keep visitors out of a specific area of the building, they should post a sign that says “staff only,” said Chase. Signs should also insist to parents that children must be supervised at all times.

And the content and wording of the signs matter greatly, said Chase, who said that using images with words can communicate to young children or to visitors who speak a language other than English.

Also, Chase said, half jokingly, “Put the junk pile in the back and make it off-limits.”

Welcoming visitors of all ages

Other questions to consider before opening a sugaring operation to the public include: “What activities do you like to do? What part of the sugar operation do you most want to share?” The answers to these questions will point you toward your target audience, Chase said.

Also ask yourself: “Where will you market your activities or special events?” Chase encourages sugar makers - who can't guess which neighbor has family visiting for the weekend - to include their local community in their marketing plan.

Also, Chase suggested asking: “Where will visitors park? Will the activity operate seasonally or all year?”

A different standard of cleanliness

“Any farm open to visitors must be aware that the public has a different lens,” said Chase, who noted a recent conversation with a dairy farmer, who told her that she loves hosting visitors because it forces her to keep the farm tidy.

In other words: imagine the cleaning frenzy that happens when the neighbors or the in-laws are due to visit.

Cleaning a maple-sugar operation represents a combination of meeting visitors' expectations and safety, Chase said.

Visitors expect a level of cleanliness, especially around food production, she noted, suggesting that hosts “take the time to see the operation through guests' eyes. It helps to present a professional operation.”

Safety is aided in this process as well, Chase continued, noting that the process of seeing the farm through another's point of view can help a sugar maker spot uneven walking surfaces or broken equipment that normally goes unnoticed.

Activities for everyone - within limits

In making one's sugarhouse operation friendlier to agritourism, there are no right or wrong activities, Chase said.

Everyone can enjoy visiting a sugarhouse, but not all activities are appropriate to all age groups or abilities, Chase said. She returned to her earlier questions: “What do you like to do? What activities match your lifestyle? Who is your target audience?”

A sugarhouse's website is a great place to communicate any expectations to visitors, Chase said - for example, whether activities are suitable for children.

On a side note, Chase wishes that more sugarhouses would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chase pointed out that people needing accommodations tend to be underserved when it comes to agritourism.

Chase recommended creating an educational display or video explaining how syrup is made - items useful for educating visitors when the sap isn't running.

She also urged maple producers to remember that agritourism focuses on connecting them to members of the public, and that connection will affect the bottom line.

“Once you connect to a visitor,” she said, “that visitor is more likely to continue buying from you when they have a relationship.”

No one size fits all

Sugar makers' forays into agritourism vary as much as their sugaring operations.

In Chase and Grubinger's book, Food, Farms, and Community, Beth Kennett of Liberty Hill Farm and Inn in Rochester shared the story of opening a bed and breakfast in 1984. The new lodging venture (and Kennett's cooking) helped Liberty Hill survive a plummet in milk prices during the 1980s.

Jacques and Pauline Couture of Couture's Maple Shop and Bed & Breakfast have diversified their dairy farm in Westfield over several decades.

Jacques Couture said the family expanded the farm's offerings after a conversation with an expert from the UVM Extension, including developing a video about the farm as a marketing tool.

In a video on the farm's website, Couture details how the farm operates, invites visitors to stay, notes that the family ships its maple products, and gives a quick tutorial on making maple syrup.

Alisha Powell, the granddaughter of Stuart Adams, one of the founders of Stuart & John's Sugar House in Westmoreland, N.H., said her family's mission is to “let our family serve your family.”

Two best friends - Stuart Adams and John Matthews - started the business with 200 taps 40 years ago. According to Adams they had a lot of extra syrup.

Their response? “May as well make pancakes,” she said. They opened a pancake house to help use and sell the extra syrup.

Four decades later, the family-operated restaurant and ice-cream parlor serves approximately 400 customers on the weekends. The business employs 20 to 25 part-time employees.

Powell said the restaurant supports the sugar operation. Originally, the restaurant opened when the sap ran. The family saw a positive boost in sales when they decided to open the restaurant for 10 months.

The farm now offers seafood dinners in the summer and hosts summer cruise nights for classic-car enthusiasts. Recently, the site became a favorite landing spot for light aircraft and a favorite eating spot for their pilots.

“It's been a long, slow process over 40 years,” Powell said.

The restaurant started serving eggs with its pancakes sometime around 2006. In the past few years, it invested in a dishwasher and switched from paper plates to dinnerware. Recently, padded chairs replaced the folding chairs the restaurant used for years.

The restaurant employs - and trains - local teens, but her family members have also found places in the business to fit their skills and interests.

Powell prefers working the sugaring side of the operation. Her mother, Robyn, manages the restaurant. One of Powell's brothers manages the kitchen.

Despite a disability, “he is a wonderful cook,” said Powell. “This is an amazing place for him to work and develop his skills.”

Powell said Stuart & John's is as kid-friendly as possible. Tables have placemats to color and crayons to use. Every sugaring season, kids can enter a contest to guess how many gallons of syrup the family will make.

“We really enjoy the educational part of it, too. Showing people the process and having them develop an appreciation for the process goes a long way to maintaining a customer base and just in general give people an understanding of why buying locally made products like our syrup are worth it,” Powell said.

“It's so great to see people who have never had the real stuff taste it and realize what they've been missing,” she added.

The sugarhouse and restaurant support each other, she said.

“With the restaurant on the weekends when there isn't much sap, we have to make the sacrifice sometimes of boiling raw or lightly RO'd sap [sap that has undergone a process to remove its water, reducing the time and effort in the evaporation process] to make it last throughout the hours that the restaurant is open,” wrote Powell in an email. “It's not as efficient as far as production goes, but we look at it as the two aspects of the business (syrup production and restaurant) being symbiotic.

“If there is no steam coming out of the roof, people driving by won't stop,” she continued. “If they see steam, they stop to see the boiling and to eat.”

Powell recommends sugar makers prepare for, and commit to, customer service.

“Be ready for that complaint,” she said.

Most customers love their experience, Powell said. But, managing customers' expectations is challenging. Powell commits time to checking social media for complaints, seeing the exercise as a necessary part of customer service.

Powell suggests fellow sugar makers consider the scale of their new agritourism venture. Will they need to hire staff? How much time will it take to meet regulations? What is their customer-service plan?

“Overall, we try to find ways to engage people and their families and kids to make it fun for all of them to visit,” she said.

Dipping a toe into the agritourism pool

Have you never invited visitors into your sugarhouse before? Don't know where to start?

Chase recommends taking advantage of either a state-run or association-sponsored event - a maple weekend or open farm week, to name two examples.

Rather than starting from scratch, said Chase, these annual events provide maple producers a framework. The sponsoring organization routinely provides a schedule, a set of expectations, and marketing. Many will also provide technical support around purchasing insurance and addressing safety on the farm, Chase added.

In Vermont, sugar makers who sign up for state-sponsored events can check a box on their registration and ask for technical assistance.

And the sugar maker commits for only a few days, she continued. If it turns out that hosting people at the sugarhouse would not be a good fit, the farm will have spent little time and few resources.

Another low-key option is to open to the public during the sugaring season.

Chase said many sugar makers have success with syrup tastings or pancake breakfasts. Handing out favorite maple-centric recipes when someone purchases syrup is another suggestion.

Chase encourages sugar makers to contact her. If she can't answer their questions, she will put them in contact with the person who can.

“Agritourism seems like too much sometimes,” Chase said. “But it's really doable, and fun, and can bring in income.”

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