Vermont Hosts Second World Conference on Agricultural Tourism

Mari Omland demonstrates a healthy root and soil system to guests at Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield on Monday August 29th. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Breakfast is key to the experience of a night at Liberty Hill Farm, Rochester, where Beth Kennett has been hosting guests for 38 years. By serving Vermont maple syrup, Cabot yogurt, sausages and rhubarb muffins, she shows guests where their food comes from and the integrity of the work that goes into it.

Kennett will share her experience with agricultural tourism as the keynote speaker who will welcome participants from around the world to Vermont at the second International Workshop on Agricultural Tourism. The conference begins Tuesday at the Hilton Lake Champlain hotel in Burlington and will include organized tours of several farms.

She is thrilled that Farmers Hosting Guests has become an international movement over the past four decades. “I think it’s just phenomenal how this whole agritourism movement has grown exponentially,” Kennett said. “Here, we are part of this global phenomenon. It’s a huge honor for Vermont, a world stage.

Agricultural tourism has become an economic engine in Vermont. The practice contributed $51.7 million to the state’s economy in 2017, according to agricultural census data collected by the US Department of Agriculture every five years. At that time, there were 1,833 farms in Vermont selling directly to consumers and 186 farms providing agricultural tourism and recreation services. In the same year, the 2017 Vermont Department of Tourism Benchmark Study found that 35% of surveyed visitors visited farms or farmers’ markets.

This week’s conference was organized by Lisa Chase, director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center at the University of Vermont. She attended the first workshop in 2018 in Bolzano, Italy, with the goal of bringing the conference to Vermont.

“Italy developed agriturismo as a way to keep rural communities and families working on the land and taking care of farm buildings,” Chase said.

“This is a super exciting opportunity to showcase Vermont farms and food to a global audience,” she said. “A lot of people coming to Vermont had never even heard of Vermont.”

And yet, Chase said, Vermont’s farms and food, especially its cheese, maple syrup and cider, are world-class.

There are 350 people from 35 countries attending in person this year, Chase said, and another 100 to 200 are expected to join remotely. In total, she said, people from more than 50 countries will participate in person or online.

“It’s really cool that Vermont is hosting this international group of people from all over who are really excited to share their farms, share their families, share their stories,” Kennett said.

Crystal Bi Wegner, centre, a guest at Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, smells the sweet potato leaves she picked for dinner as Mari Omland, left, leads a tour. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

From Gracias, Honduras to Northfield

Froni Medeima, owner of Hotel Guancascos in Gracias, a rural town in Honduras’s Lempira province, was among those present in person.

She said that when the State Department began issuing travel advisories warning Americans not to travel to Honduras due to the country’s high crime rate, residents of Gracias who depended on tourism had to adapt.

“We very quickly started looking for new ways to keep our businesses open,” Medeima said.

They turned to local tourists. Medeima plans to give a talk at the conference with Jose Luis Flores, rural development coordinator at MAPANCE, a regional conservation organization, on the use of fairs with local producers of coffee, honey and panela, or sugar in artisanal blocks, to attract tourists.

“People from big cities who come to visit, they really like it,” Medeima said.

Flores and Medeima’s presentation at Wednesday’s conference is titled “The Surprising Resilience of Domestic Tourism in Honduras.” They will explain how the pivot to domestic tourism in rural areas saved the country’s tourism industry during the pandemic, when few foreign tourists were traveling to Honduras.

Mari Omland, second from left, gives a tour of a greenhouse at Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Flores said he wants to teach tourists about small coffee farms and the communities that support them, as it could provide a more stable income than coffee itself, which is subject to the ups and downs of international markets.

“In my mind, agritourism is broader than visitors,” said Dan Baker, associate professor of community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont. “That includes understanding where your products come from.”

Baker, along with Flores and Medeima, will participate in a panel discussion titled “Managing Tourism in a Context of Insecurity”, with a renewed focus on the supply of tourists to rural areas.

Bringing the focus back to the host state, Mari Omland, owner of Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, will address the conference on diversity and inclusion in agricultural tourism.

“Reimagine and look at what the arrangements for agritourism are,” she said. “How can we frame things in such a way that they are welcoming to everyone?”

On her farm, she works to change customers’ preconceived notions of what a visit to the farm entails.

“People come to us wanting a petting zoo and they think they’re coming here for their kids, and I think we’ll all benefit if we start treating it a little more like watching cattle grazing, that’s is a lot more like going to a national park,” Omland said. “Watch the animals be what they can be.”

Sheep are moved to new pasture at Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield on Monday August 29. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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