Business & Economy

Vermont hosts second-ever world agricultural tourism conference

Mari Omland shows off a healthy root and soil system to guests at the Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield on Monday, Aug. 29. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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

Kennett will share her experience with agricultural tourism as one of the opening speakers who will welcome attendees from around the world to Vermont at the second-ever International Workshop on Agricultural Tourism. The conference starts Tuesday at the Hilton Lake Champlain Hotel in Burlington and will include organized tours to several farms.

She is excited that farmers hosting guests has grown into an international movement over the last four decades. “I think it’s just phenomenal how this whole agritourism movement has grown exponentially,” Kennett said. “Here we are part of this worldwide phenomenon. It’s such a huge honor for Vermont, a world stage.”

Agricultural tourism has become an economic driver in Vermont. The practice contributed $51.7 million to the state’s economy in 2017, according to agricultural census data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years. At that point there were 1,833 Vermont farms selling directly to consumers and 186 farms providing agricultural tourism and recreational services. The same year, Vermont Department of Tourism’s 2017 benchmark study found that 35% of visitors surveyed 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 an eye to 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 the farm buildings,” Chase said. 

“It’s a super exciting opportunity to showcase Vermont farms and food to a global audience,” she said. “Many of the people coming to Vermont had never even heard of Vermont.”

And yet, Chase said, Vermont 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 100 to 200 more expected to join remotely. In all, she said, people from more than 50 countries will attend in person or online.

“It’s very cool to have Vermont host this international group of folks from all over really excited about sharing their farms, sharing their families, sharing their stories,” Kennett said. 

Crystal Bi Wegner, center, a guest at the Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, smells 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, who owns the Guancascos Hotel in Gracias, a rural town in Lempira Province, in Honduras, is among those attending in person.

She said when the State Department started issuing travel advisories warning Americans not to travel to Honduras because of the country’s high crime rate, people in Gracias who depended on tourism had to adapt. 

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

They turned to local tourists. Medeima plans to give a talk at the conference with Jose Luis Flores, a rural development coordinator with MAPANCE, a regional conservation organization, about using fairs with local producers of coffee, honey and panela, or artisan block sugar, to draw tourists.

“People from the bigger cities that come to visit, they really like that,” said Medeima. 

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

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

Flores said they want to teach tourists about the small coffee farms and the communities that support them because it could provide a steadier income than the coffee itself, which is subject to the highs and lows of international markets.

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

Baker, along with Flores and Medeima, will be part of a panel discussion, “Managing Tourism Amidst Insecurity,” again with an emphasis on bringing tourists to rural areas.

Bringing focus back to the host state, Mari Omland, who owns Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, will be addressing the conference about diversity and inclusion in agricultural tourism.

“Reimagining and looking at what are the arrangements of agritourism,” she said. “How can we frame things in such a way that they’re welcoming to everyone?”

At her farm, she focuses on changing guests’ preconceptions about what a visit to a 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 to treat it a little bit more like watching livestock on pasture is a lot more like going to a national park,” Omland said. “Watch the animals be what they can be.”

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

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

Email: [email protected]

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