Despite the hard economic times and gas prices higher than a few years ago, the one segment of agriculture that seems to be flourishing right now is agritourism.

Though it seems a bit contradictory, the hard times and expensive fuel seem to be working in favor of farmers who invite the public in for farm visits, nature walks, mazes, shopping in a country store and the like.

“I think the main reason for the boom is the economy,” says Blake Brown, North Carolina State University Extension agricultural economist. “Agritourism is benefitting from the unsettled conditions, and the economy just may provide a bigger opportunity to attract more of a local market. I foresee more agritourism in the future.”

“I am seeing a big increase in local consumption of agritourism,” says Ron Taylor, a farmer, vineyard owner and food processor in Dublin N.C. “Usually, the consumer is taking this step in lieu of going on extended vacations that would cost more.”

Taylor has created an agritourism center at his Lu Mil Vineyard in the little town of Dublin, N.C.

“Our business is definitely up,” he says. “At the vineyard, we are having more tour groups and a lot more families come out for the day. They come to attend our special events or to stay overnight in the cabins we offer.”

The response has been so good that Taylor is adding a campground. “This way, visitors who want to spend the weekend with us and do their vacationing here can stay in their campers,” he says.

Agritourism requires some adjustments on the part of farmers.

They must turn their farms into places where the public is welcome. “That’s hard for us to do,” says Taylor. “We have always been leary of people coming onto our farms and a little reluctant. But now a different mindset is needed. We have to adapt if we want our operations to continue to be sustainable.”

Operations of this type frequently involve selling farm fresh products at a premium price. That may require some rethinking: Consumers have been willing to spend the extra money to get these products, says Brown.

“But now they think maybe they don’t really need this quality, and they are willing to buy a little more of their food in the Food Lion,” he says. “Farmers may have to change focus and think a little more about being price competitive. If a large part of your enterprise is based on selling a premium product, take a hard look at the economics.”

Bill Davidson, who grows berries and other fruits and vegetables near Rogersville, Tenn., learned that lesson last year. He sells much of his produce as canned products at a country store on his property and also via his Web site.

But canned goods sales fell way down, Davidson says.

“They are more expensive than what you could get at a grocery store because they are made with fresh vegetables,” he says. “We might find a niche with people seeking better diets, but so far that hasn’t happened.”

Farmers also have to be flexible. An agritourism activity that makes good sense one year may not seem as sensible the next.

Davidson found out last year that the “rules” of bringing the public onto a fruit and vegetable farm seemed to have changed.

He had been inviting schools to send children to his farm for a hayride and to get a full-sized pumpkin. There were plenty of takers until last October, but then schools began economizing by cutting back on outings for the children.

“School trips of any kind were cut back from two to one because of fuel prices,” Davidson says. “With school budgets already maxed out, they are going to try to cut costs further. I am afraid they have just run out of money to take field trips.”

But there was a little good news in the area of fruit marketing in 2008. Starting with the strawberry season, Davidson tries to have fresh fruit on his farm available for sale until first frost.

In 2008, for the first time, he had peaches to sell from five acres he had planted in 2004.

“Peaches helped a lot, especially late in the season,” he says. “They come off during the slow time for everything else, in August when it’s hot.”

Agritourism is attracting the attention of political leaders. In West Virginia, a state of relatively small farms and picturesque landscapes, the department of agriculture has made a major commitment to agritourism as a means of boosting farm income.

West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Gus Douglass said in April that agritourism is a way for traditional farmers to add to their bottom line, while improving the public’s understanding of agriculture. The opportunity for more agritourism is definitely there.

“The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that West Virginia gained over 2,000 farms since the 2002 census,” says Douglass. “Most of the growth was in farms of fewer than 50 acres, which are ideally positioned to take advantage of agritourism and specialty crop production.”

West Virginia continues to lead the nation in percentage of family-owned and operated farms, coming in at over 95 percent, he pointed out. That gives farmers of the state the flexibility to do the kind of experimentation needed to make a new concept like agritourism succeed.

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com