Vermont hosts the 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 overnight experience at Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester, where Beth Kennett has been welcoming 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 experiences with agricultural tourism as one of the opening speakers, welcoming participants from around the world at the second International Workshop on Agricultural Tourism in Vermont. The conference begins Tuesday at the Hilton Lake Champlain hotel in Burlington and includes organized tours to several farms.

She is pleased that farmer hosting has grown into an international movement over the past four decades. “I just think it’s phenomenal how this whole agritourism movement has grown exponentially,” Kennett said. “We are part of this global phenomenon here. It’s such a great honor for Vermont, a world stage.”

Agricultural tourism has become an economic factor in Vermont. The practice contributed $51.7 million to the state’s economy in 2017, according to agricultural census data collected every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At this point in Vermont, there were 1,833 farms that sold direct to consumers and 186 farms that offered agritourism and recreational services. That same year, the Vermont Department of Tourism’s 2017 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 2018 workshop in Bolzano, Italy with the goal of bringing the conference to Vermont.

“Italy developed agriturismo to let rural communities and families work the land and take 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. “A lot of the people who came to Vermont had never heard of Vermont.”

And yet, Chase said, Vermont’s farms and foods, particularly cheese, maple syrup and apple cider, are world-class.

According to Chase, 350 people from 35 countries will be attending in person this year, and another 100 to 200 are expected to attend remotely. In all, she said, people from more than 50 countries will attend in person or online.

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

Crystal Bi Wegner, center, guest at 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, owner of the Guancascos Hotel in Gracias, a rural town in the Lempira province of Honduras, is among those attending in person.

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

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

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

“People from the bigger cities who come to visit 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 discuss how the shift 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, walks through a greenhouse at Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Flores said they want to educate tourists about the small coffee farms and the communities they support because they could offer a more stable income than the coffee itself, which is subject to the ups and downs of international markets.

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

Baker will join Flores and Medeima in a panel entitled “Managing Tourism Amidst Uncertainty,” which will again focus on bringing tourists to rural areas.

Mari Omland, owner of Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, brings the focus back to the host country and will speak at the conference on diversity and inclusion in agritourism.

“Rethink and consider what the arrangements of agritourism are,” she said. “How can we make things so that everyone welcomes them?”

On her farm, she focuses on changing guests’ preconceptions about what visiting a farm entails.

“People come to us because they want a petting zoo, and they think they come here for their kids, and I think we’re all going to benefit if we start treating him a little bit more like that than.” whether watching cattle grazing is much more like going to a national park,” Omland said. “Look how the animals are, what they can be.”

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

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