Agritourism in Northeast Tennessee: How visiting farms benefits farmers and you

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — If you’ve been to a wedding at a farm or visited a pumpkin patch in the fall, you’ve played a part in the Agritourism industry that helps sustain many of our local farmers here in Northeast Tennessee. The term may be unfamiliar to you, but the industry is growing in the region.

The Appalachian RC&D Council provides resources to farmers and connects consumers to farms by organizing farm tours. Kayla Nichols is the organization’s Communications Director, she explained the term Agritourism is “anything that is an entertainment value out of a local farm.”

“Agritourism can be anything from a pumpkin patch in the fall, going to a corn maze. It can also be using a farm for a wedding venue or just visiting a pick-your-own-orchard,” Nichols said.

The business from those visits can account for a massive portion of the farmer’s income.

“We found out recently that 87% of farms in Northeast Tennessee make less than $25,000 a year. So these are farms that are not able to make a living doing agriculture. But when you add in agritourism, it gives them another source of revenue, and at the same time it increases public knowledge of where our local food comes from,” said Nichols.

That is why RC&D works to make those connections between farmers and consumers.

“Getting someone out to a farm is the first step and then when they’re there, often their interest is piqued and they want to learn more. They might get to meet the farmer, they might get to learn ‘what do you do in the spring when you don’t have pumpkins, what else does your farm do?’ They might get to learn more about what that farmer offers, what they grow, what they produce,” Nichols said.

Farms in our area offer a wide variety of Agritourism activities. At Buffalo Trail Orchard in Greeneville, you can pick your own blackberries, blueberries, apples and pumpkins. Owner Phil Ottinger recognizes the benefits people get by visiting his farm to pick their own food.

“We set out to actually do the food side and provide good food, as well as a source of entertainment and education for moms and young children, and of course for older people like myself as well,” said Ottinger. “If you’re coming out here and you’re picking something off a tree or off of a bush, you definitely know where it’s coming from. That it’s not coming from a tractor-trailer or somewhere they can’t even imagine. I think definitely people get an appreciation, cause like I said they see the real vine, the real root.”

Ottinger said he gets a lot of questions when people visit farms, and he’s happy to educate people or point them to the right resources. He also said he’s constantly learning new things himself.

“We try to make sure that we’re showing the real side of our culture,” said Ottinger. “We get a lot of technical questions, which sometimes I just refer them to the university. One thing about fruit – especially tree fruit, the berries not so much- the tree fruit I learn something new every year. There’s a new disease, a new bug, and there are some new online aids now that help you identify some of that. But we get a lot of questions, and the ones that we know the answer to, we’re glad to share, and if we don’t we try to refer them to somebody we think can give them the right answer.”

Farms that participate in Agritourism still have to battle the whims of mother nature, which makes going out to farms on good years even more important.

“In a normal year, and let me make sure you understand that this year we had a late freeze, and so most of the pick-your-own will not happen this year. We may do some pick-your-own blueberries here in a week to ten days, but in a normal year, we look at the normal people coming here at the farm, that’s usually almost 50 percent of our revenue,” said Ottinger. “Obviously that’s good, we’re not traveling, we’re not having to put the labor out and pick it, so it helps us and we usually have good prices.”

Even with the tough season, Ottinger is grateful and still looking ahead for the next season.

Serenity Knoll Farm in Jonesborough focuses on food as well but also teaches people how to prepare the produce. Owner David Wiley wants people to walk away with not only the knowledge of where the food came from but what can be done with it.

“We have two initiatives here, both around food. Food education is really the banner that we carry. We grow food in the ground and in our vertical towers, the tower farms, and in our greenhouse and we also have a commercial kitchen, where we offer cooking classes to people in the area,” said Wiley. “In fact, if time allows, we might let some of our customers go out in the gardens and harvest some of the crops that might be used in the class. And for our customers to be able to see and feel and touch and see how items are grown makes a huge difference in their overall relationship with food.”

Wiley explained the way most of us get food puts a distance between the consumer and the producer, but when you visit his farm, you can see and learn about their practices. Wiley hopes people may even take those practices home with them.

“We try to use a regenerative system in terms of growing food and taking care of the soil here and doing things that will allow us to grow food for years to come in a very healthy way. Seeing what we do has a tendency to change every visitor’s perspective about where food comes from,” said Wiley. “We try to inspire people to grow things themselves, whether it’s in a container or raised bed, or if they have enough available land on their farm to go ahead and do what continues to fascinate me and that is, you plant a seed, it grows, and you have something consumable and edible. That is just one of the miracles of life and nature is that we have the ability to grow our own food and not have to pay the price to have the products shipped in from all over the country.”

Although Serenity Knoll found success selling produce online last year through the Jonesborough Locally Grown online farmers market, they struggled due to COVID-19.

“Of course the COVID pandemic knocked us for a loop in terms of our cooking classes, and so we had to close the operation December 31, but the good news is that we’re going to be reopening here at Serenity Knoll Cooking School on July 24, so we’re very excited to have Chef Sheraton Nice be our new director,” said Wiley.

Both Buffalo Trail and Serenity Knolls have been part of Appalachian RC&D farm tours. Nichols said these tours make an easy connection between farmer and consumer.

“The idea with farm tours is just to create one day where people can visit a variety of farms they might be interested in. What that does is it makes it easier for the farmers because they don’t have to create the entire tour from scratch. But then they can invite people out, have people on their farm for a set amount of time, it makes it really easy for them, and it really makes it easy for consumers to go to a bunch of farms in one day,” said Nichols. “We want to encourage consumers to ask questions that matter to them. Maybe they want to purchase only organically grown food. They can ask farmers about their growing practices.”

The farmers encourage those questions and say they not only learn from other farmers but from their visitors.

“I’ve always been an advocate for getting to know your farmer, understanding what their techniques are and their methods of growing food,” said Wiley. “Always, when we’re around farmers or our customers, they give us tips and tricks on what they do and how they do it, especially how they cook some of the food that we grow. I’m not a beet or turnip eater, but I get a lot of information from our customers, especially at the in-person farmers market in Jonesborough where they’ll say ‘oh well I’ll take this dandelion green and mix it up and sauté it,’ so there’s a lot of back and forth, give and take.”

The RC&D also provides resources to farmers to help them grow their business through marketing or learning new skills. Especially as the market changes for local farmers.

“We also have the field school which serves as beginning farmer training, so we serve a lot of farmers through that. Just providing education,” said Nichols. “Field school touches on everything from marketing for farmers, which is something in the local food movement. It used to be farmers didn’t have to market, they just sold to commercial businesses. But now when people are buying and purchasing, farms really have to know how to market their farms. Everything from marketing to business plans, to how to grow organically if you want to, no-till practices, soil conservation. All of those things are touched on in field school, so that’s a really good resource for farmers to take advantage of. Even sometimes farmers who have been farming for decades can learn something from that.”

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