By Kriss Marion, Owner and Operator of Circle M Market Farm
In America, children are fond of computer games. When my children were young, they played games called Age of Empires and Rise of Nations for hours. These games, still popular today, are strategy-based storylines for which each scenario begins with collecting resources – sheep, coal, minerals, wood – and clearing land for agriculture before building cities. From there, the player goes on to build nations and empires. For an increasing number of people across the world, games like these are the closest they’ll come to realizing how heavily cities depend on rural resources. Most folks in developed countries are completely unaware that, without healthy rural communities to steward and provide resources to the population, there can be no healthy urban areas. Without agriculture, there can be no culture, period.
Today in America, 2% of the citizens are farmers. This presents a policy problem, as national leaders and legislators are elected by a population that is almost completely disconnected from food production and resource extraction. When voters are primarily consumers, it is difficult to elect leaders with an understanding of rural, agricultural, and resource issues. In a world where, aside from computer games, people are increasingly separated from the rural communities on which they depend, agritourism is a way to provide essential education and an opportunity to put people in touch with the source of their food, fiber, and fuel – the basic building blocks of society. But perhaps even more importantly, agritourism is a way to share the myriad delights and benefits of a vibrant rural lifestyle and preserve those opportunities for the future.
When I moved to the country from urban Chicago eleven years ago, I came essentially as an agritourist. I was living in a cramped two-flat, raising four children, and suffering from the physical symptoms of an autoimmune disease. My rheumatoid arthritis left me aching in every joint, sometimes bedridden, and looking for a change. I craved green views and open spaces, and I found them on a lovely, 20-acres property in rural Wisconsin. I added sheep for wool, goats for milk, chicken for eggs, and steers and hogs for meat. I began working on local produce farms to learn how to grow vegetables. Within two years, my rheumatoid arthritis symptoms were gone, and I was drug- and pain-free. Next thing I knew, I was employing my teenage children and their friends to provide community supported agriculture (CSA) vegetable shares to 165 families.
Without really intending to, I had transitioned from being an agritourist to running an agritourism enterprise. At its most basic, community supported agriculture is an agritourism and local food access model, by which neighbors pay a farmer ahead of the season to grow food for them. The neighbors become “shareholders” and reap dividends in the farm through a variety of models. Our model was to pack every-other-week boxes of produce for 20 weeks, which customers picked up at the farm or at delivery sites in nearby towns and cities. In addition, we printed a newsletter and published a blog whereby customers could follow along with the weekly rhythms of the farm and get helpful tips and recipes for using up the veggies in their shares. Farm pick-up customers regularly wandered the farm and fields before taking their boxes, and the entire membership received tickets to monthly, 7-course dinners on the farm. We hosted spring and fall daylong festivals with activities and potlucks.
But my greatest joy was bringing those customers out to experience the lifestyle – meaningful exertion, nourishing food, long agricultural views, clean air, healthy animals, living soils, abundant wildlife, and busy pollinating insects. Many of these customers became life-long friends and collaborators in other local food and community development projects. But as with most small-farming enterprises, the work was hard, the days long and the profit minimal.
As my kids got older and moved away, I shifted part of my focus away from the intensive hand-labor of growing four acres of vegetables and towards hosting guests for bed-and-breakfast stays in the farmhouse. I put a third of the cropland in rotating cover crops to reduce my labor load, and found, to my delight, that the financial dividend was much higher for hospitality than vegetable production. While I didn’t want to give up producing healthy food and stewarding the land in most nurturing way, I found that the combination of hospitality and smaller production was a winner for our farm portfolio.
And I found that I had a much greater opportunity to educate a farther-flung group of primarily urban customers about the issues facing my farm and my rural community. Now I had the chance to not only bless urban dwellers with a lovely, renewing, relaxing, and healthy stay in the country, I also had a wider audience with whom to share a rural message. I was surprised by how booked we were from our first few months of being open, and we continue to be booked every weekend and most week-days from April through October. Airbnb has been a terrific boon to my on-farm hospitality business, as well as a number of farm stays that have opened in my community.
Agritourism has provided my farm with a sustainable diversity of enterprises, but the final important piece of the agritourism puzzle is making it work to benefit whole communities. Last year, with a few of my farm neighbors, I started a farmers market on Main Street in the nearest town. Like most small towns in rural America, ours has more shuttered businesses than open storefronts. Consolidation in agriculture and falling commodity prices over the past few decades have contributed to a dramatic reduction of farm families on the land surrounding the town, so there is much lower demand for the businesses that supported them in the past. Rural farmers markets not only allow locals to support their neighbor’s farms, but also present an opportunity for farmers to lure rural residents back into their tiny, hollowed-out Main Streets. In many rural communities, the excitement of having a farmers market downtown one morning or afternoon per week has drawn enough traffic to spur other local businesses to open and thrive there again.
In fact, this has happened in the small town next to mine. For five years, in this town of 900, the Chamber of Commerce has been paying for ads to support the farmers market. In that time the market has grown from 3 to 10 vendors. This year, a new grocery store, a coffee shop, a deli, and an antique store have all opened on that once-bleak Main Street. We are hoping for a similar outcome in our town. A community development association has given us a grant to advertise our farmers market. Such financial support is essential to launch any effective community-based agritourism enterprise.
Ironically, the same agricultural consolidation that has removed families from farms and small communities has also disconnected rural people, as much as urban people, from food production. The vast majority of American farms now produce only commodities. The truth is that many rural people, at least in the Midwest, don’t know much about preparing vegetables anymore. So in the case of the town mentioned above, the Chamber had to create interest in and enthusiasm for the market. Rural farmers markets are agritourism enterprises that are marketed primarily, at least at first, to locals. Studies show that farmers markets can infuse a tremendous amount of money back into a local economy, at a much higher rate than dollars spent at a local store selling products sourced from outside the community. A farmers market that is well supported by the community and grows to draw tourists can do wonders to lift a rural economy.
Anonymity enables thoughtlessness, and ultimately disdain and contempt. We tend to not trust people and things we don’t know. We simply cannot afford to not know and trust our agriculture, our farmers, and our rural resource stewards. The situation is precarious when 98% of the population can’t comprehend issues facing the 2% that provide their food, fiber, and fuel.
In my experience, people who know their farmers and farmland want to support and take care of their farmers and farmland. That’s a great start. But the truth is that there is no possibility of sustaining culture on this planet if we don’t sustain the agriculture that provides resources for infrastructure. Agritourism can play a significant part in educating people about the complicated issues pertaining to food production and resource extraction, but even more powerfully, agritourism can give people the opportunity to know and fall in love with the farmland and farmers that sustain them. This is a much more effective and human approach than investing in educational computer games.
Kriss Marion is a first-generation farmer in Blanchardville, Wisconsin, and president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union South Central Chapter. She serves on the Lafayette County Tourism board and the Blanchardville Woman’s Club. Though she’s not a dairy farmer, she gets up at 4am every morning to teach Boot Camp in the high school gym at 4:45am or greets the sun in a nearby goat barn where she practices Ashtanga Yoga. Her Circle M Market Farm features a vegetable CSA, field-to-table dinners, poultry, livestock, a bed and breakfast, fiber arts, and a variety of classes—including fitness!