WVU Extension Helping Farmers Grow State’s Agritourism Industry
From pick-your-own patches and interactive farm tours to corn mazes and unique lodging experiences, West Virginia University Extension Service is helping tout agritourism to preserve and promote West Virginia’s diverse and historic culture.
Simply put, agritourism combines agriculture and tourism, but the focus is often less about making money and more about providing visitors with an enjoyable educational experience.
“West Virginia tourism is rooted in nature-based, outdoor activities, but there is this growing interest among travelers for what is called experiential travel. People want to travel like locals — they want to meet the people of the places they visit, see how they live and eat the foods that they eat,” said Dee Singh-Knights, WVU Extension Service associate professor and agribusiness economics specialist. “And we think West Virginia farms have the right ingredients to help round out our tourism experience.”
While most of the state’s agritourism operations were created out of necessity to help keep the farm afloat, the goal remains the same to share their passion for agriculture with the public. Agritourism is a year-round venture in West Virginia, conveniently offering residents and out-of-state visitors the opportunity to learn and have fun on the farm no matter the season.
For many of those operators, WVU Extension Service been a resource every step of the way.
“WVU Extension Service has been a prime resource for us to grow our business and expand into agritourism,” said Britney Hervey-Farris of Family Roots Farm.
At Family Roots Farm in Wellsburg, the maple syrup operations require the cold temperatures of winter in order to harvest the sap from their maple trees. During syrup season, Hervey-Farris and her family invite guests to their Century Farm for a variety of maple-centric events, including farm-to-table meals held right in their sugar shack while syrup is being made.
“We feel education is really important, so we try to make everything as hands-on as possible here on the farm,” Hervey-Farris said. “When people learn the process of how something is made or grown, they have more of an appreciation for it.”
In the spring, Family Roots Farm transitions into a U-pick strawberry operation, allowing the public to visit the farm, learn about fruit and vegetable production, and harvest their own fresh berries. Events like their strawberry festival and sorghum days, held in the fall, provide additional opportunities for Hervey-Farris and her family to share their love of agriculture.
Hervey-Farris, a repeat attendee of WVU Extension Service’s Women in Agriculture Conference and Annie’s Project graduate, believes if it wasn’t for the connections that Norm Schwertfeger, WVU Extension Service agent in Brooke County, helped her make and the training she’s received from Singh-Knights, she and her family wouldn’t be able to pull off the large agritourism events that they enjoy hosting.
Family Roots Farm is not the only agritourism operation in West Virginia to benefit from WVU Extension Service expertise and resources. Once spring and summer roll around, residents can find U-pick berry farms scattered throughout the state.
At Country Road House and Berries in Clendenin, Angela Born and her family have put their own unique spin on the berry farm experience, allowing guests to stay on their working farm and enjoy a home-cooked breakfast made with fresh, local ingredients.
“You can stay anywhere. You could stay in a hotel. You could stay in an Airbnb. But we try to offer families something that’s a little bit different,” Born said. “Our visitors feel really connected to our state when they’re participating in an agritourism experience.”
While they do have guests who stay at the farm to simply pick strawberries, Country Road House and Berries also opens the strawberry fields to groups of students from local schools and the general public. Visitors learn how the family grows their berries, as well as how their bee hives, turkeys and chickens contribute to the farm.
Born and her family weren’t experienced farmers before they returned to West Virginia to launch their agritourism venture, but they quickly discovered all the resources available to them through WVU Extension Service.
Another graduate of Annie’s Project, Born has attended WVU Extension Service’s West Virginia Small Farm and Women in Agriculture conferences, worked with specialists Lewis Jett and Mahfuz Rahman, sought the advice of WVU Extension agents in her region and participated in other courses to help improve her agricultural business savvy.
“Having the university’s expertise connected to us through WVU Extension Service has been fantastic,” Born added. “This state has a lot to offer — you’ve just got to look for it.”
As the leaves change in the fall, farms across the state open their corn mazes, pumpkin patches and apple orchards to the public, inviting guests of any age to come and learn about what goes into an agricultural operation.
At Brookedale Farms in Fort Ashby, Donna Brooke-Alt’s journey with agritourism began when they decided to start a corn maze. Though it was initially a way to diversify and save the family dairy farm, their corn maze and other fall activities also gave Brooke-Alt and her family a way to share agriculture with their community.
“So many people don’t know where their food and fiber come from,” Brooke-Alt said. “Children and adults alike need to be educated on how important agriculture is in their lives.”
On fall weekdays, Brookedale Farms hosts students from local schools for farm tours and hands-on educational activities. On weekends, the farm opens to the public and offers families an opportunity to experience agriculture together.
Since starting the corn maze, Brooke-Alt and her small staff at the farm have expanded their seasonal operations to include a greenhouse, where they sell plants and teach a variety of workshops in the spring – plus an event building, where they host everything from weddings, parties and agricultural classes all year long.
Each of these farms has found their own unique ways to educate and share their passion for agriculture with guests from near and far. Despite their differences, they have all found a resource in WVU Extension Service to help maintain and expand their operations.
“We don’t have a lot of staff at Brookedale Farms, so we count on the community coming in and helping us,” Brooke-Alt said. “There have been a lot of people through WVU Extension Service who have helped us get to where we are today.”
Brooke-Alt, also a regular attendee of the Women in Agriculture Conference and Annie’s Project alumna, often calls on Stacey Huffman, a WVU Extension Service agent in Mineral County, for her expertise, as well as her help leading classes for guests of all ages. Brooke-Alt works with other WVU Extension Service programs, like her local Community Educational Outreach Service and master gardener groups, around the farm.
“Agritourism is an opportunity, but like everything else, you have to get into it responsibly. And WVU Extension Service is helping our state’s farmers develop the skills they need to be successful with agritourism,” Singh-Knights added.