THE BEST WAY TO EXPERIENCE “FARM TO TABLE”: UP CLOSE!

“Agritourism” is a win-win for both consumers and farmers.

There are many reasons why I feel fortunate to lead an organization whose founding partners include America’s dairy farmers. Their tradition of hard work and multigenerational family businesses. Their dedication to America’s good nutrition. Their historic focus on youth wellness, especially in the school environment.

But an additional reason is that agriculture is cool these days.

Did you know that one of the biggest directions in vacation travel right now is toward “agritourism”? It turns out thousands of smart and curious folks — including lots of urbanites — are spending vacation time down on the farm. It’s a booming new travel trend, and a lot of it has to do with our concerns around healthful diets, knowing where our food comes from, and seeing up-close just how it gets produced.

In agritourism, adults and families spend time on farms and ranches experiencing the agricultural life in person. Many do it so as to better appreciate the dedication of farming professionals to the art and science of agriculture and horticulture. But others, particularly dyed-in the-wool “foodies,” do it to finally grasp what we mean when we say “farm to table,” a phrase almost everyone is throwing around these days but few have witnessed in action.

Want to navigate a corn maze? Milk a cow? Pick an apple off a tree? Feed livestock? Taste honey? See wine or cheese made? Stay at a farmhouse-style bed-and-breakfast? Then agritourism is for you. And it’s especially impactful for kids, whose first trip to a dairy farm is often what corrects the amusingly widespread belief among first-graders that chocolate milk must come from brown cows. Just ask my daughter. My parents brought her to a local farm just yesterday. Her first question this morning, “Mom, what is your favorite animal? I really like sheep and cows!”

One of the most successful and popular agritourism destinations in the country is Sue and Mike McCloskey’s Fair Oaks Farm, in Fair Oaks, Indiana — which Food & Wine magazine has called “the Disneyland of agricultural tourism.”

Marketed as “an escape to the country with acres of great outdoor fun, food, and learning,” Fair Oaks encourages visitors to “explore family farms and reconnect with nature, animals, and our planet.”

Consumers know Fair Oaks for its Fairlife brand of ultra-filtered, nutrient-dense, lactose-free milk with reduced sugars and high levels of natural protein, as well as for its award winning cheeses. But for visitors, Fair Oaks is also the place where sustainability — the watchword on most farms these days — comes vividly to life. Reduce, reuse, and recycle is the motto, and a zero carbon footprint the goal.

The McCloskeys stress that “Fair Oaks is a place where guests can have their questions or concerns answered with complete transparency, where they can make the connection between a farmer and the food on their tables.”

But whether it’s a dairy farm in Indiana, an herb farm in Ohio, or an apple orchard in Washington state, farmers and ranchers are utilizing agritourism to increase public interest in, and awareness of, the quality and variety of their products, and the work that goes into making them possible.

Some farmers have become involved in agritourism as a way of supplementing their income, with on-farm sales of produce being sources of additional income generation. They recognize the need to diversify their offerings to supplement their regular incomes, and agritourism is a viable option for the long-term sustainability of both their farms and their rural communities, especially in challenging times like these for farmers. Others simply want to correct consumer misunderstandings about food, help educate the public, and introduce people to a world of which they’re justifiably proud.

In an increasingly digitized world, many consumers feel they have lost touch with how their food is produced, or the region where it originated. Agritourism provides them the opportunity to reconnect with the land, and offers a hands-on experience around local food. It immerses visitors in the heritage of a particular culture. I can tell you from many conversations I have with farmers that, to a person, these are men and women with an intimate knowledge of the history and traditions of their region — and a sincere pride in it.

Family farms play a dominant role in U.S. agriculture, and they’re run by great, smart, interesting people doing amazing things! Let me share some facts on why farms have become the epicenter of agritourism. (Note producers is the term U.S.D.A. calls farmers.)

  • 96% of farms and ranches are family owned.
  • 11% of producers served in the military
  • 36% of producers on the farm are women, up 27% from the 2012 USDA census
  • 1 in 4 producers is a beginning farmer with 10 or fewer years of experience and an average age of 46.3

And get this. The number of farms using renewable energy systems has doubled since 2012. The best part? When you visit a farm, you’re not only understanding the importance of how family businesses impact our nation’s food supply, you’re supporting an important source of your family’s nourishment on a daily basis: the average American farmer feeds 144 people! Plus, there’s an awful lot out there for agritourists to explore — there are over 2 million farms of all kinds in the United States, according to the U.S.D.A., covering over 900 million acres!

Ultimately, agritourism is all about authenticity — something many Americans feel we have lost in an age of social media and the gig economy. And authenticity is something farms have in spades.

I urge you to consider an “agritourism weekend” or vacation — especially with, as I write this, a three-day weekend coming up and the recent arrival of Spring. County and State Department of Agriculture websites are great places to begin your search, as are local Farmers Market Associations or Rural Tourism Associations. You can also search at www.farmstayus.com or www.agritourismworld.com

Sure, agritourism supports the farmers whose work is so crucial not just to my organization’s work but our nation’s health and good nutrition. And yes, it represents travel that is low-impact and empowering to local communities, both socially and economically. But it’s also fun, eye-opening, and restorative — of both your spirit and your faith in the people who, as it happens, are the backbone of our economy and of our nation’s traditional and still-cherished values.

Mom of 4 with Oren. CEO of GENYOUth. Strategic adviser. Former news anchor and financial analyst.