Climate Change Threatens the Agritourism That Helps Small Farms Survive

Columbia Farms U-Pick in Oregon closes to visitors when the temperatures reach 100 degrees. (Photo courtesy of Megan Hallstone)

Columbia Farms U-Pick in Oregon closes to visitors when the temperatures reach 100 degrees. (Photo courtesy of Megan Hallstone)

For some farms, agritourism activities only bring in a small percentage of income; but in a business with such low margins, it can be an important lifeline. “Some of these farms wouldn’t be economically viable without it,” said Audrey Comerford, agritourism coordinator for the Oregon State University extension service. But, she added, the reason that agritourism exists in the first place is because farmers are inventive, and many have turned to diversification to stay afloat when one crop fails or bad weather during one harvest keeps visitors away.

Agritourism has become important enough that in 2022, a bill was introduced that would, if passed, establish an Office of Agritourism inside the USDA. Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-Virginia), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement, “I’ve heard from too many small business owners in our region about how hard it is to get connected with the resources that they need to grow their agritourism businesses.”

The current farm bill will expire this month, and there’s hope that more support for agritourism could be included in the new version. Currently, some USDA programs like the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program can be used to fund new agritourism projects. There are even two USDA insurance programs for small farms that can provide coverage when a heatwave prevents customers from getting out to pick at a farm or a harvest is rained out.

But it’s not clear whether it will be enough to bolster farms like Southern Belle Farm in McDonough, Georgia, which lost its peach crop after warm winter weather led to as much as a 90 percent crop loss in the state.

“We knew going into the season that we were going to be down some,” said Jake Carter, Southern Belle’s president. The farm added flowers and a few other last-minute crops for people to enjoy. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s like peaches,” he said. “It’s not what people wanted and it’s not what we wanted.” But at least it gave people a reason to visit the farm, which offers a farm market, bakery, and other attractions. Visitor numbers were down, Carter said, “but this year was a good example of why you diversify and why we’ll continue to do that.”

Bad air quality from wildfire smoke forced

Poor air quality from Canadian wildfire smoke impacted U-pick operations at Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, New York. (Photo courtesy of Laurie McBride)

Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, New York, takes a similar approach. As a result, the farm grows about 25 different crops. Laurie McBride, farm stand manager and wholesale coordinator for the farm, said that roughly three-quarters of the business comes from direct-to-consumer sales. “If we have a down [year] in one of those crops, we’re generally able to cushion our losses with some other product.”

The wet, rainy weather forced the farm to “close U-pick more often than not” because the plants are more likely to get diseases when they’re wet, McBride said. And in early June, when smoke from the wildfires in Canada made it unhealthy for people to go outside, McBride estimates U-pick sales were down 10 percent to 15 percent. “Air quality had a huge impact on our strawberry season.”

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