Case Study: Farm and Food Tourism in Western North Carolina
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, North Carolina was ranked fourth in the nation in the number of farms reporting income from agritourism and recreation services, growing an impressive 89% from 2007 (USDA, 2014). This trend seems a natural fit for North Carolina, where both tourism and agriculture are top economic drivers. North Carolina is ranked eighth in the nation in total value of agricultural products sold. Over one-quarter of all land area in NC, and one-third of the area in WNC, is agricultural land (ASAP, 2007; Farmland Information Center, 2012). Likely due to its diverse landscape, including both coastal and mountain environments, and ease of access to a significant portion of the country’s population, North Carolina is the sixth most visited state for travel (Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, 2015). According to the US Travel Association, domestic travellers spent a record $21.3 billion in North Carolina in 2014, up 5.4% from the previous year (Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, 2015).
WNC is an 18-county region characterized by a mountainous landscape, a longstanding history of tourism, a thriving local food scene and providing visitors with activities that combine rural and urban characteristics. Due to its mountainous topography, the agricultural history of WNC is one of relatively small, diversified operations. Historically, tobacco provided many farmers in the region with significant income but when federal agricultural policy changed in the 1990s to eliminate longstanding tobacco quotas, more than 3000 farm enterprises were forced to identify new sources of income (Kirby et al., 2007). The community and individual farm transition was assisted by grants funded in part by a settlement with major North Carolina tobacco producers, as well as federal tobacco transition payments. Many growers converted to organic production, ornamentals or other enterprises that were not necessarily traditional to the area (Ammons, 2015). Tobacco barns, often empty, now serve as a picturesque and somewhat nostalgic reminder of that agricultural heritage; ‘quilt trails’ guide tourists to barns painted with traditional quilt patterns.
Part of the origin story of farm and food tourism in WNC is the successful local food campaign started in 2000 by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), a local non-profit born of the idea that rebuilding the local food system could help farms survive the tobacco transition (Barcas, 2015). A hallmark of their local food campaign - one of, if not the, earliest in the country - is the now ubiquitous green bumper sticker that states, ‘Local Food: Thousands of Miles Fresher’. Like many regions across the country, rebuilding the local food system has provided farm enterprises with consumers hungry for more information about the food they are eating.
The first guidebook to focus on farm and food attractions in WNC, Farms, Gardens and Country-Side Trails of Western North Carolina, appeared in 2002. Created by HandMade in America, a non-profit that began operating in 1993 to ‘grow economies through craft and creative placemaking’ (HandMade in America, n.d.), the book featured farm stands, Christmas tree farms, farm tours, wineries and other attractions. Shortly thereafter, in 2003, Congress designated the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area that includes the mountains of WNC. The Heritage Area identifies agricultural heritage as one of the heritage ‘pillars’ for the region and thus helps protect and promote rural tourism and economic development throughout the region (BRNHA, 2014, p. 5).
Over a decade later, farm and food tourism activity is bustling in WNC. Though there are not any statistics focusing solely on this tourism segment, indicators of growth can be gleaned from ASAP’s Local Food Guide as well as attendance at their annual farm tour. The Local Food Guide, an annual publication, lists farms, markets, artisan food producers, farm stays, restaurants, and other means of accessing and experiencing local farms and their products. Tracking its contents over time provides an indication of the growing interest in local food and farm products as well as the evolution of these enterprises. The 2015 version of the Guide lists over 800 entries, including 400 agritourism enterprises, reflecting a growth of over 600% from 2002 (ASAP, 2015). In addition to drop-in farm tours, ASAP sponsors an annual farm tour, a weekend with many farms holding simultaneous open house events for ticketed visitors. In 2014, the farm tour weekend featured 35 farms and drew 2462 visitors who made 5639 farm visits (K. Descieux, Local Food Research Center at Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, personal communication, 17 July, 2015). Though statistics are not available on the percentage of urban visitors, observations suggest that a great number of farm tour participants are urban dwellers from both within and outside the region (ibid). Like many other regions, WNC has a Wine Trail - the number of participants has doubled since its start in 2010 - as well as a Cheese Trail launched by local cheese- makers (Ammons, 2015). The Farm Heritage Trail is specifically designed to attract urban residents and visitors to rural Sandy Mush by providing a cycling trail, events, and lists of farm stores (T. Wells, Buncombe County Agricultural Advisory Board, personal communication, 29 January 2016). And of course, there are community festivals throughout the region heralding the joys of apples, ramps and other locally important or distinct products.
While farm tours and themed trails point visitors to myriad rural settings, farm and food tourism is not merely a rural phenomenon in WNC. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in the city of Asheville, the most populous city in the region, developed its ‘Foodtopia’ campaign in 1998. Providing ‘foodtopian’ profiles of local culinary entrepreneurs including craft brewers, bakeries, a hunter of wild edibles, as well as chefs and restaurateurs, the campaign links visitors to restaurants, bakeries, artisan chocolatiers, craft breweries and other food experiences through its website and storefront window stickers. In addition, many farm-to- table restaurants feature locally grown products, identified through the Appalachian Grown brand. Diners can easily find the over 70 restaurants in Asheville that feature Appalachian Grown product by looking for the icon or individual farm names on menus and storefronts.
Asheville frequently finds itself in the same category as Berkeley, Seattle, New Orleans, Boulder and other well-known ‘foodie’ destinations due to its many farm-to-fork restaurants and James Beard Award- nominated chefs and restaurateurs. It was named one of ‘six small cities with big food scenes’ (Pacella, 2014), and one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Tupelo Honey Cafe, was listed among the top ten farm-to-table restaurants in the USA (Camas, 2015). As expected in any such destination, chefs regularly shop the city’s 17 tailgate markets to select products they will feature on their menus. However, there are at least two factors that set Asheville apart from most other ‘foodie’ cities. One is its proximity to the rural areas, which makes it easy to visit a farm in the morning and consume its bounty just a few hours later in a restaurant, bar or tapas lounge. A second distinguishing feature is the extent to which local products have been integrated into offerings at not only high-end, farm-to-table restaurants but also fast casual restaurants, bars and even movie theatres. Add to this a thriving tourist sector, momentum around experiential tourism, and several non-profit and government agencies working to protect and promote the local farms, and one can begin to understand why farm and food tourism ‘works’ as a strategy for connecting rural and urban tourism in WNC.