🗺️Regenerative Agritourism: Linking Producers to Consumers
Innovation: Re-emerging from this holiday season has led me to ponder how tourism could be used as a tool for scaling regenerative agriculture. Be it a corn maze, bird watching, conservation-minded hunting, a farm stay, or a field day, agritourism in regenerative farms present a compelling opportunity for alternative revenue streams for farms that can perhaps support the ecosystem. In particular, it provides a pathway to liquidity and a growing consumer base for producers as they become regenerative. At the same time, going on a farm provides a “consumer on the margin” the opportunity to learn why regenerative agriculture is better and how their food is produced.
The market tailwinds exist: as global tourism recovers from the Pandemic, Eco-Tourism (tourism focused on responsible travel to natural areas and conserving the environment) had a worldwide market size of $181.1 Billion in 2019 and is expected to register a compound annual growth rate of ~13-15% until reaching a market size of $333.8 billion in 2027. Agritourism has taken off in the past few decades in the United States: As the USDA ERS notes, “Farm agritourism revenue more than tripled between 2002 and 2017, according to data from the Census of Agriculture. Adjusted for inflation, agritourism revenue grew from $704 million in 2012 to almost $950 million in 2017 [excluding wineries in the 2017 number - suggesting it might be much higher].” This accounted for ~5.6% of farm-related income in 2017, though that number is probably substantially higher on a practicing per-farm basis given that many farms do not have agritourism offerings. If you need any personal validation to this growing niche market, just search “Farmcation” on google. These numbers don’t even account for the hunting and trapping industry, which has grown 2.1% yearly in the USA to a market size of roughly $900M.
These trends point to a growing paradigm shift in tourism towards ”Regenerative Tourism”, as the cited New York Times feature puts it. The idea is to create systems of travel that leave places between then they found them and balance the “ecological ceiling and the social foundation of the destination.” Regenerative agriculture has a natural advantage in many cases to traditional farms and delicate ecosystems for regenerative tourism. For starters, these farms already exist in a balance between humans, animals, and plants that will not be tipped over by a farm tour - it is not the same experience as going deep into a jungle or a precariously preserved park where trash and human travel can cause substantial damage. If ecological outcomes are being restored and there isn’t use of agrichemicals, regeneratively managed landscapes will end up looking more biodiverse and well-preserved than a conventional operation. I’d be remiss not to mention the total CO2 emissions from air travel, upon which many of these opportunities rely. Air travel does account for roughly 859 million tons of CO2e, but 20% of all tourism emissions are directly related to accommodation. Visiting local and regional regeneratively managed lands solves for both.
The goal of regenerative agritourism isn’t necessarily to manifest a new venture-backable business (though there are potentially a few ripe opportunities in the space, particularly with helping farms provide these services through a software management platform and portable physical infrastructure). Rather, it’s to help smaller producers who steward the land get more income and to find ways to get consumers to actually see and understand how their food is produced. As the FAO notes from their research in the developing world, "In some areas, low-input and small-scale agricultural activities that result in both an attractive environment and the maintenance of high levels of biological diversity can offer an opportunity for tourism."
Rancher and activist Mike Callicrate made this argument best on the producer's side during his appearances on the Ranching Reboot podcast. Rather than staunchly argue against the growing number of folks with ethical reservations against meat consumption, he prefers to get them out to actually see how low-stress handling works and how his cattle are treated. He lets his customers see “carcasses hanging in the cooler” and invites them to “see where their food comes from”, which is why he says his business is growing over 20% with direct-to-consumer and restaurants as his key customers. Additionally, it’s a potentially high return on an investment opportunity with a low upfront capital investment required, though there are regulatory hurdles and licensing requirements.
Governments with strong tourist economies and fragile biodiverse environments stand to gain from pushing conservation and regenerative-based agritourism. Hawaii, for instance, is developing a novel agritourism strategy. The Hawaiian tourism authority emphasizes its offering and events to support local producers and engage tourists with producers. Italy, which tracks statistics on eco-agriculture tourism and organic agriculture tourism, has proven an illuminating case study in engaging tourists with a burgeoning regenerative agritourism economy of small producers with premium products.
On the consumer side, the sensory and transparent (albeit curated) experience is great for both the “locavore” and the tourist. It’s a great way to teach kids about food, for instance, and gain confidence in where your food comes from. Knowing local farmers and their practices provides the consumer a structure to consciously make their food choices. Though many agritourism experiences might be expensive or niche, visiting local farms and ranches that you can meet at farmers markets or renting a campsite there for a night could be cost-effective with many of the same learnings.
Overall, I wrote this piece mainly because of personal experiences visiting farms and ranches over the past few years. Every time I go to our fund’s regeneratively managed ranch, Pajarito, I learn something new about South Texas ecology and cattle. While visiting family in Albuquerque, I stayed at an organic lavender farm, Los Poblanos, and learned how they integrate livestock into a lavender operation. Additionally, it’s not necessarily about a feel-good experience, but rather a visceral one that lets one understand where the food we eat comes from. ROAM Ranch in the Texas Hill Country offers Bison Field Harvest experiences that I attended once, which was quite illuminating given I’d never seen a bison before nor seen the full process from kill to meat ready to eat.
On the producer side, if you’re interested in learning more about this, check out the International Agritourism Association Convention in Atlanta from February 3-7. And for consumers looking for vacations and experience, check out the Rodale Institute’s visiting offerings, Regenerative Travel Co., 21 Degrees Estate Cacao Farm, Ecoaldeas Peru, and, above all, look for opportunities with local farmers and ranchers!
Read: The EPA recently released an extensive report to systematically address U.S. food waste from farm to kitchen. While we have talked about the importance of scaling Composting systems and the perils of agricultural overproduction, this report adds data and insights into the benefits of addressing food waste as early as possible to align incentives and the effects of food waste on carbon emissions, biodiversity, energy use waste, and overall transportation effects. The Civil Eats analysis by Lisa Elaine Held is a great synthesis and contextual coverage as always.
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