Starting an Agritourism Business

Every farm has a story to tell.

By Matt Stephens
Updated on April 30, 2024
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by Bonnie Chapa

What is agritourism? Starting an agritourism business can be unpredictable. Start your agritourism dreams off right with these tips from an expert.

I was in the audience the day a farmer was describing a school field trip on his farm. He told of how he reached under a hen in front of the group and pulled out an egg. A young voice rang out with, “Who put that there?” The tour continued to the milking barn. As he squeezed a handful of milk from one of the cows, another question was posed: “What will they think of next?” The question wouldn’t have been quite so disturbing, except it came from the teacher.

That day, I decided to take my farm public and educate the masses. Maybe you have a similar goal, in which case, I’m here to offer advice from my experiences.

What Is Agritourism?

When you start researching the term “agritourism,” it seems there’s a different definition for every individual operation. This is great, because it means agritourism is customizable to your farm.

After traveling the country and touring many different types and styles of operations, my definition is simple: inviting people to experience your farm dream.

I’ve seen some operations charge people to come onto the farm; others make enough money growing crops or as a working cattle ranch that they don’t charge anything; some take donations. As a hybrid, a few allow special groups to come out for free while charging the masses.

Determine Your Personal Plan

Honesty with yourself is key to being successful in agritourism. This honesty will help drive the design of your operation. Asking yourself specific questions up-front, especially hard questions, is better than being blindsided or worse: losing everything you’ve worked to build.

Each size of operation has its ups and downs, with extra labor needed the larger you get. Agritourism is no different. You’ll need to set realistic expectations. If you enjoy a 9-to-5 work schedule, then agritourism may not be for you. Even if you host only one annual event, there will be year-round tasks that need to happen for that event to succeed.

Figure out Personal Gifts and Interests

One factor of being successful is knowing your dreams and how big of an operation you eventually want to own. For example, if you simply want to teach a few people each year about backyard chickens, then a few hens could get you where you want to be.

You can’t imitate another operation and truly be successful. It doesn’t matter how prosperous the other farm appears to be. Your passions and strengths will help you build your personal success.

I once tried to copy a local operation and almost lost the farm. It was simple; they had a pumpkin patch, and I never had one. I thought I could just add pumpkins and everything would be great. This was flawed thinking. The weather turned and my pasture roads were flooded. I couldn’t open for pumpkin season that year. So, I had to wholesale my load of pumpkins to my neighbor who was located on higher ground. It wasn’t a break-even situation, but I learned a lesson: Mother Nature rules.

Are you a People Person?

Do you want to live in the middle of your property and not see anybody? If your answer is “yes,” then agritourism might not be for you. You can carefully design your operation if you’re not the most outgoing person, but you’ll still need some desire to connect with people.

One way to test your people skills is to imagine yourself striking up a conversation at the grocery store if you see someone buying carrots and you’re a carrot farmer. This can give you some insight into how comfortable you are with people on your homestead.

For the Love and Joy of Farming

No one should work as hard as a farmer or rancher unless they absolutely love what they do. This includes managing an agritourism business. But if you love what you do – whether raising crops, working with animals in extreme temperatures, or fixing fences – it isn’t work. The endless hours we put in need to be fulfilling to us as individuals or we’ll burn out.

Look for Community

Agritourism can be lonely. Not everybody will understand your business. You don’t have to be alone; there are others who understand what you want to accomplish and want you to be successful. You’ll need a support system of people with experience in agritourism to call on when you need help.

Sometimes, just knowing another person understands your dream will be enough to get you through a bad day. But on the really tough issues, being able to call an ag-friend could save the farm. Our operations may be miles or oceans apart, but we can stay connected. I consult with people all over, and there are more similarities than differences when it comes to agritourism operations.

Remain Adaptable and Resilient

In business, and especially in agritourism, you have to remain adaptable. Things won’t always go as planned, and you’ll need to expect it, be okay with it, and be able to adjust to reach the best possible outcome.

Along with being adaptable, being a resilient, lifelong learner will help you stay on track. A constant research mode will keep you studying new ideas, new trends, and better ways of operating. This mindset will also help you figure out what people are looking for and what experiences you can give them on your farm.

Develop Your Agritourism Business Plan

A business plan is a road map for you to control the direction and destination of where you’re headed. Planning your business means you’ll be planning your work. To keep you on the path to success, business plans need to be written down as a living document, containing all the essential materials to help keep you on the side of success. Start small and grow from what works, learn from what doesn’t, and don’t add to your operation too fast. Using a business plan will outline what’s reality and what’s your hope for the future.

Risk is associated with being in business, and a proper plan will help you weigh the risk – especially when you plan to leverage anything. Taking out a loan or borrowing in any form needs to be extensively evaluated. It’s not advised to leverage against an agriculture venture. Markets change constantly, and this could put your farm at risk.

In a proper business plan, there’ll be a strength and weakness analysis, including your interest or aptitude to know which tasks you should do and which you should hire out. You’ll need to be a jack-of-all-trades, from growing plants and raising animals to managing employees, keeping the books, and creating a marketing plan.

Determine Your Target Market

In developing an accurate plan, you’ll want a clear vision of your customer so your marketing message will speak to them. Narrow down who you’ll focus on to sell your land’s bounty, and don’t be vague. “Everyone who eats meat” is too broad of a category.

Knowing your target audience will lead you to what they want and are willing to pay to experience. And with each experience, identify the potential add-ons or upsells your patrons may like or not even know you offer, such as how-to classes, fresh eggs, healthful produce, or bicycle tours.

For the reverse – getting the product to the customer – consider transportation costs, which is part of your overhead. Is your location close enough to allow your target audience to drive to you, or can you afford to transport the goods to the people? Don’t expect to meet every possible scenario, but be diversified to accommodate different tastes.

farmstand displaying food

Are There Food and Beverage Requirements?

Besides acquiring the wholesale items required to serve food and drinks, what kinds of licenses and permits do you need? Every branch of agritourism has its own set of regulations, industry standards, and specific safety guidelines. Some of these rules and guidelines change annually, so keep up to date with your specific industry, or industries if your operations overlap.

What Buildings Will You Need?

If you have a location or are planning to acquire one, analyze your needs for infrastructure: food, water, shelter, and energy. Are temporary tents a possibility? Will you need to renovate an existing structure? Is it time for a new construction project? Where’s the energy or power coming from? And once people decide to visit your farm, how are they going to access your property? Don’t expect people to come back if they get stuck on a muddy field road. How are you going to let everyone go to the bathroom? Is your septic system large enough to handle public use, or are you going to bring in portable restrooms?

Examine Overhead and Finances

Overhead is the cost of doing business and needs to be considered for each venture of your agribusiness enterprise. In any enterprise, finances should be at the top of your list for discussion with your business partners or spouse.

Whether you’re open year-round or seasonally, you’ll have proportional costs associated with how long your gates are open, and you’ll have to generate enough revenue to cover the added infrastructure. The extra open hours will add to the wear and tear on your farm, and things will need to be maintained, including access to your farm.

Even if you have operating hours posted, people will show up at all times, and if the gate is open, they’ll come through. An open gate or unlocked gate policy could cost you time, energy, and money to deal with folks who don’t know better.

Evaluate your resources; think about your time, available capital, land, equipment, and all the assets you bring to the venture.

Insurance is another cost to consider. If your insurance costs $600 a month and you gross $200 per weekend (an average four-weekend month), then you’ll only make $200 to cover all other expenses.

Define Your Success

We must know our personal definition of success to discover when we’ve accomplished our mission. Without it, we may get lost. You might want to provide for your family and make a difference in your neighborhood. You might consider your efforts worthy if they make a positive impact in your city.

I believe all farm dreams can succeed and all farms need agritourism. And this is why: We all have a story to tell. We all can educate people who experience our operations. You can bring people onto your farm and teach them about your passion, whether it’s wool, tomatoes, or the natural history of your area.

Adventures in Agritourism

A Manual for Diversifying Your Farm Income

Avoid the pitfalls that most agritourism rookies experience and set yourself up for a successful foray into the agritourism world with topic expert Matt Stephens. In this one-of-a-kind resource, Stephens talks with six other agritourism farmers and examines the realities and hard work involved in adding an agritourism component to your farm. With the guidance provided by Stephens and his cohorts, you’ll understand what it takes and how to get started, the various types of agritourism available and which one will work best for your situation, and how to successfully manage the business side of the farm.

Matt Stephens was born and raised on a central Texas hobby farm. He’s an agritourism consultant and has spoken at events around the country, inspiring people to chase their farm dreams.

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