By Elaina Sauber, Charleston Gazette-Mail
With an end to this year's harvest season in sight, popular destinations such as Gritt's Fun Farm have cleared out their pumpkin patches and corn mazes.
But the face of agritourism in West Virginia is ever-evolving — so much that an economic impact study led by the West Virginia University Extension Service is underway to better understand the number and key practices of such operations.
"The thing with agritourism is that corn mazes and pumpkin patches aren't the only way you can get into it," said Gritt's General Manager Bradley Gritt. "There's opportunities for people to do it in a ton of different ways."
Agritourism, a business venture on a working farm, gives tourists an authentic experience while providing extra income for the farmer.
Gritt's made its debut in agritourism in 2006 and 2007, with owner Bob Gritt's idea to draw customers in to buy mums and eventually pick their own pumpkins. Eight years later, the fun farm has expanded to include two corn mazes, a playground area, a hayride, pedal carts, and apple cannons for the thousands of visitors it receives daily during the month of October.
"Every year, we try to add something for people where they can have more fun with their family; that's what it's all about," Gritt said.
Owner Bob Gritt said he doesn't have a final count of how many visitors the fun farm received this year, but he suspects the number exceeds the more than 30,000 visitors who came in 2014.
But Gritt's Farm is the exception, not the norm, in Putnam County. Of the nearly 550 farms in Putnam, only 78, or about 14 percent, generate more than $10,000 in sales annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 census. Many who own small farms do so while working full-time jobs.
The WVU Extension economic impact study seeks to determine how much revenue from farming can be attributed to agritourism operations, according to Cindy Martel, marketing specialist with the WV Department of Agriculture. Those findings are expected to be finalized in March, she said. Leading the study is Doolarie Singh-Knights, assistant professor of the WVU Extension Service.
Leslie and Chris Burdette, who own Shady Oaks Farm in Poca, are one example of the many small farm operators in Putnam. The Burdettes work full time, but for more than a decade opened their 63-acre farm to the public each summer with a simple, yet effective, agritourism strategy: Pick your own blueberries.
"When we get ready to retire, this will be an additional source of income," Leslie Burdette said.
Four years ago, however, the Burdettes temporarily closed their doors after deciding to transition the 2,000-bush farm to a USDA-certified organic operation.
"You have to be chemical-free for three years," Leslie Burdette said, adding that they're nearing the end of that process and hope to have their first all-organic harvest next summer.
"Certain things in West Virginia, pick-your-own things, will always be popular," she said.
Martel, who has specialized in West Virginia agritourism for more than two decades, said farm education plays a key role for attracting kids and adults alike. "It definitely has changed into, how can we connect folks with the food they eat?" Martel said. Additional means of revenue for producers, such as community-supported agriculture shares and farmers markets, have helped perpetuate the role of farmers as not only growers, but also educators, she said.
But, like any facet of tourism, agritourism has its own unique challenges.
While other businesses often seek to stand out from competitors, agritourism thrives on "clustering" area attractions together in efforts to bring in customers. "You're not gonna come here to go to Gritt's farm and make a weekend out of it," Martel said. "So in order for me to get visitors in, I need to be able to promote myself as a destination — but as part of that cluster."
Part of that challenge is helping producers transition from a production-oriented enterprise to a hospitality and service-based enterprise, Singh-Knights said.
Leslie Burdette said she thinks agritourism would be "a big hit" in Putnam County if there were more participating farms, as well as advertising and marketing resources. While the WVU Extension Service offers agritourism classes, participants must travel to Morgantown or Beaver to take them. Online courses are available as well.
"Nothing is over in this direction because the bigger farms are over in the (Eastern) Panhandle and (Allegheny) Mountains," Leslie Burdette said. "But they don't realize how many are springing up on this side; it just takes a lot of time."
On Gritt's Farm, though, agritourism is part of its legacy. "It's a lot of work, but a lot of fun at the same time," Gritt said. "I don't ever see myself stopping it."
As the industry evolves, Martel said today's consumers don't want merely an experience, but an immersion where memories are made. "Farms are becoming a premier destination for weddings (and) family portraits," she said. "(Producers) are really trying to capitalize on that by looking at agritourism as a product, rather than saying 'We'll just throw in a corn maze.'"