Niagara Gazette

September 20, 2006

Helping farms pitch fun

New state law boosts agricultural tourism

By Jill Terreri

Becker Farms appears to be a thriving place.

For 26 years, the Hartland farm has attracted school groups and others who want to pick apples and pumpkins and spend time in the country. Its operations have grown and for the last two years the farm’s owners have been able to cultivate a different clientele with their winery, Vizcarra Vineyards.

New York State is hoping to cultivate more places like Becker Farms.

The governor signed a bill in August that defines agricultural tourism and gives it protections afforded to other farms by adding the activity to the state’s agriculture and markets law.

“Diversifying farm operations with a tourism component has proven profitable for many farmers in New York and other states,” said state Sen. George Winner Jr., who leads the state’s Legislative Commission on Rural Resources and sponsored the legislation. “It helps them keep their land in farming and heightens the public’s awareness of agriculture’s importance.”

With tough competition from growers around the country and around the world, agricultural tourism is a way for farmers to sell directly to consumers and market other farm products, such as jams, pies and wines. In New York, farming is a $3.6 billion industry. The state can claim 36,000 farms, which sits on 25 percent of the state’s land area.

“The state is really trying to help us out,” said Margo Sue Bittner, owner of the winery at Marjim Manor in Appleton.

The winery employs one full-time and six part-time workers.

New signs marking the Niagara Wine Trail have increased attendance at the county’s wineries, but the businesses would like the state Department of Transportation to install signs along the New York State Thruway.

And the potential for growth is there.

Bittner has maps of the United States and the world hanging on her wall, where visitors can mark their hometown. In the two years the winery has been open, it has hosted visitors from all 50 states and every continent except Antarctica.

Bittner has spread the word about her business by asking the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation to distribute her brochures at rest stops on the New York State Thruway.

“You have to make the effort,” Bittner said. “Everything is out there.”

Though the state has expanded the Niagara Wine Trail and has enacted this recent law, Melinda Vizcarra, co-owner of Becker Farms, said she would like to see the state do more to raise awareness of the importance that New Yorkers buy New York produce.

Local cider and apple juice producers can purchase apple juice concentrate from China cheaper than they can buy it locally, and that hurts farmers, Vizcarra said.

She’d also like to see the state encourage its hospitals and other institutions to purchase produce locally.

In addition to efforts in Albany, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a reception featuring New York farm products on Tuesday at the Capitol that was attended by over 500 people.

Driving people to Becker Farms, which is far from any main thoroughfare, is a challenge.

“We need to advertise because people don’t just drive by us,” Vizcarra said.

She thinks a comprehensive marketing strategy could drive Niagara Falls visitors to outlying farms and wineries, which would help Niagara Falls because tourists would stay longer.

Years ago, Becker Farms had problems with local zoning ordinances because though it was a working farm, it was also a retail store that attracted customers to its Quaker Road site. But with the help of the state and the town, those issues were resolved, said Vizcarra, who owns the farm with her husband.

In the busy season, the farm employs between 40 and 50 people. During the winter, it’s just Vizcarra and her husband.

The new state law protects agricultural tourism sites from nuisance lawsuits from neighbors who move into a farming community in search of peace and quiet and find out that farming can be a round-the-clock activity.

The Town of Cambria, home to four wineries and two that are in development, enacted a local law last month to protect its farmers from these kinds of suits.

“We’ve had a significant influx of new people coming into the town,” said Cambria Supervisor Wright Ellis. “They’re looking to the rural lifestyle ... and they’re not familiar with the normal farming activities.”

No lawsuits against farmers have been filed in Cambria, but there have been complaints, Ellis said.





Agriwhat?

Agricultural tourism, or agritourism, includes farm tours, on-farm wine tours, educational activities, festivals, corn mazes, hay rides and farm vacations.

Agricultural tourism activities primarily promote the sale, marketing, production, harvesting or use of the farm’s products and enhance the understanding and awareness of farming and farm life.

Source: New York State Assembly