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Milking Profits from Agritourism
Published Monday, November 23, 2015

While the number of farms in NH has increased over the years, the scale of farming has become smaller, and the lifeblood of this industry in NH has far less to do with the food grown on the farms than the tourists they attract.

The latest 2012 farm survey found NH has 4,400 commercial farms in NH managing more than 470,000 acres of land for crops, pasture, maple and Christmas trees, and conservation—a 30 percent jump from 2002. However, that increase is misleading, as farms are decreasing in size. In 2002, the average farm size was 138 acres, which dropped to 108 acres by 2012.

This is a dramatic contrast from a century ago when more than 27,000 farms spread out across the countryside, and residents relied heavily on their crops and livestock to earn a living. Today’s modern farmers are more likely to cultivate their pastures and orchards as a labor of love versus a critical means of income. To make a go of the farming life, many farmers seek other sources of revenue. Increasingly, small farms are drawing travelers by offering pick-your-own crops, ice cream stands, pony rides, corn mazes and even inns onsite. Some farms host barn weddings, banquets, educational conferences and overnight stays.

Branded as agritourism, farmers say these activities play a vital role in balancing their books. Of the $1.5 billion generated by agriculture in NH, $336 million is derived from direct sales of agriculture and horticulture products and services, while a whopping $1.2 billion is related directly and indirectly to agritourism, according to the NH Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food.

Such ventures bring in thousands of dollars a month for a farm and can be the difference between being able to run the farm and going out of business. Take Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, where a section of the farmhouse has been converted to a rustic inn where guests can hike trails, ride cows, stargaze and participate in farm activities (including watching calves being born when timing is fortuitous).

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Above left: Bruce Dawson and Carole Soule, owners of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon.
Above right: a young guest rides a cow at the farm. Courtesy photos.

The farm’s owners, Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, who are married, are retired IT specialists. Soule has lived on the historic 19th century Miles Smith property for 40 years, riding horses on the 36 acres of grass and woodlands. In 2002, she elevated the status of her hobby farm to a commercial enterprise, raising Scottish Highland cattle and selling meat with no added hormones to grocers, hospitals, farmers markets and at her onsite, solar-powered store. On a typical summer day, Soule and Dawson shepherd some of their 70 cattle to rotating pastures—which they lease from other landowners—to keep the soil healthy and provide better nutrition. Recently, they started raising pigs and chickens.

Soule doesn’t disclose annual revenues, but with expenses like the annual $25,000 on hay, a monthly $1,000 electric bill, and a startling $12,000 spent annually on insurance, she says the farm breaks even. Although they sank their retirement savings into the land, she says she wouldn’t have it any other way. The couple ekes by with proceeds from Social Security, which she says barely pay the mortgage.

When not shuttling cattle or stacking hay, Soule is changing bed sheets or dusting furniture in the inn, which has a two-bedroom apartment with a wood stove and a hot tub. These guests contribute about 8 percent to Miles Smith Farm’s revenue. That may not sound like a lot, says Soule, but without the extra $2,000 to $3,000 a month from the inn, she admits, “We could not continue to farm.”

Other farms like East Hill and Walpole Valley, both in the Monadnock region, provide more extensive lodging, luring visitors who like the mountain air, the aroma of freshly-baked bread and the chance to cool off in a pond or lake. Both farms sit on over 100 acres and offer vacation stays that include instruction on organic farming practices. They also rent out space for destination weddings. At the Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, guests enjoy such activities as pony grooming, contra dances, milking goats and tractor rides.

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Top left: Guests enjoy contra dancing at the Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy;
Top right: a visitor learns how to milk a cow at the farm. Courtesy photos.

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Top left: A child holds a chicken at Walpole Valley Farm in Walpole. Top right: A drove of pigs on the farm.
Courtesy photo.

A Legal Challenge
However, not all efforts at agritourism are idyllic. Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm & Gift Shoppe, which harvests and sells around 600-700 trees annually for $50 each from mid-November through the end of December, supplements that income with selling berries, tomatoes and gift shop items in the off-season. Until 2013, the farm primarily subsisted on the profits it made during the summer when Forster allowed various events to be held on his property,  which included betrothed couples heading to the hills of Henniker to plan rustic-chic weddings. Those organizing these events were paying anywhere from $800 to $2,500, depending on size. The farm was hosting roughly a dozen events annually.

“It’s not a get-rich scheme,” says owner Steve Forster. “It’s survival.” He explains the extra income helped him maintain his property and pay insurance bills, contractors and employees. It also provided jobs to caterers, photographers, florists and other local suppliers.

In an ironic twist, the same NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) that usually keeps commercial development out of rural communities led to a 2012 dispute between the town and Forster. Responding to complaints from neighbors about noise and traffic, the zoning board demanded Forster “cease all operations” related to commercial wedding services. After Forster initiated an appeal, the zoning board reversed its decision, saying his property could be used for weddings and civil unions only, and that he needed to seek a land use variance. Forester then sought a rehearing. The zoning board (with new members) in February 2013 reversed its reversal and banned Forster from conducting weddings and civil unions, and any other forms of agritourism. A series of re-hearings ensued before the case escalated to the state Superior Court, and eventually to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the ban, saying Forster’s wedding enterprise is not linked to agriculture and is not a permitted use in a rural area.

The court’s decision raised flags for other farmers and farm advocates across the state, says Gail McWilliam Jellie, the state’s director of agricultural development. She says it’s not unusual for farms to host weddings. The events generate essential income and help to maintain NH’s rural life and character. With inflated price tags for land, fewer people have the resources to buy a farm, she says, unless they inherit one through family ties.

Forster’s attorney, Rob Miller of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green PA, contends that the court decision “flies in the face” of the 2007 Farm Viability Task Force Report, which attempted to standardize the treatment of farms across NH.

The report was the impetus behind amending the land use statute  for agriculture, which added a separate definition for agritourism, saying it attracts “visitors to a working farm for the purpose of eating a meal, making overnight stays, enjoyment of the farm environment, education on farm operations, or active involvement in the activity of the farm which is ancillary to the farm operation.”

As Miller sees it, if farmers struggle to maintain big tracts of open land and green spaces, they have no choice but to sell to developers. “And then you lose your farms,” he says.  “And you don’t get them back.”

In response to the Henniker lawsuit, which is the only one of its kind in the state, NH Sen. David Boutin of Hookset is spearheading an agritourism legislative roundtable  on behalf of all NH farmers in order to clarify the state’s definition of agriculture and expand provisions for agritourism, while allowing municipalities control over these activities. Boutin says the roundtable is a group of stakeholders that want to help farmers diversify by clarifying the land use statute. No bill to make any such clarifications was submitted as of press time, but Boutin said that he plans to file legislation by mid-October.

Robert Johnson, who directs policy at the NH Farm Bureau Federation, applauds these legislative efforts. But he also points out that farmers need to link their agritourism activities to the farm and acknowledges that communities will vary in how they interpret that connection.

The Changing Face of Farming
Despite such challenges, farms continue to evolve. When Tim Bassett and his wife Amy purchased 58 acres of the 200-year-old Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook in 2010 for $857,000, they synthesized their marketing expertise with their longtime roots in farming. Tim’s parents had a dairy farm in Vermont; Amy’s grandfather had one in NH. As new owners, they modernized by renovating the post-and-beam barn, installing a commercial bakery, donut machine and ice cream freezer, and adding NH-made products to their store.

All told, Tim Basset estimates he’s forked over more than $1 million into the farm’s operations including the purchase price. And while he doesn’t expect a lucrative return from growing apples, blueberries and peaches, he looks forward to interacting with customers who appreciate knowing where their food comes from.

The high stakes also mean that Tim and Amy can’t quit their day jobs. Amy works for the state’s department of travel and tourism, and Tim is a promotional marketing consultant. Their three children help run the store.

The occasional wedding on a picturesque foothill and other tent events help pay the bills and increase foot traffic in the farm’s retail outlet. The farm’s panoramic backdrop is a natural fit for family outings, and that includes milestone celebrations or business retreats. Although Bassett doesn’t host tent events that often, he says the additional revenue mollifies the sting of crop failures or bad weather in an off year. McWilliam Jellie calls this the “not all your eggs in one basket concept,” and says farms are choosing agritourism as another way of branching out. “Diversification has become very important in farming over the years,” she says, especially in response to consumer demand for the experiential aspects of agriculture.

Today, about half of the more than 4,000 farm owners in NH do not consider farming their primary occupation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nonetheless, their desire to create a self-sustaining environment is as strong as ever.

Jane Presby of the Dimond Hill Farm in Concord is a sixth-generation farmer and says owners are creatively exploring new avenues to increase visibility. On her 150-acre property, which is an agricultural easement, she allows guests to host farm-to-table dinner parties and retreats. She sees the relationship between the community and the farm as symbiotic, where neighbors visit her stretch of pastoral scenery to paint, play music or use snowmobile trails without paying a fee. “The payback is that those who tour the land also support the farm by buying fresh vegetables or fruit,”she says.

A variety of vegetables grown and sold at Dimond Hill Farm in Concord. Courtesy photo.

The bottom line is agritourism is essential for NH farmers to turn a profit. “For many farmers in New Hampshire and New England, the money in agriculture is not in the commodity produced, it’s in the experiences provided,” says Johnson of the NH Farm Bureau Federation.

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