Getting back to the farm, however you can

Published 9:13 am Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fall is a very busy time at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and for the industry of agriculture in general. That sort of goes without saying because many of our major crops are harvested in the fall.

But there’s more to the story than that. Fall is also a major season for agritourism with pumpkin patches, corn mazes, apple picking and food festivals abound.

One of our staff members here at VDACS talks about her $100 fall pumpkins. She knows she could go to the grocery store, produce stand or farmers’ market and buy a couple of pumpkins for about $6 each. But they choose to take the day and go to a pick-your-own farm. By the time they ride the ponies, go through the corn maze, feed the animals, eat lunch, buy a mum or two and shop in the farm store, she spends at least $100. Why? – because they get much, much more than pumpkins. They get the experience of a day on the farm.

Like so many parents in their 30s and 40s, she does not have a personal connection to a farm. No grandfather, uncle, cousin or sister-in-law owns a farm. Only 2 percent of the U.S. population is actively engaged in production agriculture, and I am proud to be among that minority. I understand the need for those without farm connections to get connected.

For the other 98 percent, agritourism provides that missing piece. It allows you to spend the day on the farm, and even if grandmother is not baking cookies for you, Farmer Jane or John will do so. They’ll welcome you with open arms just like Grandma, make sure you have a great time, look out for your personal welfare and send you home with all sorts of treasures, chief among them a fond memory.

Baxter Black, cowboy poet and former large animal veterinarian, recently wrote a column called “Farming, a Life Changing Experience.” He made a case for getting involved with agriculture however you can. He didn’t mention agritourism but said he believes everyone should be allowed to raise at least one baby calf or to grow enough vegetables in one summer to feed a family for a week.

“Once they are engaged in the process of raising food,” he wrote, “they will appreciate that farming is a complicated process that guarantees risk, pitfalls, hard work and commitment. But they will also comprehend the sense of accomplishment of becoming part of nature, not just the skim on the top.”

That may explain why some agritourism venues now offer their customers the opportunity to work alongside the farmers for a day, or why many CSAs let you work out part of your subscription by planting, weeding and harvesting your own vegetables and herbs. Like the $100 pumpkin, customers get much more than a basket of tomatoes, beans, okra, eggplant, squash, cucumbers or thyme. They experience a deep pride and personal satisfaction from personally participating in one of life’s most basic occupations.

Now, how can you accomplish that in Virginia? It begins with a click of the mouse. Go to on your computer and on some smart phones and take a spin around this interactive website. You can search by product (pumpkins), by location (county or zip code) and by venue (farmers’ market, roadside stand) and find a location near you or near the place you want to go.

Right now you’ll see fall products featured such as pumpkins, apples, clams, mums, broccoli and sweet potatoes. You can type the word “agritourism” into the key word search bar to end up at our agritourism site. There you’ll find everything from historic farms to food festivals, pick-your-own farms to farm museums. Each farm lists its special activities, whether it’s making apple butter or a holiday market.

It really is a win-win combination. Consumers get that experience of a day on the farm in the fresh air and sunshine. While there they learn something about the inner mechanisms of a working farm, and they get to know the people who grow their food.

For farmers, it’s a way to diversify their operations and to add something to their bottom line. I know a farmer in Southwest Virginia who figured this out a long time ago. He said, “I can sell a perfectly-shaped, brightly colored pumpkin for about $4. Or I can sell a smushy, lumpy, half rotten one for $6 to launch through the pumpkin cannon.”

Everyone wins. Somebody gets to go home bragging about the hang time of his pumpkin, and the farmer pockets the two extra dollars. What’s not to love?

MATTHEW J. LOHR is commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. His email address is