DENVER - Colorado is looking to agricultural tourism to boost rural economies.
A plan released Friday by the Colorado Tourism Office and the Colorado Department of Agriculture provides a three-year road map for the development of the state's agritourism industry.
Agritourism refers to about any activity that brings people to a farm, including pumpkin picking, farmers markets, corn mazes, winery tours and farm-stay holidays. Many Colorado farms already offer these opportunities, said Wendy White, a marketing specialist with the Department of Agriculture, but the plan aims to increase industry education and public awareness.
"We wanted to provide the public with the information for all the things that are available to see and do in rural Colorado," she said. "We want them to know they don't have to travel far to experience some of these really unique activities."
The plan recommends the Colorado Tourism Office develop a peer mentor program to help farmers and ranchers who want to get into the agritourism business or who want to improve their offerings. The report also lays out broad plans for regional roadshows to spotlight thriving agritourism businesses and to offer training.
The goal is to bring more visitors — from Colorado, other states and abroad — and ultimately more money, to rural farms, which are often overlooked in favour of the Rocky Mountains or other outdoor recreational activities.
"Farmers are using it as a way to diversify their operation, so they're expanding their income base beyond just doing farming and ranching activities," White said. "By inviting the public, they can bring in more income. Sometimes, it also helps keep the families on the farm or ranch."
For farms and ranches hoping to venture into agritourism, the plan calls for a matching grants program to fund the development of attractions and marketing efforts, like adding highway signage. The grants will be given to location-based clusters of agritourism offerings, with an emphasis on those in rural areas.
The tourism office also plans to address some of the barriers to agritourism, including liability concerns.
The state has certain protections for horse- and agriculture-related activities, according to White, but she said some farmers and ranchers are still nervous about the potential for lawsuits.
The plan noted that the Colorado Tourism Office will evaluate the state's legal protections as compared to other states to determine if any changes are needed.
Marketing is also a key part of the three-year strategy, and the state hopes to make information on agritourism opportunities more accessible.
Already, White said, farm and ranch holidays are growing more popular in Colorado. A number of ranches invite the public to visit their facilities and to work alongside the cowboys, moving cattle or fixing fence.
The Four Seasons resort in Vail has also ventured into the business, with its mushroom hunting day-trip, now in its third year, and most recently with a peach farm excursion. Beginning this year, guests can sign up — and pay a fee — to visit an orchard in Palisade, where they will learn how the fruit is grown and harvested, and later a resort chef will teach participants how to preserve fruits.
"We decided we wanted to try to do something with an orchard to further our guests' knowledge, and even our locals' knowledge, of what Colorado has to offer," said Chef Jason Harrison, who will lead the cooking lessons.
The agritourism plan was presented at the Southwest Tourism Summit in Durango.
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