According to Lisa Chase, even though agritourism has been important to many states for decades, it didn’t receive much attention at the federal level until recently. Chase is the director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center and the chair of the Global Agritourism Network (GAN).

Various stakeholders, including Chase, discussed proposed federal agritourism legislation at a Vermont Extension roundtable hosted by North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association, Farmstay, National Extension Tourism Network and GAN.

In 2019, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) and Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC) launched a bipartisan congressional agritourism caucus. While they brought attention to agritourism in Washington, D.C., no legislation was passed.

Then, in 2021, Wexton and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA, who is also an agricultural scientist) relaunched the caucus and introduced the Agritourism Act in the House of Representatives. In the act, the word agritourism serves as an acronym: Accelerating the Growth of Rural Innovation & Tourism Opportunities to Uphold Rural Industries & Sustainable Marketplaces.

Newhouse has witnessed an explosion of agritourism in his district and across the U.S. He said, “It includes a lot of different things. Agritourism is very broad, from on-farm retail, to U-pick, even direct delivery from farms to consumers. The imagination is the only limit we have as to what kind of things people can get involved with when it comes to these kinds of businesses.”

In his opinion, even farmers markets are considered a sector of the agritourism industry.

Wexton, who serves a district close to Washington, D.C. which is one of the fastest growing municipalities in the country, believes agritourism can give a boost to family farms under development pressure. She said, “One of the things I like about the agritourism caucus is that agritourism preserves the charm and character of our rural communities. Agritourism enables small farmers to expand their businesses and increase their profits.”

The numbers substantiate Newhouse’s and Wexton’s observations: According to a recent Census of Agriculture, agritourism-related income jumped from $202 million in 2002 to $949 million in 2017.

Lawmakers purposely did not define agritourism in their bill so that farmers can interpret the enterprise in whichever way they choose. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

The proposed legislation would create an Office of Agritourism within USDA. The office would be responsible for encouraging and promoting agritourism and consolidating federal resources – such as grants and loans – available to agritourism businesses. The office would also provide technical assistance and facilitate connections between agritourism businesses.

Bubba White, legislative director for Rouzer, hopes the office will create a united voice within the industry and to give agritourism entities a voice and a seat at the table.

The Agritourism Act, notably, does not include a definition for the word agritourism. Chris Katson, legislative director for Wexton, explained, “We purposely did not define it because we did not want to exclude anyone by being too prescriptive as to what agritourism entails.”

One thing the Agritourism Act does not include is any associated funding. White said that Rouzer believes that the Office of Agritourism will give USDA more flexibility to utilize existing resources that it may have.

“We look at this Office of Agritourism as an opportunity to open the door to this industry – to get this industry at the table with USDA – as they’re looking at other farm programs, other grant programs that already have funding connected to them,” White said.

In White’s opinion, the best chance this legislation has for passing is if it is included in the next Farm Bill. The last Farm Bill, passed in 2018, expired on Sept. 30, 2023, but in November Congress passed an extension of that Farm Bill for another year. Now, the goal is to pass a Farm Bill in 2024, and hopefully the Agritourism Act will be included.

In the meantime, the offices of Newhouse, Rouzer and Wexton, along with other members of this caucus, encourage constituents to contact their representatives in support of this legislation.

Katson said, “One thing we found is that there are hardly any members of Congress who don’t have a form of agritourism in their districts. So, I think the very best thing you can do is just go get in touch with your member of Congress.”

Katson also advocated for reaching out to senators, as it will take both legislative entities to pass a Farm Bill and, by extension, the Agritourism Act.

Chase concluded, “It is really exciting to hear about something that has bipartisan support and that people are really in favor of all over the country and it doesn’t matter which political party it might be part of. And I think agritourism speaks true in that sense.”

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin