by Tara Kelly
I’ve done a bit of traveling this season with my partner and kids. As a sociologist and community planner, I am deeply interested in what makes a community tick. When I arrive somewhere I immediately start scanning for clues. Each location reveals a lot about their history, current values and aspirations for the future through their development patterns, what gets covered in their newspapers, traffic patterns, transportation options, types of businesses, what they choose to highlight in the free guides to the area, and finally what is available in their grocery stores, farm stores and farmers markets – if you can find them.
One of the places we visited this past month was a somewhat rural part of New Jersey. With a goal of spending some time in NYC, but not breaking the bank on lodging, we found ourselves in Vernon, NJ. I’d never spent any time in New Jersey, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Honestly, my expectations were pretty low given the chatter that seems to surround New Jersey’s reputation. What I found, was that in broad terms, this area was not that different from our part of Vermont. Vernon is a blend of ski resorts, farms, and housing. This particular area, we eventually figured out, had a long history of natural resource mining for valuable minerals unique to this area – sound familiar?
Warwick, NY was nearby. This is an area I recalled from my regional planning days as a place with strong local ordinances and future planning that kept intact their village area, allowed for strong farming presence around the village, and set standards for how things were built. This area felt much more like a small town in Vermont, for sure.
We found a farm store that was an extension of a multi-generational working farm and orchard. It carried local meats, vegetables, and value-added products like jams and relishes. And, it had extra features that made it obvious they wanted people to stop. There was a chainsaw wood carver working on a sculpture in the parking lot, a pen of goats and chickens, and a mini playground for kids. Each of these cues made it a no-brainer for us to stop, visit, and buy a few things. There was even a café inside the farm market where we could have eaten lunch.
People from outside Vermont have long been traveling here because they want to observe and have some sort of experience that includes our local farms. Just as we searched out the Staten Island Ferry to travel past the Statue of Liberty in NYC, visitors to our area want to tap into what makes us unique. The farm store in NJ we visited, Pennings, got me thinking about the strained relationship Vermonters sometimes have with tourists. Tourists are viewed by some as nosy visitors or, worse, unwanted intruders. Yet, these visitors are an important part of our local economy and can bring new revenues to a farm that is set up to welcome them. The number of times I’ve seen a farm stand in our part of Vermont, couldn’t quite tell if it was open or not, and wasn’t sure whether to stop or not, stands in stark contrast to Pennings. Pennings made it obvious they wanted people to stop – removing that barrier to potential business.
RAFFL is hosting a workshop on January 10th for farms interested in expanding their business to include attracting visitors to the farm. The workshop features a panel of folks with expertise to share. Irene Hathaway of Hathaway Farm will share what she has done to successfully bring people into their corn maze. Beth Kennett of Liberty Hill Farm and VT Farms! Association will share best practices for bringing people onto the farm. Kevin Durkee of Durkee Insurance will talk about insurance concerns. Folks from Shelburne Farms will share ideas for creating an educational program. Opening a farm to visitors isn’t for everyone. But, interested farms can come learn more at the workshop. Register by contacting the RAFFL office at 417-1528.
Tara Kelly is the executive director of RAFFL, Rutland Area Farm and Food Link.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.