Agritourism thriving in Loudoun County, Va.
LEESBURG, Va. — Bucolic Loudoun County has everything a casual countryside connoisseur could ask for: Open fields, rushing rivers, and majestic mountains, all in close proximity to the nation’s bustling capital.
Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Loudoun leads the way in Virginia’s booming agritourism industry.
The key to the county’s success in this sector provides insight into the successes and shortcomings of agritourism as a supplement to agricultural revenue.
“Agritourism” includes any activities that allow members of the public to visit farms and ranches to enjoy and learn about rural life.
These not only include classic pick-your-own apple groves and pumpkin patches, but wineries, breweries, and historical attractions.
Even the increasingly popular barn wedding venues make up a healthy share of the agritourism market.
Virginia has recently seen a boom in agritourism business.
One third of Virginia’s agritourism venues have sprouted since 2010.
Now, Virginia’s agritourism industry is estimated to be worth $2.2 billion, and the economic activity generated by this visitation and is responsible for an about 22,151 full-time equivalent jobs throughout the commonwealth.
Even in Virginia’s exceptional agritourism economy, Loudoun County is a standout.
According to a 2017 study by Virginia Tech, Northern Virginia generates the most agritourism revenue — more than $552 million — of the state’s 10 regions.
Loudoun County agritourism businesses comprised 51 percent of Northern Virginia’s venues studied for the report, 182 farms in all.
Of Loudoun’s 1,400 farms, about 13 percent participate in the agritourism sector.
Beth Erickson, president and CEO of Visit Loudoun, sees agritourism and agriculture as going hand in hand in Loudoun County. “Agritourism has always been an important part of Loudoun County’s product,” she said, “but there’s connectivity in ecosystem that we’ve seen grow and expand over the last five or 10 years.”
That increased connectivity means that the positive impacts of agritourism ripple throughout the economy.
The study notes that agritourism also provides many benefits that can’t be quantified by economic modeling, such as improving access to fresh, healthy foods.
An estimated 83 percent of the money spent during agritourism visits goes towards off-farm expenses like hotels, restaurants and gas.
Virginia — and specifically its northern reaches — has a number of factors that make it a hotbed for agritourism activity.
Agriculture is the largest industry in Virginia, providing an economic impact of $70 billion annually and about 334,000 jobs.
As farms look to diversify their revenue streams in a stable way that is less dependent on the weather and the whims of free trade, agritourism seems like a natural solution.
“Traditional agriculture is so dependent on uncontrollable factors like weather, whereas the tourism coming onto the farm is less dependent on that,” says Dr. Vincent Magnini, associate professor at Virginia Tech who co-authored the 2017 study about the state of agritourism in Virginia.
The wealth of farms lends itself naturally to a booming agritourism industry, but its success is determined by more than just acreage.
According to Magnini, the demographics surrounding these stunning farmlands are just as important as the farms themselves.
The agritourism industry in states like West Virginia, for example, is not trending up so quickly because there is less disposable income available. Loudoun County and surrounding Arlington, Fairfax, and Falls Church frequently rank among the richest counties in the United States based on median household income.
Infrastructure plays an important role as well.
Most agritoruism venues in Virginia are within a half-hour drive from a nearby major metropolitan area.
The quality of roadways is an especially important determinant.
Magnini said previous studies indicate that proximity to a highway is a major determinant of how well an agritourism venue will succeed.
“Virginia is special for a couple of reasons,” Magnini said. “We have such a nice network of roadways, and we have the natural resources, beaches and mountains and every soil type in between.”
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Virginia’s agritourism success, then, is location, location, location.
Agritourism may not be a solution for all farmers looking to supplement their revenue, but it’s nice work if you can get it.
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