CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. – With its sweet fruit-flavored liqueurs, a working farm and eccentric cast of characters – including a dancing lemon – Bloomery Plantation Distillery has attracted tourists from every U.S. state and countries as far away as Laos and Iceland.
The West Virginia mini-distillery is part of a growing agriculture tourism trend that advocates say can help revive struggling rural economies. Ag tourism refers to working farm enterprises geared to visitors, encompassing farm stands, pumpkin patches, barn dances, zip-line rides, pick-your-own berries, corn mazes and even weddings.
Farms engaging in ag tourism generated roughly $700 million in 2012 – a 24 percent increase over five years, according to the most recent U.S. Agriculture Department statistics. But that’s still a sliver comparedwith some other, more traditional forms of tourism; last year, for example, visitors to national parks spent about $14.6 billion in communities within 60 miles.
Ag tourism is one of agriculture’s fasting-growing sectors, said Kelly Smith, marketing and commodities director at the Missouri Farm Bureau. The bureau and the state Department of Agriculture recently hosted an ag tourism conference in Kansas City, where there was particular interest in weddings on farms and farm-to-table dinners, where food grown by a farmer is served at a meal on the farmer’s property.
“Many farmers are looking to add revenue streams to their farms,” Smith said.
Last month, the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency charged with promoting economic development in that area, launched a map and guide of nearly 300 farmers markets, vineyards, farm-to-fork restaurants and other destinations in an effort to boost the industry. The map and guide were published in Food Traveler Magazine and online.
“Local food systems are growing throughout Appalachia, and their growth is making important economic contributions in rural communities,” said Earl F. Gohl, who co-chairs the commission with West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Linda Losey, who had never owned a farm before, started Bloomery Plantation Distillery in 2011 after deciding to try her hand at making limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur. The distillery uses many of its home-grown products in its drinks – “Moonshine Milkshake” and hard lemonade among them – plucking fresh raspberries, pumpkin, lemons and ginger.
Now, the business generates nearly $1 million in annual sales and employs 14 people. Until about a year ago, 97 percent of its business was selling on-site, but that’s changing, said Rob Losey, Linda’s ex-husband and business partner. The split is now 80-20, and Losey said that number will continue to shift.
“The growth will be in external markets,” he said.