Agri-tourism boosts rural communities

Canada is the world’s fifth largest exporter of agriculture and agri-food products, with export sales reaching $51.5 billion in 2014.

Of this, 58.3 percent came from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, yet federal and provincial governments have paid little attention to promoting agri-tourism in the region.

Agri-tourism involves a wide range of tourist activities, from farm visits and pick-your-own orchards to petting zoos, farmers’ markets and distillery tours. Such activities can provide a valuable revenue stream for farms and rural communities.

In many provinces, Open Farm Days are held to encourage tourists to visit farms and ranches.

But there is little official data on the popularity of agri-tourism among Canadians travelling domestically, and even less is available on international visitors.

Statistics Canada measured only what proportion of the visits Canadians made to other provinces were to non-metropolitan areas. That could be considered one measure of rural tourism, but the agency ceased tracking that number after 2012.

Furthermore, it is difficult to determine from the data whether the visits were, for example, to farms in B.C.’s Kootenay region or to the ski resorts of Kimberley, Fernie, Golden, Invermere and Revelstoke.

Statistics Canada could better support government and industry in this area by including questions specifically related to agri-tourism in the Travel Survey of Residents of Canada and better managing the data collected annually through the Farm Financial Survey.

Farm festivals are becoming an important means of building local culture and attracting tourism to an area.

Each year, Alberta communities host about 73 of these events, B.C. hosts 59, Manitoba hosts 45, and Saskatchewan hosts 27.

Attendance figures at these events are difficult to ascertain and they represent a range of interests in the agriculture and agri-food industries.

Some, such as the Hills Garlic Festival held in New Denver, B.C., have a narrow focus, namely garlic, and manage to attract more than 6,000 visitors (New Denver is a community of roughly 500 people).

Others, such as the Strathmore Stampede in Strathmore, Alta., incorporate a broader range of stakeholders and activities, most prominently a rodeo, and also attracts thousands of visitors.

Until legislation was enacted in August 2016, the B.C. Agricultural Land Commission prohibited farms from hosting wedding ceremonies, concerts and other events without special permits. Lifting this restriction should help provide the province’s farmers with another source of revenue.

Elsewhere, farmers are embracing a field-to-fork concept in which they combine a farm visit with a culinary experience that educates visitors on the ingredients of the meal.

It has already had considerable success in many areas, including in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Agri-tourism has much to offer both visitors and farmers. Further development to help farmers and rural residents capitalize on the ideas requires a clearer picture of the industry’s current status, as well as leadership from federal and provincial governments.

Paul Pryce is director of agriculture at the Alberta Council of Technologies and a policy fellow at the Canada West Foundation.

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