Traverse City News and Events

New Agritourism Summit Aims For Common Ground

By Craig Manning | March 19, 2024

Michigan State University Extension has announced the details for the first-ever Agritourism Summit, scheduled for May 7-8 in Traverse City. The two-day event, which will include a tour of local agritourism businesses followed by a day of panels and keynotes at the Hagerty Center, seeks to answer why agritourism has become arguably the most vital and vibrant part of Michigan’s agricultural economy.

Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism (TCT), helped organize the summit after a conversation with Dennis Arouca, a local businessman and investor who serves on the boards for the Grand Traverse Economic Development Corporation and the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council.

“Dennis and I ran into one another at an event more than a year ago, and he had all these concerns about farming and agriculture in this region,” Tkach recalls. “What's the future? How do we make sure we are being mindful as a region and a community to ensure that our local farms are viable? If you think about it, so many of the things that we’ve come to love about this region have to do with agriculture and the agricultural diversity that’s here. So, how do we bring together the farmers, the municipalities, and the residents to provide an environment for success?”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of farms operating in the U.S. declined by 7 percent between 2017 and 2022, wiping out nearly 142,000 farms. In that same time period, the amount of land “operated by farm operations” in the U.S. dipped by 20.1 million acres – more than the size of Maine. Historically, when farms close down, their land has been a prime target for real estate developers.

Locally, farmers have been vocal about the headwinds facing the industry – particularly around cherry farming, which has been plagued by unfavorable commodity crop pricing, foreign competition, climate change factors, and more. Just last fall, Pulcipher Orchards, a 150-year-old cherry orchard in Williamsburg, got out of the cherry business for good.

Rob Sirrine, a local extension educator for MSU Extension, says agritourism came to the forefront in recent years as the premiere solution to help small, local farms survive the challenges they now face.

“Around 2017, we noticed how many farmers were realizing that this old middle-scale commodity farming model was not working anymore,” Sirrine tells The Ticker. “But they wanted to keep farming, so they were asking what they could do [to carry on]?”

Soon, MSU Extension was observing a statewide trend: More and more farmers were supplementing the income from actual agricultural activities by adding events, farm markets, food and drink operations, or other on-farm revenue streams.

“A lot of growers started hosting weddings in their barns,” Sirrine says. “And then, inevitably, they’d receive pushback from neighbors and elected officials.”

That disconnect – between the farmers trying to make ends meet and the local communities taking issue with increasingly commercial and nontraditional farm uses – prompted MSU Extension to launch a new program called Cultivating Local Farm Economies.

“We went to different locations around the state and met with elected officials and farmers to try getting a conversation going,” Sirrine says. “Our thought was: If the goal is to preserve agriculture, we need to do something to help these growers remain in business and remain economically viable.”

Those types of conversations will be front and center at the Agritourism Summit. A day one tour will showcase just how prevalent agritourism has become in northern Michigan, with visits planned to Jacob’s Farm (pictured), Leelanau Cheese, 9 Bean Rows, Tandem Ciders, and Farm Club. The day two agenda includes panels and keynotes involving not just the owners of local farms, but also tourism leaders, local planning and zoning directors, MSU Extension experts, restaurant proprietors, and more. Area residents are also invited to attend.

The growth of agritourism in northern Michigan has prompted a few clashes between agribusinesses and local residents or municipalities – perhaps most notably with an ongoing lawsuit between the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula and Peninsula Township. While those kinds of disagreements are bound to happen, MSU Extension Innovation Counselor Parker Jones says a big goal of the Agritourism Summit is to find common ground among all stakeholders.

“There’s really not a bad guy when it comes to our ecosystem here,” Jones says. “The farmers, they make 7.8 cents on the food dollar. That's not much, and it's hard to be viable as a small-scale farm when you're making such a small amount. But then, if you’re someone who moves to Old Mission Peninsula to have a nice rural lifestyle and then an agritourism operation shows up and it’s a carnival-like atmosphere with 10,000 people, it makes sense that you’d want to protect your lifestyle. What we’re trying to do is cater to all these audiences and bring folks together, so that they understand where one another are coming from.”

“We collectively need to have a better understanding of what’s happening in our environment,” Tkach adds. “Agriculture has been a huge part of our local ecosystem for well over 100 years, and none of us, to my understanding, want to see that go away. So, I think just trying to talk that through and address it in a collective way matters. We want people to come together and understand the challenges on all sides of these issues, and we want to work together to create an environment where agriculture can thrive in northern Michigan.”

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