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 along 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 onsite, 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.
"We'll max out here. All the growth will be in external markets," he said.
Employee Allison Manderino, 28, served up drinks at the small bar in a restored log cabin dating back to the 1800s. "I will be the poison police for you," Manderino told a pair of customers before pouring herself a sample. After taking a swig, she confirmed, "Not poison." Later, Manderino donned a lemon costume and danced with a customer.
Megan Bean, who recently visited the distillery from nearby Harpers Ferry, said West Virginia needs to promote tourism as much as possible.
"Especially with the locavore movement, slow food seems to be getting bigger and bigger all the time," she said "If we can be a part of that, it's a great thing."
About 16 miles away in Martinsburg, West Virginia, family farm George S. Orr & Sons added a retail market in 1995. Retail sales now generate about 15 percent of the business, up from 5 percent just seven years ago, said retail market manager Katy Orr-Dove. The rest is mostly wholesale fruit sold to grocery stores.
Orr-Dove said the increase in retail sales was sparked by the "buy local" movement.
"People started having a greater interest in finding locally grown fruits and vegetables and they started looking for us," she said. "At about the same time, we decided we wanted to reach out more and increased our advertising, our website, our e-newsletter."
Orr-Dove said that ag tourism represents a good opportunity to help West Virginia's economy.
In 2012, 174 farms in West Virginia generated about $1.2 million in ag tourism — up from 112 farms and $970,000 in 2007, according to the USDA. The West Virginia University Extension Service will do an ag tourism study starting this fall to determine its impact on tax revenues, jobs and income, said Doolarie Singh-Knights, an assistant professor at the extension.