Hudson Valley Agritourism Grows to New Heights

Tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry in the Hudson Valley — and agritourism is a big piece of that pie.


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Fishkill Farms

Photo by Katie Ross

There was a time when “coming up to the country” was a novelty for big-city residents.

Barely a decade ago, the idea of heading to the Hudson Valley and visiting a working farm meant nothing more than spending a couple of hours picking apples for folks more attuned to picking out an open parking space.

That was then.

This is now, where tourists come for days at a time — weeks, even — to settle into a culture where they can pick apples high off a tree, or bend down to scoop up strawberries. Where they can bottle maple syrup, and pick and cut their own Christmas tree. Where they can make candles, and buy specialty cheeses. Where they can listen to live music while tasting wine, or buy a gourmet hot dog at a food truck. Where they can pick pumpkins while their kids navigate a corn maze — or where they become kids at heart and wander the maze themselves.

Agritourism — the intersection of agriculture and tourism — is growing to new heights in the Hudson Valley.

Farm owners, ranch owners, winery owners have all opened their doors to the public — aka tourists — to come and be part of the operations. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement to the multiple parties involved:

 

Fishkill Farms has dedicated their focus to selling the crop directly to the public through their on-site farm store.

Photo by Grant Delin

 

• Farm owners are able to market directly to consumers and create an additional revenue stream outside of the traditional sale of its products to restaurants and food stores.

• Tourists receive financial, educational, and social benefits.

• The tourism industry in the respective area is boosted by an increase in visitors.

• And municipalities get a potential increase in its tax base and the possibility of more job opportunities.

 

“It’s a big business, and it continues to grow,” says Mary Kay Vrba, president and CEO of Dutchess Tourism.

 

Millbrook Vineyards & Winery, celebrating nearly 40 years in business, is constantly reinventing itself and expanding attractions for visitors to the winery.

Photo courtesy of Millbrook Vineyards & Winery

 

Reaping the Rewards

Vrba doesn’t have breakout numbers specific to agritourism, but says it is a big reason why visitors spent $601 million in tourism in Dutchess County in 2017, up from $568 million the previous year. Out of those figures, money spent on food and beverage — the primary categories of agritourism — was $154 million in 2017, up from $143 million in 2016.

Region-wide, Vrba says tourism was a $4.7 billion industry in the Hudson Valley, which covers 10 counties from Westchester to Albany.

“It goes way beyond people having apple trees,” Vrba says. “More and more people have come in to the area and purchased land and set up small farms, whether it’s producing maple syrup or cheese or raising goats for clothing products.”

Indeed, agritourism is way more than using a stick to grab an apple. The diversity is impressive, and includes winery tours and wine trails; pumpkin-picking patches; U-pick ’em strawberries and other fruits and vegetables; petting zoos; garden tours; historical farm properties; corn mazes; and more.

 

Photo by Katie Ross

 

A Happy Hybrid

The popularity of agritourism has been a farmer’s perfect storm, a meeting all at once of public desire for food knowledge and responsibility, the rapid rise of new emerging media, and, well, old-fashioned capitalism.

Take Fishkill Farms, for instance. The farm began its existence in 1913; a major hailstorm hit the Hudson Valley in 1965, damaging crops. Since wholesalers required strict standards, even the slightest of marks rendered the crop virtually useless and unable to be sold at market. But the farm realized that many of the pieces had just minimal damage — “an extra dimple here and there on some pieces,” farm manager Mark Doyle says. So the farm opened its gates to the public, encouraging them to pick their own “ugly apples.” Ironically, the farm was more successful than ever.

“The reason for the explosion is a happy coincidence of business-related need,” Doyle says. “For farmers in the Hudson Valley, farming in a high-cost area, there is a need to sell their produce closer to retail, if not retail. How do you do it? Sell directly to the public without a storefront by bringing them directly to the farm.”

That’s how it worked for Fishkill Farms.

 

Upstate Traveler Spending, 2017

Tourism by the Numbers

While data specific to agritourism is not available — since it’s a combination of several different industries including manufacturing, food and beverage, and retail — tourism in general in the Hudson Valley and the state is big business.

According to the most recent Tourism Economics report commissioned by Empire State Development (2017), the Hudson Valley region (Orange, Dutchess, Columbia, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester) is a $3.7 billion industry, supporting 58,539 jobs, and has the largest tourism spending in the nine upstate regions (which is everything but New York City and Long Island).

State-wide tourism economy showed a 4.4% growth from 2016 to 2017, reaching an all-time high of $67.6 billion.

 

“It started with the apple harvest, sure, but people came and we realized there were other opportunities,” Doyle says. “Now we have a store where we sell our produce, a selection of meats and cheeses, pies and other baked goods, and staples from other producers.”

For Jamie Corrao, general manager of Angry Orchard in Walden, agritourism is all about authenticity. The wildly popular manufacturer of hard ciders and beers, Angry Orchard existed as a company long before it arrived in Walden and evolved as an orchard, farm, and tourist attraction.

The Valley's rich apple-growing history and tradition steered the company here; with experimentation and development of the ciders onsite, Angry Orchard built a production facility to film all of its commercials and marketing messages right there.

“We have a mezzanine and you can look down on the tanks, apple-pressing, bottling, and the production facility,” Corrao said. “We like when they can better understand the process, and they walk away saying, ‘Oh, I saw that on their commercial.’”

Corrao said that having visitors feel a connection to the orchard makes consumers more engaged with its brand.

 

Blooming Hill Farm in Monroe offers a delicious farm dinner in addition to fresh produce at its on-site market.

Photo by Zoraida Lopez

 

“There is this sense from our visitors that they’re like, ‘Wow, those apples on the tree I actually drank in my glass.’ They want to understand how these things are created,” Corrao said. “They want to know how many apples go into one bottle, what varieties, or what this particular apple gives to the cider as opposed to another apple.”

And as with much of agritourism, it’s had a trickle-down effect. Millbrook Vineyards & Winery is one of the best examples of an agricultural destination in the Hudson Valley, a venue that is constantly redefining its goals and reinventing itself.

“Ten years ago, we focused on wine education. We always prided ourselves in explaining the whole process of winemaking. It was, and remains, very visual,” says Stacy Hudson, vice president/marketing and creative director at Millbrook Vineyards & Winery. “But as time goes on and people become more familiar with us, we saw the need to do more events. So we started out with a concert a month (now every Saturday in July and August). We worked with a local caterer to provide a weekend menu. Three years ago, we started the Friday night food trucks and that turned out to be extremely popular. We really involve our customers.”

 

Pennings Farm has evolved from a simple seasonal farm stand into a diversified operation with a beer garden, pub, garden center, ice cream stand, orchards, and more.

Photo by Greg Rhein 

 

 

Farm-to-Table: Not Just a Catchphrase, But a Way of Life

Farm-to-table is exactly what it says — food on the table at a restaurant is locally sourced and comes directly from the farm. No stops at the grocery store or a distributor first. No being picked before they are ripe in order to travel long distances, and no frozen products either.

The farm-to-table movement is generally considered to have begun in California in the late 1960s/early 1970s as Americans began thinking more and more about what they were putting in their bodies.

Ironically, it was considered a California fad for decades until the movement slowly began to move from west to east and became more popular in the 2000s.

In our area, it plays well with the heavy concentration of tourists that come up from New York City.

“The Hudson Valley has always been the food basket of the greater metropolitan area,” Doyle says. “The public has found, increasingly, they have concerns about the quality of their food. The adulteration of foods has people wondering where their food comes from.”

 

Angry Orchard hosts gatherings, such as the Harvest Dinner, to give visitors a unique dining experience in the orchard.

 

A ‘Social’ Event

Stacy Hudson says that most of the visitors to Millbrook Vineyards & Winery come up from New York City and the metropolitan area. Years ago, she did some marketing with small ads in city-based publications, including New York magazine. Now, she says, referrals do the lion’s share of the work.

“Our Facebook presence is strong. Groupon is part of our marketing. But word-of-mouth is our biggest form of advertising,” Hudson says. “Our wines are also distributed in the city to restaurants and retail stores, so people see it and see how close we are to come and visit.”

Alisha Albinder Camac, owner/operator at Milton-based Hudson River Distributors and an authority on observing the growth of agritourism in the area, seconds that. Word of mouth — especially through social media — has had a huge impact on the agritourism industry. “It’s a very old-school concept, pick your own. I mean, it’s not fall in the Hudson Valley if you don’t grab your significant other and do an apple-picking date, right? But what’s different is sharing your experiences with your family and friends on social media. You’re taking pictures, you’re talking about your experience, and suddenly your friends are like, ‘Hey, that looks like fun.’”

According to Corrao, aside from pushing the brand itself with its localized marketing materials, Angry Orchard has succeeded through word of mouth. “And we do a lot on social media,” she says, noting that the cider house has its own Instagram account for a behind-the-scenes look. “You would not believe how many people I run into who say that visiting here was on their bucket list.”

Naturally, the domino effect of any form of tourism is at play here as well. For all there is to do, visitors need a place to lay their head at night.

 

Hurds Family Farm has everything from pick-your-own to a corn maze, gem mining, and hayrides.

 

Welcome to ‘Glamping’

A play on the words “glamorous” and “camping,” glamping puts you in the woods — with a twist. It’s where nature meets nurture. It’s where you can occasionally run into a creature or two while living with creature comforts.

Instead of a tent, you’re inside a fixed structure with electricity and amenities not often found in traditional campsites — including a bed and sheets, bathroom stalls, showers, even climate control.

It’s not exactly meant to replicate camping, except for the peace and solitude of the surroundings. Former New York State Assemblyman Patrick Manning and his wife, Christine, saw this trend coming after successfully running another agritourism business, Hudson Valley Fiber Farm, the country's first “Fiber CSA,” with more than 100 sheep and goats.

“With our love of agriculture, we were trying to figure out what to do next with the land. With so many people coming up from the boroughs, and after reading so much about agritourism in Europe where you can actually stay on the farm, I turned to Christine and said, ‘Why don’t we try something that was like high-end camping,’” Manning says.

Thus was born Hopeland Rest. Nestled up against the Appalachian Trail in the hamlet of Hortontown on the Dutchess/Putnam county line, Hopeland Rest — with a sister campsite, Cooke's Creek — is a campground on a couple hundred acres of protected woodland, which was formerly the grist and saw mill in Hortontown.

The Mannings set up their guests with itineraries that include hiking the Appalachian Trail, visiting local farms, imbibing at local craft breweries and wineries, and eating at farm-to-table restaurants.

Asked why he thinks it’s so popular, Manning is wistful.

“The desire for people to have simpler times. The desire to just slow down and walk through a forest, to go and pick an apple or something that’s healthy and you know where the food came from. These are the things that we take for granted as residents of the Hudson Valley that are really a big deal to those who come up from the city,” he says. “It’s the experience of sights and smells that are so foreign to the average city dweller.”

 

Pennings Farm

 

Has This Fruit Peaked?

Everything has a shelf life, an expiration date. So how do those with a vested interest view agritourism’s horn o’plenty – as a bushel half-full, or half-empty?

Todd Erling, executive director of Hudson-based Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation, says he sees enough market demand, financial investment from the community, and optimism among business owners to think agritourism still hasn’t reached its peak.

“The Hudson Valley is a community that has a hybrid approach to it, as opposed to other areas where the residents don’t participate or have a stake in the tourism,” Erling says. “It’s going to be organic effort that will have an intentionality to it. We have the benefit of young entrepreneurs who are breaking ground all the time. Our agritourism has a brand around it.”

There are two reasons for Erling’s optimism. One, he said, is a further marketing expansion beyond the traditional New York City/Tri-State area.

 

Visit barnyard buddies at Pennings Farm.

 

“Within a five-hour radius of the Hudson Valley, from Portland, Maine down through Philadelphia and to Washington, D.C., there are 55 million people,” Erling says. “It’s a great opportunity to have them experience our culture as an easily accessible market.”

Yet in addition to trying to lure more tourists from out of town, Erling says a second reason for his optimism are those already here.

“There’s something to be said for the staycation component of this,” he said. “It’s a significant benefit to us, recycling our own dollars.”

All in all, Erling says agritourism is on the upswing.

“I heard someone use the phrase ‘the Napa-fication of the Hudson Valley’ to describe us and agritourism,” Erling says. “I’ll take that any day.”

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