With farm incoming waning, South Dakota farmers are looking to expand into new ventures. 

Tourism is one industry where revenue is up, and farmers are finding that one path to staying on the farm while reaching out to consumers may be as simple as opening the gate.

Vacation spending, specifically from the millennial generation, is poised to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020, according to Peggy Schlechter and Jacey Jessop. Schlechter’s specialty is community vitality with South Dakota State University Extension. Jessop works for the South Dakota Department of Tourism in industry development. The two spoke about the changing tourism industry and where rural America fits in it at the Dakotafest farm show in Mitchell this summer.

“People don’t want to go to Disney World, they want to experience something different,” Jessop said.

In a study of millennial travel, 86% of those who responded said they would rather immerse themselves in the culture where traveled as opposed to simply visiting.

“This is a different culture. People like these different experiences,” Schlechter said.

Along with cultural experiences, millennials value exploration and food on top of other usual vacation priorities. That’s what South Dakota has to offer above most other places, Jessop said.

“Right in South Dakota, it only takes one generation to be removed from the farm,” she said. “Even if your grandpa and grandma farmed, some kids may not know anything about how their food is made.”

Schlechter said it’s a great opportunity for farmers to earn extra income and share their way of life.

“People want to stay on the farm. Let’s be proud of agriculture, let’s show it off,” she said.

Even with tourism spending rising, Jessop and Schlechter said agri-tourism isn’t only about capturing new income. Although diversifying their operation is a good thing and can pull much needed revenue, Schlechter said perhaps the biggest draw for agri-tourism is simply building trust and communication between producer and consumer.

The reality, according to Jessop, is that people simply do not understand how food is made, so letting them come to the farm or ranch and experience a day-in-the-life of the average producer can do wonders for agriculture’s image.

“And people pay (you) to work,” Schlechter said.

Bringing tourists to the farm can also revitalize the slowly dying rural lifestyle that many farmers hold dear.

“If people are learning about agriculture in South Dakota, it makes sense to send them to these small rural towns,” Schlechter said.

Based on information from the Census of Agriculture, agri-tourism accounted for $704 million extra income for farmers in 2012. Both Schlecther and Jessop agreed that it has only gone up from that number over the last few years.

“Just because you don’t think people would pay to see you work all day (doesn’t mean they won’t),” Schlecther said. “People want to come out and see how it all works.”

Schlechter and Jessop both work with an group that puts on agri-tourism workshops helping producers get the most out of the experience – for both them and their visitors. Contacting the state department of tourism or either of them directly can get you into one of their workshops and figure out if agri-tourism is the right diversification method for your operation.

Before you call, Jessop and Schlechter gave a list of questions to ask yourself and your family to determine if farm tours and visits are right for you. The questions include:

• Does my family like meeting all types of people?

• Do I like to entertain guests and share my stories?

• Do I mind giving up some of my privacy at home?

• Can I always be cheerful?

• Am I good at managing extra expenses?

The key question here is if you and your family are willing to share your stories. People appreciate hearing everyday stories of the average farmer, Jessop said.

“You need to check in to make sure you like to entertain guests and share stories,” she said.

The last key is location. A farm’s remote location can be a sticking point for potential tourists, Schlechter said. While being near a population center is usually key, Schlechter said that many people would travel upwards of an hour for a farm experience if there is a way to double their time on the farm, and some may be willing to stay overnight.

Many producers wonder whether or not to charge visitors or if they have to provide lodging and food. It boils down to asking yourself what you want to give visitors.

Schlechter said she’s seen families offer tours only on the weekends and be successful while many people around the Black Hills will create cabins on their working ranch to allow people to stay overnight.

Whatever is being offered, Jessop advised hosts to be prepared to answer questions without expecting people to know how your operation works. Consumers might have a negative view of how crops or animals are raised. That’s where’s it’s important to share first-hand knowledge.

“The sacrifices you make to take care of your livestock or your crops, you aren’t doing any harm that some may think you’re doing,” Jessop said.

“If you don’t tell your story, people will make one up,” Schlechter added. “It may not be positive or helpful.”

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 800-888-1380, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.

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Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.