4.1. Women’s Meaning of Agritourism Success
Nine themes constituting women’s self-definition of success related to agritourism emerged (Table 2
): being constantly on the move (166 occurrences), ensuring customer satisfaction (114 occurrences), having family support (105 occurrences), creating broad impact (95 occurrences), gaining recognition and respect (75 occurrences), securing financial sustainability (75 occurrences), pursuing happiness (68 occurrences), debating the work-life balance (26 occurrences), and perpetuating the family farm (20 occurrences). All themes emerged from participants across the various life-cycle stages except for perpetuating the farm, which did not emerge among young participants (20s–30s age group).
The most prominent aspect of the success of women in agritourism was “being constantly on the move”, which entailed their choice to have an energized lifestyle and their freedom to regulate the pace of their business growth. Choosing to stay busy held two different meanings depending on the participants’ family life cycle. Those who were around retirement age, such as Claire, viewed their pursuit of agritourism as a way to stay engaged, “With our situation we do this as something to keep us active in retirement. I don’t want to, you know, we don’t want to just sit and rot way.” For younger farmers, instead, choosing to stay busy was a way of living a fulfilling life: “I love to be busy. I don’t like downtime. So, having lots of customers, having a lot to do (…) If I’ve been busy and I’ve had good customer interaction for the day, then I’ve had a happy day—happy, successful day” (Emma).
Women’s definition of success in terms of being constantly on the move also reflected their quest to grow their operations, as Julia explained: “Forward momentum. It’s never standing still in the moment, always looking forward to what can you do better, how do you improve—what’s next? How do you grow?” However, when prompted as to whether growing their farm implied moving up in the farming and agritourism ladder, most women rejected the notion, as they feel that they already have enough responsibilities. Rather, they emphasized having control over the growth of their business, such as Anna, who explained prioritizing quality over quantity in her goat-dairy agritourism operation: “When you get bigger you lose control. And it’s like with the cheese, everything is really handmade. I have custom-made commercial equipment, but it’s small. I pasteurize my cheese in 15-gallon batches. You can control the quality.”.
Women stated that “ensuring customer satisfaction” was an important element of agritourism success, because it led to building long-lasting customer relationships. Rose described her success with her high-quality craft cheese: “I feel most successful when people taste my cheese and like go crazy about it. I just really like it. It makes all that other hard work worthwhile. I think that’s more than anything.” However, participants explained that such satisfaction entailed more than an immediate reward, as it was the basis for building long-term relationships with customers, including retailers. Ivy explained that customer satisfaction allowed them to access wholesale markets: “If it’s the wholesalers, they talk. If you have a good reputation with other growers, if they don’t have what somebody’s looking for they’re going to recommend you.”.
Study participants placed emphasis on “having family support” as part of their self-defined success, which entailed the actual division of farm work among household members and their family’s recognition of women’s work on the farm. Luna described how she and her husband divide the agritourism and agricultural tasks of their farm: “I’ve handled the business side of it and mostly all the agritourism side of it. [Name removed] orchestrates all the crops, manages the workers. I manage the corn maize and pumpkin patch staff and the produce staff in the spring, but it’s a team effort.” Worth noting, participants discussed receiving support from family members who are both actively involved in the farming operation and those who are not. For example, Scarlett, whose farm is located far away from where her family resides, mentioned, “I’m pretty lucky to have the support of family, they are not able to support me financially that much, which is fine, they’ll even come up sometimes and help me—I mean they’re obviously kind of far in Raleigh.” The indirect support these women received from their family also defined their success. Olivia, whose adult children live in another state, described:
I’m happy—my children say they’re proud of me. My family likes what I’m doing, [they] think it’s good that I’m doing something I like. They come and visit every couple of months (…) I think, especially for my son and daughter, as long as I’m happy, they’re happy.
Creating a broad impact beyond the realm of their operation was an important aspect of women’s success. Some emphasized their success as being able to educate the public about farming, which emerged from the nature of agritourism (sharing their farms with visitors): “To me being successful—our mission—is to share our farm with other people, like families with kids who’ve never been on a farm. We have school groups come in (…) Like last night we were leaving the guest house and the people in there [said]—oh this is so nice, this is really nice” (Olivia). Others, like Luna, who runs her agritourism operation on a centennial farm, emphasized giving back to society: “So being involved in the business community no matter what county you’re in… And only by being involved in supporting your local YMCA or supporting your local Boys and Girls Club does your business grow.”.
As mothers and women in agriculture, creating a broad impact in society was for many participants to inspire youth, other women, and especially young girls: “The kids in my CFA know that I’m a woman and that they can become farmers if they’re little girls. (…) I like that the girls know that their farmer is a female” (Elizabeth). Abby emphasized her role model for the future generation of female farmers: “A big thing with creating more young farmers and women farmers. Right now, we have more women farmers coming up (…). And I love it! And they’re actually the ones out there, milking the cow, raising the goats and the rabbits.” Others expressed their success as sowing the future of their young employees:
I feel that I’m successful because we’re training kids and most of the time, they go on to college. (…) That just makes us feel good that we’ve trained these kids and we’ve had a hand in their education and they’re going on to do bigger and brighter things.
“Gaining recognition and respect” as a farmer was important for women to attain success in agritourism. Many defined their success as being an expert in their respective fields. Charlotte, although young in age and new to small-stock farming, shared her pride: “Already I have people call me that want to start up their own meat business or whatever, or just have meat for the family, but they will call me and ask me (…) So just having that reputation. And if a chef out there needs meat they go, oh call.” Gaining recognition also entailed branding their farm and products (“If people know your name, even if it’s just regionally, if people recognize your name when they go to a restaurant that buys your food,” Scarlett) as well as earning the respect of other farmers and community members (“Having the respect of other farmers (…) If you work your butt off they acknowledge that. I enjoy that children [in my community] recognize me,” Elizabeth).
Participating women also conceptualized their agritourism success as securing the financial sustainability of the farm. Amelia, a retired school teacher, stated: “Can we start January 1 next year or is it going to be folded? And wanting to make the farm to be sustainable within itself, not that we’re having to supplement constantly.” Such financial stability meant not only to pay hired staff but also to cover their own earnings, as Abby who currently sustained her farm through her day-job: “To me [the farm] is my full-time job. I want to see a salary and I have no health insurance. I would like to see that business come up to be a full business and sustain my family, myself, and whoever I hire.” To achieve such financial stability, participants emphasized the importance of (1) avoiding debt: “We’ve always just paid for everything. We kind of like to not owe money to begin with, so we’ve paid for everything. What we’ve done is we upgrade as we have money,” (Anna) and (2) diversifying their revenue streams:
Multiple revenue streams is so huge for a farmer. (…) So, if I lose the peaches, I still have my berry season. I’m going to have apples, I’m going to have grapes (…) Then, in addition, you have the group tours that come through and my different events (…) our bakery is another revenue stream. My apple cider is its own revenue stream here. So, we try as many as we can so the impact of loss of one is not a huge impact for the organization.
Pursuing happiness through their farm responsibilities was an important element of women’s self-defined success, even when farm work is more demanding than other responsibilities. Charlotte, a mother of two boys, described how she enjoyed farming despite the challenges this profession entails:
I got laid off five years ago and I decided I wanted to do something I want to do. This makes me happy to do. It’s not always happy. That’s when it’s flooding outside with rain. But it’s something I enjoy doing and I’ve had so many people ask me, why don’t you quit? (…) But I enjoy it. The happiness part of that is—I guess I should have put that on my success because—it makes me happy to do this. And I get satisfaction. I enjoy it even though it’s hard work.
Debating the work-life balance was a major focus during the participants’ discussions, although this paradigm took different directions. For some, work-life balance was important, so they explained the many strategies they were implementing to pursue it, such as outsourcing farm work (e.g., “I outsource my payroll. Anything I can outsource I do. But there’s certain things you are not able to outsource”, Luna) or seeking reliable people to help out at home (e.g., “I hope to be able to have someone more able to take care of him—find someone more dependable…and maybe be here more often”, Emma). However, others were very vocal about resisting the pressure to perfectly keep-up with competing work and home responsibilities: “The hardest part for me is getting the house cleaned up and all that stuff, and I’ve to quit trying to expect myself to do that. Yeah, just as little as I can do it, but that’s the last thing that gets attention” (Abby).
Perpetuating the farm was another aspect of women’s success, irrespective of being multi-generational or first-generation farmers. Abby, who farms with her husband on his seventh-generation family farm after it was left un-farmed by the previous generation, discussed the importance of keeping the property as a working farm:
One of my things is we’re saving farmland that’s been in the family since 1790s (…) We’ve watched all the farms around us become developments. We’re the only one right now in this area with a dairy so it’s horrible to see that. And we want our son, we want other people to come on the farm and say hey, ‘farming is hard work but it becomes a passion’. I love getting eggs every day.
In brief, findings indicate that female agripreneurs crafted their success as a complex construct in which personal and family aspirations intersect with business and farming goals in an effort to secure the interest of family and community members in farming.
4.2. Opportunities for Women in Agritourism Success
Study participants were cognizant of an array of opportunities that are available to them because of their involvement in farming and agritourism. Based on current market trends, institutional focus, and available technology, the study participants outlined the following opportunities (Table 3
): embracing the value of agritourism (175 occurrences), opening windows of collaboration (115 occurrences), responding to public interest to learn (95 occurrences), getting institutional support (94 occurrences), celebrating local roots (82 occurrences), using social media (80 occurrences), and repurposing resources (49 occurrences).
Embracing the value of agritourism, which recognizes a manifold of tangible (e.g., financial, marketing) and inspirational (e.g., demonstrating women’s contribution, influencing future generations) values, was the most prominent opportunity that women in agritourism identified. Most frequently, women recognized agritourism as a diversification strategy that enables farmers to capitalize on their existing assets while providing financial security. Julia, who runs a private campground in her diversified farm, explained:
Diversify is very important. We’ve watched so many people fail in this economy (…) We’ll be the only trout pond. So, what we’re going to be is the entertainment factor, come catch your dinner. We’ll have three [goats] in milk so the next project is learning to make soap and of course with the beeswax I’m going to make some lotions and balms and things like that. So production because once the pond is up and running, the blue building out there, one end of it is going to be a farm store… Selling our produce, and the eggs and mushrooms.
Women also mentioned the marketing value of agritourism, as the activities they offer serve to brand the uniqueness of their farms and products. Rose, whose dairy farm is located away from any major urban area, stated: “We are overwhelmed with people who want to come to the farm and visit and see. They want to learn about goats. We have no problem selling our kids [goats] in the spring. (…) To me, [agritourism] is also a marketing tool.” Many mentioned that agritourism helps them to recruit extra labor during peak seasons because of the additional income generated. Participants also discussed two other intangible values that carry long-term implications for female farmers and agritourism. Some discussed how agritourism was a good channel to infuse innovation in the mind-set of young farmers, while others viewed agritourism as a way to show society that women can do more than only household chores. Alice explained with passion, “When we are there telling the story about the farm when these people come, you know, then they see that we know. We know what’s going on. We’re not just doing the cooking and the cleaning and the bookkeeping.”.
Women also believe that agritourism is a means for “opening windows of collaboration”, especially to foster business partnerships with peer farmers and other businesses. Claire described how her small farm, specializing in animal fiber production, benefits from her partnership with a neighbor that hosts an annual wine festival featuring local vendors: “Virtually 100 percent of our sales are from the farm not too far down the road (…) And they always invite us, and we take everything, it’s just down the road, it’s easy.” Women stated that collaborations are win-win situations because they facilitate knowledge-sharing among peers and create a sense of community, which strengthens the industry as a whole. For example, Ivy commented about the cut-your-own Christmas trees growers, “If we see something on the horizon then we’re going to share that information (…) So there’s a lot of camaraderie in the industry.” Furthermore, these women detailed how collaborations are helpful to complement strengths and compensate their own weaknesses. Scarlett, who is thinking to expand her farm operations, explained:
It’s strengthening connections because we all have different skills (…) Like one person I’m bringing on is not necessarily a farmer, but he is a web designer and marketer and he’s like: ‘I want to be a person that goes and talks to restaurants, like I love talking to people’. So I’m like cool because I’m really introverted. I don’t want to do that.
Given the upward trend in people’s desire to learn about local agricultural (food and farm) systems, “responding to public interest to learn” was another opportunity for agripreneurs to enhance their success. As the public’s interest in food sources is increasing, farmers are also viewing it as important for society. Ruby, a retired schoolteacher who offers school tours, emphasized the educational aspects of agritourism: “People are realizing, ‘hey, this is important and I want my children to learn about this’.” To such an end, participants were very enthusiastic in sharing their farm and their knowledge about farming and food, even if visitors where driven by nostalgia. Luna explained: “I think the public is more interested in visiting farms. Especially families that (…) are looking to make memories and do things with their families on a farm. Maybe they have some type of memory of their grandparents’ farm.”.
Many women voiced that “getting institutional support” from a variety of agencies, such as farmers’ associations, NC Cooperative Extension, and overall governmental offices, enhanced their ability to grow and develop their agritourism endeavors. In Claire’s view, her relevant regional affiliate was providing a lot of important support: “Our regional affiliate—oh it’s fantastic. I mean our website is really through them (…) We’re piggybacking, it’s a marketing website, but still that’s what we use for our website right now because I don’t have the time or the expense.” Women often mentioned NC Cooperative Extension as a primary source of assistance. Sophia, who is the second generation running an apple orchard, compared her situation versus her parents when they first started out: “We’ve been blessed. And my parents said at the beginning it was hard (…) But once they kind of got in with a couple [of] apple growers, North Carolina Department of Ag (…) and NC State have just been huge resources to us.” Many also mentioned NC government’s impetus to promote agritourism within the state and referred to various programs they see materializing in the near future. Luna, who is actively involved in various agritourism associations, put her optimism succinctly, “You’re going to see grants available through the USDA. You’re going to see maybe some grant money available through your local Department of Agriculture. There’s a lot of opportunities there if the type of venture fits the farm, every agritourism farm is different.” Having talked about the resources and support available to them, women also recognized the effort they need to put in for availing and capitalizing on these resources.
Women recognize the momentum of agritourism as a means of “celebrating local roots” among people who seek locally crafted/grown products. As such, agritourism was an opportunity to increase their market share by branding and promoting their products as local and authentic. Abby viewed this phenomenon as: “Everyone is becoming more interesting in farming and purchasing local and all natural right now so that’s a plus. (…) That’s a big one for us as a growing market.” Women even recognized the effort of large corporations to promote local products, although they agreed that big corporations’ definition of local might be debatable. Luna, who sells a variety of vegetables and fruits year-round, stated: “You have Lowe’s Foods and Food Lion and Wal-Mart doing huge campaigns of locally grown products. [But] Define local. The way I see the positive effect of that would be people are at least becoming aware of [local products]”.
The widespread trend in “using social media for promotion” was another opportunity agripreneurs recognized, especially because it is free and has a high market reach. Emily, who runs a family farm with her husband and two sons, mentioned, “Our eldest son, [Name removed], is the social media guru. He keeps all of that going almost on a daily basis. He posts things. (…) And I just share everything he puts out, but he’s the one posting and I’m sharing. It’s free. You just can’t not do it.” Social media also brought the possibility of reaching markets and that would be difficult to capture with more traditional media. Ruby explained how they used social media to promote the family farm, which ultimately was recognized among the top 10 orchards by USA Today:
This year we were nominated by USA Today (…) What you had to do was get people to go to their website, USA Today, and vote and you want them to vote every day (…) And I even boost the post. You know, you can boost it on Facebook. And that was a big help. So we got in the top 10.
Participating women, who are inherently entrepreneurial in their approach, mentioned “repurposing resources in new ways” as another opportunity for their agritourism success. This in turn entailed being innovative and opportune at the same time. Olivia explained: “Our property had two houses (…) We didn’t want full-time tenants so we started using it as a guest house and the first couple years we may have one person every month or so. (…) [Now] our income it’s unreal. We may have one week a month that’s vacant.” For some, innovation meant re-purposing tools and equipment to serve some unmet needs. Amelia described how they repurposed an old wood boiler to heat their greenhouse for growing herbs year-round:
We found a wood boiler stove that someone had in the community (…). We got it for little or nothing and my husband’s a great ‘make it work’ kind of guy (…) and [it] heats the greenhouse. We can actually pump heat in there now if we need to, especially in the spring for us when we’ve got lots of plants and we can get a freeze late.
In short, findings indicate that female agripreneurs perceived that agritourism was a suitable mechanism to seek innovative ways to easily and cheaply enhance the value of the farm enterprise. Furthermore, they outlined that this was good timing for developing or expanding agritourism offerings in NC, given the avid desire for local goods among the public, coupled with the available support from different institutions across the state.