We’re living in an era where we have to engage people in what we are doing if we want them to purchase our products. It’s not enough to simply place some ads in a newspaper or other media. We’ve got to dazzle people. As nursery owners we already have the potential to dazzle with our fine displays of flowering plants. All we have to do is swing open the doors to the public.
The way to engage people in what we are doing is through agritourism. States like Tennessee have gotten into agritourism in a big way. They’ve created “trails” that are actually a state-wide mapping by the state tourism bureau of interesting places to visit. Tennessee has a Civil War Trail, Music Trail and Farm Trail, among others.
Tennessee’s Farm Trail is a good example of the green industry getting involved in agritourism. The Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association direct people to green businesses on the Farm Trail, like Sunshine Hollow, with its 1,750 varieties of daylilies, dahlias, roses, hostas, cannas and irises.
“People want to come to Tennessee and explore the region and see what Tennessee is known for,” says Jenni Frankenberg Veal, tourism coordinator for the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association.
The message is getting out and participating agritourism businesses in Tennessee are reaping the benefits. A University of Tennessee study found that the economic impact of agritourism in the state more than doubled between 2006 and 2012. Agritourism visitors spent more than $34.4 million directly at these businesses with a total economic impact of more than $54 million.
Yet many states have yet to embrace the overall concept of agritourism, though many nurseries and other green businesses do offer tours and events at their businesses.
Anytime you can get your name and product in front of people is a good thing. In that respect, participating in state-wide agritourism is a no-brainer. Marvin Miller, market resource manager for Ball Horticultural, says it is also a way to make your business a destination.
“A lot of our businesses are out in the boonies,” says Miller.
Many garden centers have mastered the art of the public tour or event, and growers should learn from them. Miller says by offering different events, like Easter egg hunts, hayrides, etc. green-industry businesses can attract people from urban areas to their farms. He says this approach works in urban areas as well.
Bill Jones, owner of Carolina Native Nursery, a wholesale grower in Burnsville, N.C., isn’t interested so much in hosting events as he is getting on the map as a destination for gardeners.
“We’ve had open houses in the fall for tours, but ultimately, does it sell plants?” asks Jones. “It’s a lot of time and effort (to host events) when people just want to buy plants,” he says.
As far as agritourism goes, he’s exploring different possibilities of attracting people to his business, which is starting to include retail sales, and sees potential in joining forces with the Ashville Chamber of Commerce.
“Explore Ashville receives a million hits a year,” says Jones. “If gardeners are looking for things to do in the Ashville area, they’ll come to our nursery and spend money.”
Besides the income that is generated directly by agritourism, there is a more indirect benefit. Growers can make a personal connection with the public regarding the production of plants. The majority of consumers have no idea all the steps that go into producing a plant from start to finish. Make it a learning experience that they’ll want to share with others.
And wholesalers who sell a branded product to retailers can build brand awareness as they show folks how plants are grown.
“It (agritourism) gives an opportunity for people to know how to grow the plants, control pests, and a little familiarity with how they’re grown in the nursery,” says Roy Ballard, extension educator at Purdue University.
Another benefit of agritourism looks out on the horizon to the next generation of gardeners and homeowners--the Millennials, who are more used to picking up a smartphone than a shovel, but who also have a keen regard for nature and the environment.
“The expanding enthusiasm by 20 and 30 year olds for getting back in touch with nature offers a perfect opportunity for our industry to introduce itself to a new generation of consumers and potential colleagues,” says Susan McCoy, owner of Garden Media Group, a marketing agency for the green industry.
Make no mistake, there is a lot of work to get an agritourism business up and running. A different mindset is needed, that of dealing with people rather than plants.
“To be successful at it takes a lot of effort,” says Miller. “You have to know what your customers are interested in. Once they’re there you have to have a positive experience or they won’t be back.”
Marketing your ‘new’ business
Nursery owners may find that the marketing involved in this new venture is a little different from what they’re used to. If budget allows, this can be all farmed out to a marketing agency. If not, here are a few steps you can take to market to this potential new customer base.
Know your clientele. If you’re a wholesaler, you’re likely used to dealing with retailers. This crowd will be the people who buy the products you sell to the retailers. Knowing the type of person who attends these events will help you better prepare for their arrival.
Speak with your local chamber of commerce. Let them know what you’re doing and see if it will tie into upcoming events, such as wine tastings, home garden tours, greenhouse tours, etc.
Offer incentives. In 2013 the Connecticut Garden & Landscape Trail offered a $10,000 “dreamscape” as a prize for anyone visiting garden centers, nurseries and landscapers.
Make a list available of retailers who sell your plants. Take every opportunity to refer guests to those retailers.
People go on garden and ag tours to learn, relax and have a little fun. Keep this in mind as you prepare your business for the agritourism circuit. Activities can include workshops, demonstrations and raffles.
Have your customers evaluate your event. What did they like, didn’t like? What could you do better? This will help you continue to improve the experience.
Get the word out
Join the chamber of commerce; put up flyers at nearby convenience stores, hotels and other neighboring businesses. Tina Bemis, owner of Bemis Farms Nursery in Spencer, Mass., holds an annual fundraiser. People can come in and donate to the charitable organization of their choosing. Bemis says these organizations announce the event in their newsletters; the word gets out and they don’t spend a dime on advertising.
Get the conversation going online. Create a buzz on Facebook or Twitter. If you don’t have the time yourself, let someone who knows their way around social media do it for you.
Send press releases. Local papers and radio stations love to report on new and interesting ventures.
Have an exclusive tour where you invite members of the media in hopes they’ll write about your new venture. Feed them a good meal and you’ll have a friend for life.
Use traditional advertising: newspapers, magazines, brochures, signage to get the word out.
Agritourism and liability
For liability purposes we’re lucky we’re not in the bungee jumping or skydiving business. With the exception of a possible twisted ankle, it’s unlikely anyone will get seriously injured during a garden tour. Still, accidents happen and can come out of nowhere.
Business owners who invite the public into their place of business for tours and events need to talk to their insurance company, suggests Ballard. Additional liability or event insurance may be needed. Waivers can also be signed before guests step onto the premises, although even these are not bullet proof. However, Ballard said so far he hasn’t heard any horror stories regarding liability issues in nurseries in regards to events and tours. He says in Indiana they’ve passed a bill that helps business owners in this regard.
The best course of action to protect the visitor from harm and yourself from expensive litigation is to make the place as safe as possible, says Ballard.
The University of California Cooperative Extension has suggestions for keeping everyone safe and your business out of hot water.
1. Plan for emergencies. Keep a well stocked first aid kit handy. Be sure knowledgeable people are on staff that have CPR and first aid skills. Develop an emergency plan for dealing with natural disasters, such as an earthquake, floods and fires.
2. Suggest that visitors wear appropriate clothing such as closed-toed shoes (tennis shoes or boots, but not sandals). Long pants are recommended for certain activities.
When you brief visitors, explain that you operate a working production facility. As such, certain hazards come with the territory (e.g., uneven ground, insects, low-hanging tree branches) and visitors must accept those risks and exercise reasonable caution.
3. Designate off-limit areas and block access to these areas, if necessary.
Thoroughly inspect the area before the event or tour. Ballard suggests having someone not familiar with the business walk through before you open your doors to the public. Staff are accustomed to avoiding the occasional pothole in a nursery, but someone off the street may not.
Facilities and equipment
This new venture will have you looking at everything you do a little differently. Here is a list of things you should consider before you make the decision to commit to an agritourism business model. (Adapted from the University of California Cooperative Extension.)
Parking: most counties require that cars park completely off the paved road. Do you have adequate space for the expected number of vehicles?
Buses: if buses must park away from your nursery plan for a drop-off and loading area.
Bathrooms: do you have clean, well stocked, public restrooms in good operation? If you are expecting a large number of visitors, consider renting portable units.
Security: depending on the event, you may want to employ additional help to ensure that guests do not put themselves or your farm operation at risk.
Ladders: store ladders away from trees and public spaces to eliminate a child’s temptation to climb.
Tractors and equipment may fascinate people, but they can also become climbing objects for children. Out of site out of mind may be the best policy, unless you want to discuss equipment safety as part of the tour.
Tractors are not passenger vehicles. Do not allow extra riders, especially children, on tractors or all-terrain vehicles, even at slow speeds.
Pest management materials: pesticides, herbicides, and other farm management products should be safely stored in a secure location, preferably away from public view.
Shops and repair facilities are among the most hazardous places in a nursery and should be off-limits to the public. Close the doors and/or place a rope across the entrance with a “Do Not Enter” sign.
Neil Moran is a horticulturist and freelance writer based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.