Agritourism – Ga.’s growing economic sector

Moderated by Rick Badie

You may not know it, but when you pick your own pumpkins, blueberries and apples, enjoy a wine tasting or some other farm-related activity, you contribute to agritourism, a growing economic sector in the state. A state official explains the concept and its growth, while a Young Harris vineyard owner does likewise for our region’s burgeoning wine industry.

Get out to a farm

By Cynthia Norton

Was that a hint of coolness I felt in the morning air?

Did I really sit on my deck without getting completely drenched with sweat?

Why, I think it is almost fall, y’all! Time for all the glorious bounty of fun activities the season brings. And it is prime time for agritourism in Georgia. It is time to hitch up the hay wagon, look for the perfect pumpkin, have an ice cold apple cider slushy and get out and explore the countryside.

Agritourism is any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public for recreational, entertainment or educational purposes, and to view or enjoy rural activities. These could include farming, ranching or making wine; historical, cultural or harvest-your-own activities, or natural attractions.

More than 600 farms in the state are open to the public at some point during the year. According to Kent Wolfe with the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, the 2012 farm-gate value of agricultural and nature-based tourism was around $194 million. That created an economic contribution of $351 million in revenue and 5,200 jobs in Georgia.

Why has there been a boom in agritourism?

The general population is several generations removed from the farm. Children and adults have no idea where food comes from and how it gets to the grocery store.

At the same time, people are more interested in eating healthy and buying local. They want to not only meet the farmer, but to see where the product is grown and learn about the process. The public also wants to spend days closer to home and explore their local area and state. Agritourism allows folks to do all of these things and have fun.

I have learned a lot of things on the job in the last few years that even as a native Georgian I never knew:

• Never wear a long shirt or your favorite long scarf around goats or sheep.

• Georgia food products are the best in the world, and they have awards to prove it.

• If you try everyone’s ice cream and food products in the state, you may gain 20 pounds.

• GPS rarely works on a dirt road. Thankfully, many agritourism destinations have great signage.

• No matter how tired or frustrated you may be, when a child with a red (blue or black) fruit-stained and sticky face and hands throws his (or her) arms up in joy, you can’t help but smile.

So as the fall creeps up on us, make a “to do” list of local activities. Take your children or grandchildren and wind your way through a corn maze. Find the perfect pumpkins, flowers and corn stalks to decorate your house from a local farm. Go to the mountains and pick some apples, have a fried pie or apple cider doughnuts. Pet some farm animals; they make you feel better. Eat at a farm-to-table restaurant. Try a new flavor of jam or jelly or barbecue sauce. Have a glass of wine a few feet from where the grapes were grown. Take a horseback ride through the mountains, meadows or beach. Go see how something is grown or made and buy local.

Visit a part of Georgia you have never seen before. And look for farms that support this state and generate the $79 billion that keeps us going. They are not limited to north or south but are spread out all over and show some of the best parts of rural life. Find them by going to our website, www.georgiagrown.com, looking for the state’s green agritourism directional signs or asking at your local chambers of commerce.

Cynthia Norton is the agritourism manager for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Georgia wine comes into its own

By Eric Seifarth

“They make wine in Georgia?”

After 20 years in the business, I still occasionally get someone in the tasting room who quizzically walks in and questions the concept. But I am sure hearing it less and less.

Georgia was reported to have been the sixth-largest wine grape producer in the country prior to Prohibition.

When Georgia Prohibition was enacted in 1908 — 12 years prior to national Prohibition — the emerging industry came to a crashing halt. Upon Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, some parts of the country quickly recovered their wine-making. But Georgia’s languished for another half-century in the doldrums of strict blue laws in its counties and municipalities.

It was not until 1983, when a Farm Winery bill was passed in the Georgia Legislature, did the industry start to make a long climb back. From a slow start, growth has accelerated. There are now more than 40 wineries in the state, with many more in the wings. People are planting grapes with an eye on opening bonded wineries in the near future.

Following the footsteps of North Carolina and Virginia, the Georgia wine industry is healthy and flourishing. With the principle growing region the Appalachian highlands in the northeast portion of the state, the wine industry has found, like its North Carolina and Virginia brethren, a unique micro-climate of a long, warm growing season, cool nights and lower humidity, mimicking many of the premier wine-growing regions of Europe.

This impressive growth has had a significant impact on Georgia’s economy, with more than $14 million in revenues generated statewide.

This is especially true in the northeast mountains. In addition to wineries and on-site tasting rooms, the industry has benefited local economies through regional festivals, restaurants and lodging. An annual Wine Highway Weekend, started in 2004 as a sleepy, local, wine trail event, has exploded into a two-week-long “happening” with hundreds of participants and hospitality partners packaging lodging and food events with the highway event.

Also, Downtown Dahlonega, the “tasting room capital of the state,” offers many regional Georgia wineries setting up satellite tasting rooms in concentrations that would rival Napa, Yountville or Healdsburg, Calif.

Certainly, Georgia’s wine industry is here to stay.

In many ways, we are still at the awkward “teenage” stage in our development. In the vineyard, we are experimenting with wine grapes from around the globe, searching for that perfect fit for our region. In the cellar, we are experimenting with styles that reflect our region and terrior instead of simply imitating popular wine styles from established wine regions.

What helps is a growing, sophisticated and adventurous wine-drinking public from the Atlanta area that is game for trying new and different wines.

My conservative prediction is the number of wineries in Georgia will approach or surpass 100 in another decade. The industry will move into adulthood, and with that, the confidence to make wine with grapes that perform best in our region. That grape may be one we are working with now, or perhaps some obscure variety from elsewhere (Greece, southern Italy or Austria?) yet to be planted.

This is an exciting time to be in the Georgia wine business. We have a boundless future with a wonderful regional market ready, willing and wanting to embrace us and support us in what we love to do.

Eric Seifarth is president of Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris.


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