Bill calls for study of agritourism

The Recorder, October 29, 2017, by Richie Davis

Whether it’s the upcoming Cider Days, Mike’s Maze in Sunderland or the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival, there’s little doubt that agritourism is a key slice of bringing visitors to Franklin County — as well as a way to help area farmers beef up their bottom line.

Now, a bill filed by Rep. Stephen Kulik aims to create a state commission to find ways to “support, expand and enhance” opportunities for Massachusetts agricultural tourism — in part anticipating potential conflicts with local zoning, health boards and other regulatory authorities before they occur.

Kulik’s bill, House 2715, is scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday at 1 p.m. before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. Co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, as well as Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and 19 other legislators, the measure is seen as “important to the future of agriculture” in the state, according to the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation.

In an “action alert” this week to encourage supporting testimony, the Farm Bureau notes, “The increased popularity of agritourism has not come without challenges. Issues have arisen with neighbors, local zoning, health regulations,” in part because “many of the existing laws concerning farm activities did not consider agritourism, resulting in many gray areas. In some situations, this has created uncertainty and conflict around agritourism.”

Kulik, a Worthington Democrat, said he doesn’t know of such conflicts in his Franklin-Hampshire district, but he said he is aware of problems elsewhere for Massachusetts farmers who have wanted to host weddings, operate bed and breakfasts or, in one case, even sponsor an on-farm road race.

The proposed nine-member commission would consist of farmers involved in agritourism, municipal officials and representatives of state agricultural, tourism and health agencies along with representatives of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. It would also look at agritourism in other states and within 12 months report back on how state programs and policies here could help encourage this tourism sector.

“Agricultural tourism is critically important as we look at the future of tourism in Franklin County,” said Natalie Blais, the new executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “It would be enormously helpful if we could find ways for local farmers to diversity in that way.”

While there is no measure of agricultural tourism here, or around the state, Kulik said that would be an outcome of the proposed bill, along with an analysis of its potential for growth.

A 2008 conference on agricultural tourism in the state found more than a 100 percent increase in Franklin County farms with tourism-related activities over the preceding decade, including roadside stands, pick-your-own operations, restaurants, tours and other amenities. Neighboring Hampshire County saw a 300 percent increase, the highest in the state.

The state Department of Agricultural Resources publishes and distributes a free agritourism map listing more than 400 sites around the state, including nearly 50 attractions in Franklin County. The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, which Kulik said could be encouraged to do more promotion of agritourism, sponsors media tours, such as an upcoming visit by Italian travel writers that Blais plans to bring to Apex Orchards, Clarkdale Fruit Farm and Wheel-View Farm for Franklin County Cider Days next weekend.

Although Kulik said his bill does not seek any funding, the commission that it would create could call for an appropriation to encourage more agritourism.

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