As part of her vacation in Italy last November, a friend of mine spent several days harvesting and pressing olives on a farm. She then had some of the fruits of her labor shipped home, where she shared cases of grassy, extra-virgin olive oil with me and others - making us the beneficiaries of a booming trend called agritourism.
Short for agricultural tourism, it's the kind of travel wherein visitors spend time on a working farm, at a winery or cheese factory, or at some other kind of food-producing setting. Agritourism goes beyond mere sightseeing by offering travelers educational tours, food tastings, cooking classes and sometimes hands-on agricultural experiences, like gathering strawberries at a pick-your-own operation. Some activities are designed mostly as entertainment - a romp through a corn maze for the kids, for example - but others are as authentic (and challenging) as a three-week stint gathering grapes at a vineyard.
Agritourism has long been a European tradition, and it's been around in Wisconsin for as long as farmers have operated roadside vegetable stands or hung "Fresh Eggs Sold Here" signs from their front porches. It's always been about generating extra income for producers, but it has grown in recent years into an organized melding of the state's two largest industries. It's the buzzword of endeavors like the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, SavorWisconsin.com and the legislative initiative called Buy Fresh, Buy Wisconsin, all of which aim to create new markets for the state's agriculture products. According to a recent Green Bay Press Gazette article, the state's Department of Tourism expects agritourism to grow 30% in the next decade.
The benefits of agritourism are myriad. Giving urban customers rural experiences can be a lifeline for small farms and food businesses that must diversify in order to survive. Travelers bring home more than just a bag of sweet corn or a cooler full of cheese; they get reconnected to nature and gain a better understanding of where their food comes from and how it is grown or processed.
Agritourism facilitates the use of land for production agriculture rather than development, and by encouraging shorter, less-gas-guzzling jaunts over long trips, it can even be an environmentally conscious travel choice.
Here's a short list of destinations that illustrates the variety and quality of agritourism in the state (sorry, no olive farms):
Fountain Prairie Farm Inn and Farm, Fall River. Stay in a 19th-century Victorian farmhouse, meet shaggy-maned Highland cattle and take a wagon ride through a restored tall-grass prairie (www.fountainprairie.com).
Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain. Tour the factory, purchase fresh curds and specialty cheeses and learn about an innovative water treatment system (www.cedargrovecheese.com).
Carandale Farm, Oregon. Pick your own strawberries, raspberries, grapes and apples (www.carandale.com).
Schuster's Playtime Farm, Deerfield. Explore a corn maze, take a hayride, introduce yourself to a goat or donkey or rent a historical round barn (www.schustersplaytimefarm.com).
Wollersheim Winery, Prairie du Sac. Tour vineyards, fermentation room and wine cellar and taste reds and whites (www.wollersheimwinery.com).
Washington Hotel and Cooking School, Washington Island. Take a cooking class based on local fish and crops, stock up on bread made from island wheat and sleep on beds handcrafted from island timber (www.thewashingtonhotel.com).