Aquaponics and Agri-tourism

Paper written by Rebecca L. Nelson for International Conference and Exhibition on Soilless Culture, 2005, Singapore

Abstract

tours03Agri-tourism is an expanding sector of the agriculture market, one that aquaponic and hydroponic farmers can use to increase product recognition and profits. Increasingly, tourists, school groups and the general public want to experience rural life, meet and interact with individuals involved in agriculture and learn more about how and where their food is grown. Agri-tourism can include educational tours, picnic and camping sites on farms, farm produce and meat sales, farmers’ markets, u-pick farms, farm festivals and even agriculture-related theme parks. Increased profits and product awareness are the primary benefits for unique agricultural enterprises, like aquaponics or hydroponics, to engage in agri-tourism.

Introduction

An aquaponic or hydroponic operation has several great advantages in the agri-tourism market…the technology is unique, naturally simple and high-tech all at the same time. Drawing on people’s curiosity, an aquaponic or hydroponic grower can offer tours to a variety of people and groups. School children of any age can learn about biology, horticulture and many other disciplines of science, all in a setting where the technology is implemented to grow food and earn a profit. Home gardeners, garden clubs, business groups, restaurateurs and traditional farmers are all candidates for tours. Once on-site, a tour guest will often become a loyal customer returning again and again to purchase your produce and/or fish.

Tours of an aquaponic or hydroponic facility provide guests with an opportunity to learn about the economic and practical side of high-tech farming while incorporating the many facets of science involved in the daily operation of the business. The operators can offer tours and programs focusing on specific areas of information. For instance, a workshop on plant propagation, culturing or lighting might be just what a garden club is looking for, while a group of biology students is hungry to learn about the species of fish being cultured.

tours05One of the greatest advantages of agri-tourism is the diversification of the farm operation. Adding a new enterprise such as tours or on-site sales of produce adds another source of income to a farm and provides an opportunity to increase agricultural awareness and education among the public. In addition, agri-tourism attracts customers to farms. Adding a picnic site or beautiful garden area to an existing operation will not only draw families to your facility but they will stay longer if interesting attractions are provided. Customers also realize that agri-tourism contributes to the stability of the agriculture industry and helps support rural communities and businesses.

The Roots of Agri-tourism

Agri-tourism, also referred to as agri-tainment and agri-education, isn’t new. A grand version of the combination of agriculture and tourism is Disney’s “The Land” at EPCOT (“Experimental Community of Tomorrow”) in Orlando, Florida. When this demonstration facility opened in the early 1980’s, it was an instant hit with curious gardeners and the general public alike. On “Living with the Land,” guests settle in for a gentle 14-minute boat ride through unique indoor plant growing areas. An introduction shows tropic, desert and prairie biomes that existed before humans arrived. The boat then glides into The Land’s experimental growing areas which include the Tropics Greenhouse…where crops such as rice, sugar cane, peanuts, cacao and bananas are grown under the 60-foot dome; the Aquacell…a showcase of cultured aquatic species such as alligators, catfish, tilapia, sunshine bass and American eel; the Temperate Greenhouse…featuring the concepts and technologies of sustainable agriculture, including intercropping, integrated pest management and specialized irrigation systems that reduce waste and increase crop production; the Production Greenhouse…where tons of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and other vegetables are grown for consumption in The Land’s Garden Grill Restaurant and other Epcot restaurants; and the Creative House, showing imaginative ways to grow crops in hydroponic and aeroponic systems.

Taking Agri-tourism to a new level is Bonfante Gardens in Gilroy, California, a new horticulturally-inspired theme park which celebrates a low-tech resource that people can not live without…trees. Bonfante Gardens Theme Park features 25 one-of-a-kind “circus trees,” 5 theme garden areas and 40 rides and attractions highlighted by a 1927 Illinois Supreme Carousel, two narrow-gauge steam trains, a 60-foot tall greenhouse, two coasters, a lakeside amphitheater and several theme restaurants and specialty shops. Bonfante Gardens is the brainchild of Michael Bonfante, former president and majority owner of Nob Hill Foods, a California-based grocery store chain. The park will has the time-tested characteristics of all successful theme parks…rides, attractions, food, entertainment and merchandise. But instead of celebrating a fantasy character’s latest animated feature, this park will celebrate and encourage budding stewards of the land in a fun, exciting and creative way.

On his vision of the theme park and its relationship to agriculture, Bonfante says: “Not only is our theme “trees” but, in support, we have a great opportunity to share California agriculture and history. The combination of the trees, California agriculture and history allows us, from an educational standpoint, to help guests further understand what California is and how it contributes to our lifestyle.”

A return to the family-farm scale of agri-tourism is the Pizza Farm, an innovative and education-based farm that caters to our taste buds. The Pizza Farm is a half-acre plot of land shaped like a round pizza and divided into eight pie-shaped sections. In each section, the crops and livestock that make up a pizza are grown. Darren and Barbara Schmall, grape growers of Madera, California, developed the Pizza Farm to help educate people about how and where food is grown. The Schmalls operate The Pizza Farm as an educational entertainment center for profit. About 25,000 school children and adults tour The Pizza Farm every year.

When speaking to students about agriculture at an elementary school, Darren Schmall learned that every kid’s favorite food seems to be pizza. Schmall found that kids can really relate to a farm when it is taught in terms of raising the ingredients for pizza. “They thought farmers were pretty cool because farmers grow pizzas,” Schmall said. To continue educating people about agriculture, Schmall started the Pizza Farm on leased property at the county fairgrounds in Madera, California. The circular farm has “slices” of dairy, pork, beef, olives, tomatoes, peppers, wheat and herbs and uses less than 1 acre of land. “These pizza ingredients show Pizza Farm visitors where a pizza really comes from,” Schmall said. In a unique and entertaining way, children learn that farmers grow the wheat for the crust, the tomatoes for the sauce, raise dairy cows which provide the milk to make cheese and even raise the pigs for the pepperoni. Children quickly understand the importance of agriculture when they realize they would not have their favorite food without a farmer.

Getting started

So, what do Disney, Bonfante and Schmall all have in common with you? An opportunity to help educate people about agriculture and food production while earning a profit. Plus, as an aquaponic or hydroponic grower, you are implementing a fascinating means of growing food that most people would love to see and learn about. You have the basic components of agri-tourism…now add the sizzle.

Make your facility a destination

In order for your tour guests to be happy with the tour, they will want to see a professional, clean, tidy and organized facility and presentation. Walking someone through a messy mix of hobbled-together equipment, dripping hoses, uncultured plants and unhealthy fish is your ticket to disaster. Once your facility is clean and organized, keep it that way! This includes the exterior areas such as the driveway, parking area, walkways and approach, as well as the actual aquaponic or hydroponic system, components and surrounding areas.

Signs identifying where guests may and may not go should be posted. In addition, small, information signs about the facility, its equipment and operation are helpful.

Plan the tour

tours01The tour should be presented in a logical and organized manner. For aquaponic growers, be sure to present an overview of how the system works, the nitrification cycle and the role of the beneficial bacteria, as well as the mechanics of the system. Hydroponic growers can focus on the purity of the nutrients, the premium quality of the produce and the lack of herbicides and pesticides. A pamphlet or booklet that outlines the equipment, daily procedures and benefits of aquaponics and/or hydroponics is a helpful tool. It lets the guest see an overview of what will be presented and gives the “non-listeners” a bit of a self-tour.

Samples and on-site sales

Most guests will want to taste what you grow so offering samples after the tour is an excellent way to introduce your product and demonstrate the superior taste and quality. Offering your products on-site will generate sales at the end of the tour as well as bring many of the guests back again and again to buy your products. Other options to generate additional income include selling t-shirts, hats and other items with your logo, books about aquaponics and hydroponics, film and cold drinks.

Establish a schedule for tours

Depending on the size of your operation and the nearby market for tours, you can either set aside a certain day and time for tours and wait to see how many people show up or you can offer tours by appointment. Appointments are probably the best option for both you and the tour guests if the majority of your guests are school groups and clubs. They will most likely want to set a day and time far in advance. If you are in an area with high tourist traffic, it may be wise to accommodate walk-in traffic or at least set up certain times that people can drop in for a tour.

Marketing

Once you decide to offer tours and join the agri-tourism market, you will need to promote what you are doing. Here are a few options for getting the word out:

  • Contact your local Chamber of Commerce.
  • Call the newspapers and tell them what you have to offer. It is likely you will get a write-up.
  • Send press releases to the newspapers in your state and to schools and trade magazines.
  • Occasionally donate a tour to local charities having a raffle.
  • Post flyers in high traffic areas.
  • Contact all the hotels in the area. Explain the tours and ask them if you can provide flyers for the hotel guests.

Conclusion

Agri-tourism isn’t for every aquaponic or hydroponic grower out there but, if you are out-going and want to share a bit of the knowledge you’ve acquired while earning some extra income, why not give it a try?