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Agritourism Experiences Increase Consumers’ Pro-Environmental Behaviors

children holding apples during agritourism experience

“Buy Local” — we have all seen the slogan, but the effectiveness of these campaigns on consumer behavior is still debatable. How many people still go to the supermarket and reach for a container of strawberries grown on the west coast instead of going to the farmer’s market for strawberries grown less than 30 miles away?

Communities need more than “Buy Local” campaigns to increase the number of food-aware consumers; they also need to engage in agritourism such as visiting working farms to participate in recreational or educational activities. 

Creating more support for agritourism experiences and encouraging schools to offer field trips to visit farms is one of the contributions researchers from NC State’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management hope to spark from a recent study, “Cultivating the Future: How Agritourism Experiences Influence Pro-Environmental Behavior.” 

Sara Brune, a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant, is part of a research team concerned with the increasing disconnect between the public and the source of their food and how this affects decision-making. She wanted to explore how to engage people in their local food systems and increase sustainable, pro-environmental behaviors through a fun service such as agritourism (e.g., pick-your-own, hayrides, and pumpkin patches). 

“If you want people to behave sustainably, there has to be something in it for them,” Brune said. “We can have the best policies and the best knowledge, but people may not engage or be able to adopt that knowledge if they don’t see a benefit in them.”

Brune hopes to build communities’ knowledge on why agritourism is essential, its contributions to sustainability and its benefits. “Agritourism already offers several benefits,” Brune said. “For example, they help family farms manage risk in uncertain agricultural markets, they also help preserve cultural heritage (e.g., historic barns), and natural resources (e.g., wildlife). By discovering how agritourism can contribute to local food systems, we hope that practitioners and policymakers gain a better understanding of how agritourism contributes to sustainability. Hopefully, that will ignite some advocacy efforts for agritourism.”

Surveying Visitors at Agritourism Farms

During Fall 2018 and Spring 2019, Brune surveyed visitors at six agritourism farms across North Carolina about their intentions to purchase local foods and their willingness to advocate for local food. Brune surveyed visitors as they entered the farm and again as they left after finishing their agritourism experience. This allowed the team to measure the impact of the agritourism experience. 

Survey participants were asked about their access and ability to afford local foods, if they perceived that local food supports the environment, the economy and so forth. Another vital question Brune included was whether visitors would talk to their local representatives to ask them for their local food support or their willingness to actively support the local food system through their annual taxes. 

“After the agritourism experience, visitors’ intentions increased in favor of supporting local foods and engaging in local food systems,” Brune said. “Agritourism offers experiences that allow visitors to directly appreciate the attributes of local food and assimilate the social dimension of local food, which means that there are families and family farms behind local food.”

Agritourism increases pro-environmental behavior because when consumers buy locally-grown foods, they have a positive impact on the environment and the local economy. Purchasing local foods reduces the need for packing, storage and long-distance drives. For each dollar a consumer spends on food at a grocery store, the farmer only receives approximately 7.8 cents after the food is picked, packed, sorted, stored and shipped to grocery stores.

Agritourism also promotes intentions to spend more on local foods. The majority of study participants indicated that they would be willing to increase their budget by 5 percent to purchase local foods. 

Family agritourism experiences also weighed heavily on visitors’ attitudes toward supporting local food. “What we’ve found is that a lot of agritourism visitors come with their families. This creates a sense of sharing and memorable experiences that may contribute to how people feel about agritourism before and after the experiences when they have family members with them,” Brune said.

Agritourism also serves as a diversification strategy to help farmers manage their risks and keep their farms afloat. “Sometimes, that is not even enough, and the only thing that keeps them going is the fact that these farms have sentimental value -they have been in their families for generations—and the farmers have an interest in preserving the cultural heritage and natural resources that are on their land.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some farms have been able to continue their educational role by venturing into offering virtual tours, an initiative that the NC State Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management is helping local farms with.

“Hopefully, research like this will help agritourism operators make the case that what they are doing is extremely valuable and deserves more support,” Brune said. “For example, by making a policy that every kid needs to visit a local farm by the time they go through elementary school.”

In the future, Brune plans to continue exploring creative ways to engage communities in pro-environmental behaviors, such as through other tourism experiences and examining how they impact people’s attitudes and worldviews.

Brune, originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, previously worked as a strategic assistant manager in the Vice Provost Office for Academic Affairs at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras. At NC State, Brune has been investigating the role agricultural literacy plays in promoting sustainable agricultural practices and local food systems. 

She has been conducting her research under the direction of Dr. Whitney Knollenberg, Assistant Professor, and Dr. Carla Barbieri, Professor and Extension Specialist, in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management. Brune’s research is part of a USDA-NIFA funded project that also includes team members Dr. Kathryn Stevenson, Assistant Professor, and Caitlin Reilley, a masters’ student and research assistant from the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management.

If you are interested in supporting local food, find out where to locate your nearby farmers’ market

Note to Readers: An abstract of the research follows.

Title: Cultivating the Future: How Agritourism Experiences Influence Pro-Environmental Behavior

Primary Author: Sara Brune

Accompanying Authors: Dr. Whitney Knollenberg, Dr. Carla Barbieri, Dr. Kathryn Stevenson, Caitlin Reilly

Abstract: Increasing consumers’ engagement with their food systems is one pro-environmental behavior that has garnered considerable attention (Zepeda & Deal, 2009). Consumers’ engagement in local food consumption is crucial for food systems sustainability as the increasing distance between producers and consumers raises concerns about the environmental sustainability of food production. Agritourism experiences may serve as an informational strategy to address these limitations by promoting social interactions, knowledge exchange, and exposure to farming systems and nature (Mair & Sumner, 2017). Yet, there has been limited research on consumer behavior towards local food in the context of agritourism. We seek to understand how changes in behavioral antecedents (i.e., attitudes, perceived behavioral control, subjective and personal norms) influence three types of interrelated behavioral intentions: (1) purchasing local food, (2) likelihood to increase monthly budget to buy local food, and (3) advocacy for local food.