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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farm Tours, Inc.

Air Date: Week of

Vermont's farmers can't live on milk and maple sugar anymore, so they're turning to tourists. City dwellers nostalgic for rural yesteryear could help keep today's growers afloat. But some farmers are unconvinced.


CURWOOD: With no disrespect to the rest of New England, probably the quintessential image of bucolic beauty in the region is the farmland of Vermont. Cows grazing in green valleys. Hay fields just below the rugged mountains. The homage to winter paid by the covered bridge. These postcard portraits help put Vermont among the top 4 tourist destinations in the US. The Vermont Tourism Office thinks that's because baby boomers are getting nostalgic for the rural ambiance of their childhoods, or are searching to find, on vacation at least, a simpler, less hurried way of life. And while Vermont's farms and orchards provide the setting, farmers themselves don't see much of the tourist dollar. But that may change as the state begins to promote what it calls agro-tourism. From Deerfield Valley, Vermont, Tatiana Schreiber has our report.

SCHREIBER: Springtime in Vermont means maple sugaring. The air is pungent with the smell of wood smoke as sap is boiled down to sweet, rich syrup.

(A door creaks; liquids boil)

SCHREIBER: It's also the time of year when Henry and Carrie Wheeler open their sugar house to tourists.

H. WHEELER: I'm just stirring it up a little bit to make it burn a little hotter, and we're going to be drawing off some syrup right away here.

C. WHEELER: There's a new flavor to it when it's first made. And a lot of people are crazy to get it when it's first made. We had a lady here yesterday...

SCHREIBER: The Wheelers run one of the few remaining dairy farms in Vermont's Deerfield Valley, an area that now caters mostly to tourists: skiers in winters, hikers in the summer, leaf peepers in the fall. Henry Wheeler grew up here, Carrie on a nearby farm. Now in their 60s, they married as teenagers and raised 7 children on their 400 acres.

C. WHEELER: I don't think my husband will ever retire. I think as long as he can draw a breath, just like his father before him, that he'll be involved in some aspect of the farm. And I'm hoping that the farm can continue for several generations. But you also have to be realistic.

SCHREIBER: Being realistic, for the Wheelers, means recognizing that nowadays they can't make ends meet on agricultural income alone.

C. WHEELER: And they told us that what we needed was to be -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- diversified. We decided we would get bigger and produce more maple syrup. [A phone rings] Let me just get that phone. Wheeler Farm. All right; we have a half hour or an hour guided tour, and if you ride single for the half hour it's $25. If you ride 2 people on the machine for the half hour it's $40. If you ride for an hour single it's $50 and a double is $80. Our trails...

SCHREIBER: Along with the sugaring and a summer farm stand, the Wheelers now offer guided snowmobile tours of their land. Henry Wheeler jokes that the tours support their farming hobby. Actually, they provide about a quarter of the farm's income. The Wheelers run the tours between milking chores and family members act as guides.

H. WHEELER: I'll start the machine, I'll put out ahead...

SCHREIBER: As bright sun gleams off snow-covered fields, Henry shows a pharmacist from New York how to operate his snowmobile.

H. WHEELER: We won't be going fast. We start in the field, go around the field, you kind of see how the machine's going to act. Now, when we get up in the woods a little bit here you will see some plastic lying where the boys are starting with their sugaring. Okay, any questions? No?

(A snowmobile revs up)

SCHREIBER: The Wheelers and some 30 other southern Vermont agri-tourism ventures are featured in a new brochure, part of a joint project by the state's agriculture and tourism departments, to promote what Bob Townsend calls "the working landscape."

TOWNSEND: Tourists across the country feel that Vermont is the way America used to be 50 years ago. And that's largely, I think, what the tourists expect to see in farming.

SCHREIBER: Bob Townsend is an extension agent with the University of Vermont working to get farmers a share of the millions of dollars tourists bring to the state each year. In addition to snowmobiling, he's encouraging farmers to open their land to cross-country skiing, horseback riding, llama trekking, and eco-tours of wildlife habitats. The kinds of activities he says today's tourists demand.

TOWNSEND: So there's some nostalgic interest. They are stressed out, the whole 2-income earner and very little time, and they want to have quality time with the family in a rural, real setting. Also, they've seen a lot of the high-tech modern theme parks and so forth; they've done that. And now they want to get back on the land. Again, they don't want to necessarily get in the barn cleaning the gutters out, but they want to be able to talk with people who are working the land, know what the issues are, know how their food is being produced. It's a cross-cultural experience they're looking for, too.

(A cow moos.)

WEINSTEIN: [Laughs] It's the one on the other side there that seems to be the most vocal. He's voicing his opinion.

(Several cows moo.)

SCHREIBER: Kathy Weinstein from upstate New York is touring the Wheeler Farm with her husband Jeff and Joshua, their son.

WEINSTEIN: We try to make every day as educational as possible for him, and if he could see up on the hills where they're sugaring and have that idea of where the maple syrup comes from, the trees, and then comes here to the barn and sees the cows and learns a little bit about that, he'll retain it. I mean he's already two and a half, but we've already had that experience with him.

(A cow moos)

SCHREIBER: Farmers involved with tourism say it's a great way to educate children and adults about agricultural life and build advocacy for farm issues. But not every Vermont farme is eager to jump into agro-tourism.

(A bell rings)

MAJOR: We have 3 different groups of ewes and they're all going to lamb. And this is group number one.

SCHREIBER: Cindy Major runs a sheep dairy farm with her husband David. They're happy to give free tours to school groups or other farmers, but Cindy says they're not ready to open to the general public.

MAJOR: When we have people on the farm we want to make sure that the farm is safe, that the farm is clean, that they're not going to interfere with work. We've had people visit us when we're making cheese, and whole batches of cheese had to be thrown away because we've been distracted.

SCHREIBER: The Major Farm is nestled into rolling hills in a peaceful rural neighborhood. Some Vermonters worry that increased tourism in such places will bring the traffic and noise they moved here to escape. Barbara Coleman is a member of the planning commission in Wilmington, where tourism is already firmly established.

COLEMAN: The numbers of snowmobiles that are traveling throughout the area, you can't go out and stand on a hillside, now, without hearing snowmobiles. And we're just taking over every aspect of the Earth, it seems.

SCHREIBER: Coleman says she'd like to help farmers stay in business by changing the tax structure or allowing higher prices for dairy products, rather than pushing farmers to jump on the tourism bandwagon. But she says farm-based tourism does have some advantages over other tourist ventures.

COLEMAN: We're going to be having local farms charging money for things, and therefore those moneys are going to stay in the community. And that's a very important aspect of sustainability in a community. Some of the larger corporations that are here are taking the money elsewhere, and they're looking at the bottom line for their stockholders. Where the farmer is looking at the bottom line for what's going to be put on the table.

SCHREIBER: Only half a million people live in Vermont and only a few thousand farmers, but they maintain the agricultural landscape that draws eight and a half million tourists to the state yearly. The state's Bob Townsend says agro-tourism is an ideal way to support farmers' efforts. The Vermont Department of Agriculture put it another way in a recent article. It said conditions for farmers are unlikely to improve unless farmers diversify their businesses, even if that means giving the occasional reporter a taste of country life on a snowmobile.

H. WHEELER: Now I'm going to get it started, then we'll get on here. [A snowmobile revs up] Okay! All set?

SCHREIBER: Yeah. Uh huh.

(The motor revs up more)

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber on the Wheeler Farm in Wilmington, Vermont.

H. WHEELER: One thing I didn't mention before we started, all of our machines have heated handlebars. Those electric heaters in them, they're controlled by...


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