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The value of regional tourism in Australian agriculture

Many may not realise that agribusiness and tourism are two of the top five emerging growth industries to 2030.

According to a recent report from Deloitte Access Economics, our sectors are two of the best positioned to take advantage of key features such as Australia’s:

  • large area of arable land
  • relatively low land use conflicts
  • strong biosecurity status,
  • relative ease of doing business,
  • technological readiness,
  • high education levels,
  • an innovative culture and
  • close proximity to export markets.

Holding us back are a few key disadvantages, including regulatory burden, rainfall, water availability and water reliability, low soil fertility, an ageing workforce and high labour costs.

At least three of these six disadvantages are common to all Australian businesses, and are areas where we can find ways to work together to boost our competiveness. And what greater way to seek to overcome them, and capitalise on the opportunities ahead for our sectors, by bringing them together under the banner of agritourism.

There are many definitions of ‘agritourism’, but the one we like the most is this one:

“Inviting visitors into rural communities to experience landscapes, culture, produce & environment”

Activities that fall under that umbrella are many and varied – farmstays, food trails, wine tours, rural escapes, farmers markets – these are only limited by resources and imagination.

Agritourism is important for two reasons, really. Firstly, because as this year’s Rural Woman of the Year Sophie Hansen so elegantly described, consumers are HUNGRY for connection to the land, to its people and its animals.

And secondly, because of the economic opportunities it can bring. For farmers, who may only get one cheque a year, it is the opportunity to create a new income stream, to improve their quality of life, on their own terms. For rural communities, it is the opportunity to arrest decline and re-energise, to become destinations of choice by showcasing the great local produce of which they can be so proud.

The hunger for connection is a fascinating one, in this age of information overload. Forty years ago, most people either grew up on the farm, or knew someone who did. Many spent summer holidays helping grandparents out on the farm, feeding the animals or milking the cows.

These days, that connection is much more distant. And yet as we become less connected, our longing for connection grows stronger. Enter ‘paddock to plate’, and increasingly, city dwellers embracing the food tourism movement inspired by celebrity chefs and a love of great food and drink.

In a world of technology, smart phones are both a blessing and a curse. Everywhere, everyone has the world in the pocket, and the means to connect to it via social media. The power to connect instantly and to share brings with it the power to influence but also to spread fear and confusion. Faced with a never ending barrage of tweets and facebook posts, what is one to believe about where our food and fibre comes from, and how it made its way to our kitchen table, or our wardrobe?

What was once a 'healthy balanced diet' triangle has been swamped by new ideas ... vegan, paleo, vegetarian, raw, natural, sugar free, gluten free, lactose free, hi fibre, low GI, organic.. and the list goes on.

In their own way, these fads threaten the livelihoods of Australian farmers. And farmers are desperate to tell their story, their reassuringly positive story, about the animals and the land they care for and the effort they put in to feed us all three times a day.

Agritourism is an opportunity to tell that story in the place where it resonates the most. Bringing people on to the farm, allowing them to get their hands dirty if they want, and to ask questions – to learn about how food is produced, and to reassure themselves that it is produced well. Direct connection to the farmer makes produce more meaningful, and those are the stories that translate into souvenirs to enjoy and memories to relive with families and friends back home.

Growing new income streams can also help reshape agricultural businesses and improve their underlying value. Agriculture is still, by and large, a seasonal business. While stepping into the tourism space is not for everyone, for many it can create an additional source of income at quieter times of the year, or even year round.

As with any business, it can be on your own terms. Whether that means opening only for three months of the year, or only certain days of the week – it really is up to the individual to decide. Much will depend on the business plan – a critical element of any decision to set up in the agritourism industry.

For communities, economic opportunity is about re-imagining their offering as a destination of choice – tapping into local produce and existing infrastructure to create tourist experiences unlike any others. Margaret River is a great example of a community that was once in decline – and yet look at it now. It is images of great wine and great beaches – among other things – that come to mind – not a rural area struggling to overcome the challenges of young people moving to the cities, lack of investment and the like. In agriculture, provenance is value – and the Margaret River community figured it out, built its own brand, and has never looked back

Like anything, there are barriers to be overcome on the road to success. Public liability insurance is a must for most businesses and likely to already be in place. Work health and safety risks can be harder to control in rural businesses than in others because of our uncontrolled environment, but they can be managed by seeking professional advice, undertaking risk assessments and putting in place appropriate strategies to eliminate or reduce those risks.

Likewise, we can’t control what people do with their smartphones, but we can plan to limit their exposure to things they may not understand, or may find confronting. And to educate them, so that they do understand and so that they feel a connection, not just with the animals, but also the farmers who care for them.

Recognising the enormous value that agriculture can bring to regional tourism in Australia is the first step. It won’t always be easy, but the opportunities are there, and only limited by our resources and imagination.

What do you have in your own local community that could create more value for your region? Who do you know who could work with you to get a project off the ground? Is your local Council aware of the opportunities, and prepared to support it? How can you inspire them into action?

Extract from a speech delivered by Sarah McKinnon, General Manager, Workplace Relations and Legal Affairs, NFF to the Australian Rural Tourism Network conference

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1 Responses

    Thanks Sarah for this article about the rise of rural tourism. Vegan Australia sees this as a good step towards phasing out the animal agriculture industry and replacing it with an industry where farmed animals do not suffer. We have written this response to your article: http://www.veganaustralia.org.au/rise_in_rural_tourism_to_help_end_animal_farming

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