By Kenesha Reynolds-Allie, County Agricultural Agent
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Warren County
As part of its economic development strategies, the Warren County Economic Development Committee has been working devotedly to increase focus on tourism and agritourism in the county. The picturesque landscape of the county is a perfect combination of mountains that currently boast the beautiful fall colors, fresh water rivers that are excellent destinations for fishing, and its fertile valleys. Spread throughout this scenic, historic county, which provides visitors a variety of attractions and activities, are hundreds of farming operations.
According to the USDA 2012 agricultural census, Warren County has 784 farms on approximately 72,000 acres of land. Agriculture in the county is diverse, ranging from field crops, to specialty crops, to livestock operations. Similar to the state’s statistics, many of the farms in the county are small, by USDA’s definition, and must rely on additional farm activities to generate extra farm income. Although agritourism is not a new concept, more farmers are incorporating agritourism activities to increase the number of customers visiting the farm, hence increasing sales. Agritourism activities include on-farm sales (u-pick fruits and produce, u-cut Christmas trees, community supported agriculture, on-farm markets), educational tourism (school or group tours, wine tours), entertainment (hay rides, corn mazes, petting zoos), farm accommodations (bed & breakfasts, weddings), and outdoor recreation (hunting, fishing, birdwatching).
Given the limited number of customers and potential customers in the county, and the high level of competition among agribusinesses participating in agritourism, agribusiness owners are forced to spend more limited resources (time and money) to develop effective marketing strategies to reach consumers beyond Warren County. That is, each owner/operator has the daunting task of promoting his/her business and products to increase exposure and potentially increase consumer traffic. Despite these marketing challenges, the county’s close proximity to the New York City and Pennsylvania metropolitan areas makes it an ideal location to target millions of potential customers. In order to help promote the county’s agricultural roots as well as its new agribusiness model, and capitalize on the positive economic change in the county, the county invested resources into hiring an agricultural agent with expertise in agribusiness and tourism. Since hired into this position, there has been an increase focus on developing a marketing curriculum for agribusiness in the county. Although the current strategies are geared towards promoting agribusiness, we are anticipating a multiplier effect on other businesses as well.
One of the first of many projects developed and implemented was providing a temporary market, the “Warren County Farmers’ Market” at the 2015 Warren County Farmers’ Fair, for agribusiness owners to sell their products and advertise their businesses. The fair was considered an ideal location for the market, as it is well established and attended by thousands of locals and visitors from Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and other counties in New Jersey. A total of 8 farms and wineries participated in the week-long market (Saturday, July 25 to Saturday, August 1), providing a variety of produce, homemade products (soaps, lotions, honey, wooden bowls and cutting boards, custom woodworking and carved wood signs), and an assortment of wines. Each farm and winery brought promotional materials to distribute to fair attendees whether they patronized the market or not. Although the market generated limited or no sales for some vendors, they were appreciative of the opportunity to share their business’s information with potential customers they would never have met otherwise. The market was well received by consumers who were excited about the idea of having fresh produce to snack on at the fair, and take home at the end of the day.
Two particular incidents perfectly summarized consumers’ appreciation of the market at the fair. One vendor who sold prepared food at the fair was ecstatic there were tomatoes being sold only a couple hundred feet from his tent, when he ran out of this key ingredient for one of his dishes. He continuously expressed his gratitude for the convenience of fresh produce in an environment where it was non-existent previously. Secondly, a group of consumers from New York waited by the market until opening hours because they heard about the market and wanted to ensure they were able to purchase fresh, local produce to take home. Overall, there was positive feedback from both fair attendees and vendors who are anticipating an improved annual market at the fair. To ensure growth and success of the market, there is collaboration among myself (the agricultural agent), the fair directors, and vendors, to identify areas in need of improvement; including location of the market on the fairgrounds, increasing the variety of products offered, and identifying additional ways to promote the market to consumers beyond the county.
Although the farmers market is the only project that has been implemented this year, there are several other projects in the planning stages for next year and beyond. Currently, planning is underway for a series of events, “tasting on the trails”, which will take place in the summer and fall months, annually. Warren County is known for its diversity in attractions, including bike tours, hiking, kayaking, and fishing, among others. This provides us the opportunity to take our foods and wines to our visitors who are participating in these activities. “Tasting on the Trails” is a series of events where dishes are prepared by our local chefs, made with locally grown produce, and taken to locations where people are enjoying the county’s natural resources. Information on each farm that provided the ingredients used to prepare the meals, as well as information on our wineries will be provided. This is to ensure consumers know where to find Warren County locally grown and made products.
Besides targeting individuals who are currently visiting the county, it is our priority to share with others who are seeking similar farm experiences, foods and wines, but are unaware of what is available in this county. In an attempt to reach these individuals, a website and several social media pages will be created that features agricultural businesses. The website will be similar to other food businesses databases, where consumers are able to browse all farms and agribusinesses, or choose to search by categories including products, experiences, zip code, among others. For example, if a customer is interested in pick-your-own apples, they will be able to sort by this specific criterion, which will generate a list of farms that participate in this particular activity. Farms will be given the opportunity, and encouraged to update their profiles as products offered, hours of operation, or any other important business information changes. This will ensure consumers have access to current, up-to-date information, as they make farm visit plans.
We are passionate about sharing with others the diversity in Warren County’s agriculture that we experience and love. Whether you are looking to purchase fresh, healthy, local farm produce, experience a day on the farm to pick-your-own produce, cut-your-own Christmas tree, play with farm animals, conquer corn mazes, enjoy hay rides, enjoy an evening in the vineyard, preserve memories through photos on the farm, or simply to learn about the history of our farms, Warren County is your ultimate destination! Come visit us, share your experiences with a friend, and make this county your repeat destination for on-farm family fun!