Agri-tourism, the melding of agricultural activities with tourism with the goal of attracting tourists to rural areas, is an increasing trend in Alabama. Much like the new phenomenon of ecotourism, agri-tourism is often low-impact, small-scale, and education-focused, and it provides additional income for agricultural entrepreneurs. Agriculture and tourism are two of Alabama's largest industries. Agriculture has been the traditional backbone of the state's economy, with an economic impact of more than $9 billion in recent years. Tourism, however, is a relatively new industry, but its recent economic impact has exceeded $9.5 billion.
Until recently, Alabama had made no large-scale effort to develop a tourism niche focused on the state's agricultural heritage and resources. In June 2003, however, the Alabama Agri-Tourism Partnership, which consists of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Alabama Tourism Department, Alabama Farmers Federation, and Alabama Cooperative Extension System, was formed to develop and market agri-tourism across the state. One of its primary goals was to develop an Alabama Agri-Tourism Trail, including an online presence, to provide farmers and agri-business entrepreneurs with a way to advertise their facilities and products and to provide an educational tool for explaining agriculture to an increasingly urban population, particularly the younger generation. The Alabama Agri-Tourism Trail currently lists more than 120 sites and links to agri-tourism opportunities. In addition, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System created a set of guidelines, "Developing an Agri-Tourism Attraction in Alabama," to assist farmers and entrepreneurs wishing to participate in agri-tourism activities. The Alabama Tourism Department created several marketing campaigns to highlight the state's many agricultural attractions. In 2006, tourism officials marketed the "Year of Outdoor Alabama," which featured numerous outdoor activities around the state. In 2008, the department established the North Alabama Wine Trail, which showcases 10 family-owned wineries that offer free tours and wine tastings.
Typically, agri-tourism in Alabama, as in the rest of the nation, includes farm tours, roadside produce stands and farmers' markets, and "U-pick" farms where customers pick their own fruit, such as strawberries and blueberries. Other activities include winery tours, festivals and fairs, corn and hay mazes, and petting zoos. Agricultural heritage parks, such as Burritt on the Mountain in Huntsville, Madison County, and Landmark Park in Dothan, Houston County, provide visitors with living experiences of the state's agricultural history. Common outdoor recreational activities, such as camping and picnicking, hunting and fishing, and wildlife viewing, also fall under the category of agri-tourism.
Many small farms throughout Alabama have turned to agri-tourism to boost revenue. Although the number of small farms had fallen in recent decades, many farmers are diversifying their products and supplementing their incomes based upon traditional agriculture, such as fruit picking and corn and hay mazes. Agri-tourism provides the opportunity to increase profits on farm sales of value-added products and services.
Agri-tourism attractions provide many additional side benefits to both farmers and state residents alike. For example, farmers' markets in metropolitan areas provide economic outlets that keep thousands of acres of farmland in agriculture, providing local residents with open land, improved water quality, and wildlife protection. Besides providing higher farm incomes, metro farmers markets attract thousands of shoppers who spend money in local restaurants and shops. This income contributes to the local tax base and helps maintain a viable downtown area. In rural communities, agri-tourism provides much-needed revenue in areas of the state that have experienced steady economic hardship. Agri-tourism operations also satisfy tourists' desire to make travel a learning experience and to rediscover for themselves and their families their rural and agricultural roots.