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Agri-tourism tempts Freeport farmers

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Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 8:18 am

FREEPORT – For Laughing Stock Farm co-owner Lisa Turner, an expansion of agri-tourism in Freeport could potentially make a big difference for her small family farm.

“This is not a genius business to go into if you want to make a lot of money,” Turner said. “Any additional revenue streams are always important to explore.”

Her comments come as the Freeport Planning Board explores possible amendments in the zoning ordinance that would expand the definition of ‘agricultural farm stand” to provide more flexibility in setback requirements for farm stands. The board is also mulling amendments to the definitions regarding agriculture and animal husbandry, is considering a definition of “agritourism,” and whether any of the issues should be subject to Site Plan Review.  The Planning Board scheduled a public hearing for Wednesday, Feb. 6, after the Tri-Town Weekly deadline.

Town Planner Donna Larsen said the definitions might change but the intent is still the same.

“Agriculture and farms are the backbone of rural life,” Larsen said, “The town recognizes this and the amendments are meant to reinforce that belief ”

Agri-tourism is most broadly defined as any agriculture based activity that brings visitors to a farm. Popular examples include hayrides, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, bird watching and photography.  Freeport has roughly a half-dozen farms of varying size.

According to research conducted by the University of Maine in 2006, as a revenue source, agri-tourism is much more significant for smaller farms that have such activities, accounting for 50 percent of farm income for those with total farm income in the $50,000 to $249,000 range.

In information obtained from the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, the Maine Department of Agriculture considers agri-tourism a significant component of what it calls Maine’s “Agricultural Creative Economy.” Defined as “Maine farmers who are directly marketing their farm products to retail or wholesale customers,” this sector also includes such non-food products as raw and processed fibers, fiber arts, compost, greenhouse/nursery products and floral products.

The Department of Agriculture also estimates that economic activity related to people seeking an overnight farm experience, “experiential tourism,” represented almost $600,000 in farm income in 2004.

These types of numbers point to the promise of agri-tourism, which is not lost on the Turners, who have been vocal in their support for the local zoning amendments.

“If you can make it easier for your farms to do business, then you can get all the benefits of having a farms in your town,” said Turner.

Turner and her husband Ralph started Laughing Stock Farm 16 years ago after meeting at the University of Maine.  They bought the Wardtown Road property in 1984 and started farming in 1997, a decision Turner jokingly referred to as an early midlife crisis.

The farm operates during all four seasons and is certified organic. The Turners sell their vegetables from Freeport to Wells to restaurant, retail, and consumer markets.  In the summer they operate a farm stand in the barn. The proposed amendment would allow the Turners to move the stand closer to the road to take advantage of a steady stream of traffic.

Turner said they are able to employ two people year round and typically have a staff of six in the busy summer months. While not able to pinpoint or name a specific plan for an agri-tourism related venture, Turner said, more income could lead to more jobs, welcome news as Maine continues to slowly recover from the global credit crisis of 2008.

Turner believes in paying it forward, and said Freeport can benefit from a healthy, thriving agricultural presence. In addition to providing fresh produce, Turner said, Laughing Stock and the other Freeport farms help to maintain the rural character of the town.

“The shortest way to get someone to preserve open spaces is to make it as easier for them to make a living,” Turner said. “Agri-tourism can be a part of that.”

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