Historically, farming has been an important part of economic growth in both James City County and the nation. However, small to medium farms in James City County are caught in the grip of a combination of rising costs and diminished revenues. At first glance the solution seems simple. Work harder. But that alone may not be enough. The answer may lie instead in following a new path that is opening and providing new opportunities, Agritourism.
The idea is straightforward. Take two ideas and put them together in new ways to form a new great idea, a new business. But that idea may not be enough. Technology advances in the Internet, increased connectivity, and improved computer aids can help transform that great idea into reality. However, starting a business today is as challenging as ever.
Opportunities do exist. Sometimes referred to as "entertainment farming", Agritourism is a means of diversifying a farm and adding value to products already produced on the farm to a tourist farm experience. The root of Agritourism lies in the hospitality business which necessitates strong public relations skills. Agritourism is especially suited to implementation on small to medium sized farms. It often necessitates the cooperation of an entire farm family and a willingness to take some risks. A wide range of farm activities, special events, festivals, and demonstrations can provide educational as well as recreational opportunities. Direct sales opportunities exist in the form of U-picks, roadside stands, farm stores, and food distribution services. In addition to standard farm crops, opportunities also exist that include specialty crops, gifts and craft activities. A very effective business strategy is to provide visitors with something to see, something to do, and something to purchase.
Some examples of Agritourism opportunities might include: accommodation opportunities such as bed and breakfasts, farm working vacations, retreat centers or dude ranches. Educational or entertainment opportunities such as farm tours, barn dances, cooking/ baking contests or classes, concerts/musical events, cultural/heritage events, and holiday events such as Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations. Providing for special occasions such as: weddings, horse farm tours, mazes, petting zoos, pony rides, school tours, scouting visits, festivals, and winery tours. Outdoor recreation opportunities such as: bird-watching, bonfires, camping, fee hunting/fishing, picnic grounds, scenic trails, and hay rides
Starting a business may be the most difficult step. One way to get started is to think about a name for the business. The name should tell people what it is that the business does. Joes Home Plumbing Services is more helpful to a potential client than the Maple Tree Company or South Bend Farms. A good name helps not only provide a company identity but also a focus as to where the business is headed. Some other preliminary startup steps would include:
Check the idea to see if it is a good one. It is time to do a reality check from other people. Don't just ask friends and relatives who may not feel free to tell you what they really think. The big idea is to figure out if the business really has potential. Ask instead for input from potential customers and others who are knowledgeable about agriculture businesses. This step sometimes involves a delicate balance between getting worthwhile feedback and protecting the idea from those who might take it for their own use. An attorney may recommend a nondisclosure agreement, a contract where another party agrees not to use the idea for their own gain or promises to not disclose the idea to others. Typically the advice, input and feedback you receive overshadows the risks of discussing the idea with others.
Start building a team. Most business ventures are built by teams of people who bring varied skills to the table. A study done by Marquette University found that businesses started by teams are 16 times more likely to succeed than those started by individuals. Look for a diverse blend of skills, abilities, and experiences rather than for individuals who mirror each other. Picking the best members of the team is an essential basis for success. Include big thinkers, network players and detail orientated team members. Launching a new business requires several job skills. Make sure all bases are covered from the beginning.
Keep a sharp focus. Small startup businesses should focus on doing something better than anyone else. Trying to do too much too soon has been the downfall of many new businesses. A focus on a niche increases the probability of success especially if it is something that ignites the startup team. Know what is done well and that it is loved. Build a business around these two ideas for success.
Make a business plan. Even if the startup business is not seeking capital from external sources, creating a business plan is an important step. The real value in creating the plan lies in the process. The plan forces attention to such issues as the form of business ownership, capital requirements, researching target customers, and developing cash flow or financial forecasts.
Helpful resources. James City County can offer some general resources for new business startups, to help existing businesses to transition to new ventures, or add new capabilities to an existing business. County resources are available to businesses, regardless of the product or service offered:
• The local SCORE chapter is very active in the James City County area. The Counselors to America's Small Business, also referred to as SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), provides local and online workshops and events throughout the area to connect small business owners with the people and information they need to start, grow, and maintain their businesses. SCORE provides resources, templates and tools to assist entrepreneurs in developing tools and plans they need to navigate their way to small business success.
• US Small Business Administration has many planning templates available to assist in developing business plans and in performing analysis of business decisions.
• The Chamber of Commerce Triangle Entrepreneur Exchange (or TrEE) meets six times a year. This is a lunch time event where local business people share their lessons learned for the benefit of the attendees.
• BLING is a local networking group sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.
• Triangle Business & Innovation Center (TBIC) is the local business incubator that is being revamped, and has a new manager. This is a good place to pitch Agritourism specific ideas. At the very least, business planning and marketing technical assistance is available, and the possibilities are virtually endless. The new manager is affiliated with the local Small Business Development Center (SBDC), so there is a possibility of synergy.
• The College of William & Mary can serve as a valuable resource, particularly the Biology, Marine Science, and Mason School of Business, but there may be other departments depending upon the specific idea in question.
• The Office of Economic Development can direct people to appropriate contacts. Also, in conjunction with the Office of the Commissioner of the Revenue, they have compiled the Essential Guide to Business (http://www.yesjamescitycountyva.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/2014EssentialGuidetoBusiness.pdf) to help with basic business questions.
• The James City County Office of Economic Development can assist with incentive programs. James City County has a Tourism Zone, which can provide financial incentive to operations making a capital investment of $350,000 or more if the business is tourism-related.
• The James City County Extension Agent, Kate Robbins, is also a resource that may provide assistance in matters involving agriculture.
Some Agritourism businesses are already in operation. Pumpkinville has an active site each fall that is based on pumpkin related holidays and entertainment. Mill Farm Christmas Trees and Berry Farm gives customers the ability to pick fresh fruits such as strawberries and blueberries as well as select their own fresh Christmas tree. Bush Neck Farms has a variety of fresh fruits available. Carlton Farms, Cedar Valley Farm and Stonehouse Stables hold horseshows that are open to the public. Additionally, the Carlton Farms web site advises that they hold weddings, a Fall Festival and trail rides. Full Circle Organics Farm raises and sells earth worms for fishing and organic fertilizer for plants.
Agritourism provides opportunities for small to medium sized agricultural activities to augment the scope and revenue from farm related activities. Combining farming with tourism can open new opportunities for stability and growth for agriculture in James City County.
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