What Makes a Town Tripworthy?
On a morning in late January, the sun crested the limestone bluffs lining the mostly frozen Mississippi River east of Bellevue, Iowa. A patch of water below Lock and Dam 12 was still open, and dozens of bald eagles swooped and pivoted on black wingtips to snag bait fish. In a restaurant/art gallery across the street from the river, several dozen people sat at large round tables eating pastries prepared from local ingredients. Among the group were local agriculture producers, tourism boosters, and high school students representing groups such as 4-H and FFA. They’d come together to ponder ways to bottle their way of life and package it for visitors. They were pondering agri-tourism.
Planning sessions like this one in Bellevue happen routinely around the country as small towns in rural areas struggle to keep their economic heads above water. This is not a news flash. But in Bellevue, the local chamber brought in sponsors and other supporters to fund a day-long event. They brought in Marsha Laux, a program coordinator of the Value Added Agriculture unit and the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, affiliated with Iowa State University Extension.
Laux told her personal story, about running a successful farming operation with her husband in the early 1980s, raising hogs, planting corn, and “doing very well.” Then the farm crisis hit, and she and her husband lost everything. Eventually she found herself working a “job in town” and now coaches people to make farming practices safe and successful. On this day, Laux was in Bellevue to help people figure out how do to more than simply produce food and offer tourism opportunities. She was there to illustrate how to link the two and increase revenues for everyone.
Participants in the Bellevue workshop included two women from a U-pick apple orchard and a man who runs a local strawberry farm that has operated here for decades. Another participant raises and sells organic beef. Another runs one of several wineries in Jackson County, where Bellevue is located. Another raises bees, selling their honey and making hand cream from their wax. Others in the crowd were in the hospitality industry, running resorts and inns, though in a town the size of Bellevue, occupations overlap: the couple who operate a historic inn also provide a bulk of the produce at local farmer’s market.
So what attractions can a town of 2,300 people in a county of about 20,000 leverage to bring more tourists in to spend time and money? Bellevue has abundant summer tourism; located on the Great River Road that runs from Minnesota to the Gulf, we host lots of leather-clad folks on motorcycles, as well as campers and boaters from June through August. But it was time to think about what exists here year around, in town and in the country. We brainstormed and flip-charted a list.
The Mississippi River and the Great River Road alongside it, Bellevue's main drag
The lock and dam
Bird watching (pileated woodpeckers, anyone?)
The campground, hiking trails, bike trails
Hunting and fishing
The annual PRCA rodeo, hay rides, and horseback riding
The train track down the middle of a busy street that attracts railroad fanciers
Historic farmsteads and Heritage Days celebration
Restaurants and bars
This list could describe many river towns and small communities across rural America, give or take an amenity. As Laux kept reminding the group, the key is to figure out what makes our community special, what sets us apart from all the other perfectly pleasant towns deserving of tourism dollars. Don’t think of reasons that ideas won’t work, she cautioned us. After all, tourism is the third largest industry in Iowa. Remember, visitors aren’t coming here expecting grand opera or NASCAR. They are coming here for the farms.
Iowa is the first place people think about when they think agriculture, Laux said. That’s why her office gets frequent requests from tour groups both nationally and internationally, wanting to know how they can visit an apple orchard, or tour a dairy farm, or see firsthand the different types of corn, or discover the history of a farmstead-turned-winery. Some visitors have already planned an activity, such as touring a local John Deere plant, and want to make a side-trip to a working farm.
Diane Bauman Agri-tourism is definitely a rising trend. According to the Census of Agriculture, there were 2.2 million farms and ranches in the United States in 2007. Of that number, 23,350 reported deriving some income from agri-tourism. In 2007, Iowa had about 95,000 farms, with about 250 of those supplementing their incomes with agri-tourism. The income they derived per operation from agri-tourism rose significantly between 2002, when the previous Census was taken, and 2007: from $3,000 per operation in 2002, to $13,000 per operation in 2007, just by allowing visitors some form of access to their land.
Yet even though we have enough scenic farmland to fill a million Grant Wood paintings, you might not know it walking into the typical Iowa farm town grocery store or restaurant. Bill Petsche of Iowa State University Extension told the group that of the food consumed in Iowa, 90 percent is produced elsewhere. Though we produce endless corn, soybean, cattle and hogs, most of our homegrown products can only be found at grassroots farmers markets.
Though agriculture is at the center of life here, there is no “local food coordinator” in this part of eastern Iowa; other areas of the state do have people working in that position. Petsche did say that a part-time local food coordinator is expected to be hired for our region in a matter of weeks, a positive development. That person could help the owner of the restaurant where we met, for example, find a local producer of organic goods, creating a win-win-win for farmer, restaurateur, and diner.
On the partnership/opportunity/popular-trend continuum, it appears there is room on the agri-tourism hay wagon. I wondered about how much growth that might mean, whether we’re inviting a tourism boom that might bust once visitors figured out that farming is a lot of work in hot humid conditions with insects swirling about. Or that manure doesn’t smell quite as good as steak. Or that steak might not taste as good once you’ve met its mother. So I asked the gathered group if we weren’t setting ourselves up for being victims of success if too many people swamped our community, tempting us to manufacture narratives about the local food cornucopia on all of our tables. I wondered if tourists would get their fill, then leave us behind when the next tourism trend hit.
A few in the audience looked at me like I was a two-headed calf. Then Dave Kendell, who grows strawberries at Annie’s Acres, took up my question. “That’s the attitude that has hurt the Bellevue tourism business for the 50 years I’ve been here. First the city council didn’t want outsiders here to spend money. Then the locals didn’t want anybody in their fishing spot. Then some people didn’t want to wait in line for Sunday breakfast at the hotel. That’s an attitude that has been entrenched here for a long time.”
That was when Laux cheerily reminded us: “Don’t work with things that don’t work, work with things that do work. Figure out how to add value to your food practices, like offering tours of your dairy farm, or extending your growing season with high tunnels, or combining your farmer’s market with art shows and musical entertainment. Get listed on VisitIowaFarms.org. Get the young people involved, and don’t take no for an answer.”
Taking "no" does have its temptations. Although economic recovery is underway in Iowa, Bellevue still has strings of condos lining the river that were built and never sold, now wallowing in foreclosure. We have boutique businesses struggling to make a go of it in the off-season, but no place in town to buy printer ink. We have a river front from which we wave at dozens of passing pleasure boats on a busy summer day, but nowhere practical for them to dock and take a walking tour of downtown. But we’re working on it.
And in the winter, through no effort of our own, those bald eagles come to town to fill their bellies. Between fishing binges they rest on the bare trees, their white heads and tails like luminescent bowling pins in the branches. They land on chunks of river ice that circulate like merry-go-rounds in the eddies just below the dam. They call to each other with soft multi-note whistles. I never knew they made that sound until I sat on one of Bellevue’s water-front facing benches and listened. Access to the natural world, even the heavily cultivated natural world of an Iowa farm, is something we can offer to visitors. How could they refuse?
Julianne Couch’s latest travelogue, Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy, will be available in spring 2013 from the University of Nebraska Press.