HUGHES: Outdoor adventure heads to the farm with WNC agritourism

A vacation spent picking apples or watching dairymen make cheese might not seem like a popular option. But in a world where sitting in an office chair is a health risk and children’s screen time is a contentious issue, spending leisurely hours in a field, barn, or pasture is increasingly appealing.Nowhere is that desire to connect with the land more apparent than in Western North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Mountains have long been a refuge for weary travelers. These days, an afternoon on a farm is becoming as common as a ride along the parkway.In a way, the combination of two strong industries in the state is a natural progression. Agriculture contributes $78 billion to the state’s economy. In 2015, North Carolina tourism hit a record high with $21.9 billion in visitor spending. In a state that’s suffered major economic losses as manufacturing jobs have been outsourced and automated, it’s encouraging to see the joining of agriculture and tourism to create a growing niche market.Western North Carolina’s varied commodities provide year-round attractions. The WNC Farmers Market in Asheville, operated by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, is open seven days a week throughout the year. The cooler months bring greens and pumpkins, while warmer weather produces tomatoes and sweet corn. Promotions, such as the Herb Festival in May and days devoted to strawberries, watermelons and tomatoes, encourage people to make the market part of their visit.You-pick farms create a mutually beneficial situation. The farmer’s crop is harvested, and visitors see where their food grows. The Orchard at Altapass, located off the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Spruce Pine, invites people to pick heirloom apples in the fall. The destination also offers hiking trails, music jams and storytelling hayrides from April through October. In Flat Rock, Sky Top Orchard is a hub of activity from August to December. In addition to apple picking, visitors can see barnyard animals, have a picnic and sample apple cider doughnuts. Sky Top is one of many orchards in Henderson County, which is home to the annual N.C. Apple Festival that attracts 250,000 people.Some Western North Carolina farms host adult classes to encourage lifelong learning. Wellspring Mountain in Lowgap presents classes on topics such as cooking with whole foods and using herbs for medicinal purposes.Networking is a key strategy for agritourism. Organized trails, such as the WNC Cheese Trail, create actionable guides for tourists. The Cheese Trail map designates the location and hours of each producer, and the website allows people to make informed decisions about which ones they’ll visit.Agritourism is also a way for agricultural organizations to connect with the community and gain support. For example, TRACTOR — a nonprofit that works with more than 50 local farms in the Toe River Valley — will hold a dinner on the square in downtown Burnsville this September. The social event will bring attention to the town center and increase awareness of local agriculture.The versatility of agritourism appeals to a variety of visitors. For people who want fresh produce, picked and washed, they can spend a few minutes at the farmers market. Or if they want to get their hands dirty learning the trade, they can earn that experience in the field. No matter how brief the stay or how small the purchase, local farmers feel that direct impact. And that’s a vacation we can all feel good about.Leah Hughes lives on a farm in Randolph County. She is a writer with Distl Public Relations.