I bend to reach under a blueberry bush, knowing the juiciest berries are hiding underneath, where all the other pickers have missed them. Ping! A blueberry hits me in the back of the head, catching me by surprise. I turn to see my ten-year-old nephew looking sheepishly at me just before he is pelted in the face by a fistful of berries lobbed by my (ever so mature) husband. It doesn’t take long for an all-out war to break out between my three nephews and my husband, with the purple projectiles just narrowly missing everyone else around us. Despite the blueberry battle, we still end up with ten pounds of blueberries, enough to last all of us the rest of the summer.
My nephews don’t know it, but we’re engaging in a resurging travel trend: agritourism. This type of tourism involves visiting any local agricultural setting, including farmers markets, U-pick farms, and fun activities like corn mazes. While the concept of touring farms has been around for a while, it’s taking on a new appeal for conscientious travelers, thanks to its many benefits. Agritourism is not only cost-effective (you can buy a family meal and a morning’s entertainment for under a hundred bucks), but it’s also a window to local culture, a chance for educational activities, and fun for a wide audience. It’s not easy to find something that appeals to boys aged eight, ten, and twelve, as well as to their parents and to us, but this was perfect. By the end of the trip, all seven of us were sporting full buckets of blueberries and wide smiles.
Agritourism offers a chance to literally taste the local culture. To my nephews, who live in East Africa and munch on avocados and mangos straight from the trees, blueberry picking in Michigan is pretty exotic. My past experiences with agritourism — everything from climbing into a tractor on a cotton farm in Arizona to sucking on sugar cane in Tanzania — taught me how much insight a traveler can get into the local vibe when engaging in these types of activities.
During my time as an expat in the Caribbean, I toured one of Sint Maarten’s only working farms: the Solidarity Rastafari Organization’s farm, which grows food both for their vegan members and for the public. Not only did I buy amazing butternut squash while I was there, but I also learned some of the factors that shaped local culture. I had thought it was odd that an island originally conquered for the sake of farming currently has so few existing farms. As I learned, many of the majority Afro-Caribbean residents have a bad taste in their mouth about agriculture, thanks to the island’s slave plantation history. Because of this, most of their food is imported, rather than grown. The farm works to change negative perceptions and bring home-grown food back into vogue, benefiting the health, economy, and culture of the island. I would have never learned that if I’d simply walked into the grocery store for my produce! As an added plus, supporting local growers puts my money straight back into the local economy—and not into the bank accounts of distant moguls.
Escape the Kitsch
Agritourism is also an easy way to add some authenticity to any vacation, even in the most touristy places. Taking my nephews away from the busy downtown attractions in Detroit to the quiet Michigan countryside gives us the chance to experience what life has been like for Midwest agricultural families since the region was settled. As we drive the highway from Detroit to the countryside near the smaller town of Ann Arbor, the gray urban skyline slowly recedes, giving way to acres of green trees between wide fields dotted with livestock and farmhouses. Billboards stop advertising sporting events and instead begin to point us to places we can buy homemade pie or pick our own apples.
Of course, the Midwest isn’t the only place you can use agritourism to transport yourself from flashy to farmland. In any agricultural region, you can search online for local fruit stands and take a quick detour to fresh produce. While in Hawaii, my family stopped at a local farmers market and were able to meet some of the region’s growers. We got to talk with locals whose families have lived and farmed the Big Island’s quiet interior for generations unknown. This experience was much deeper than our trips to the beach because we were able to break out of the touristy mindset and see, if only for an hour, a glimpse of a lifestyle that still reflects something of Hawaii’s ancient culture.
Agritourism also offers an educational experience; fortunately, this fact is not immediately obvious to kids. Visiting agricultural attractions offers the opportunity for lessons in finance, kitchen skills, and math — you could even add a language arts element if you (or your kids) journal about your adventures. As my nephews weigh their blueberry buckets, add the weight together, and multiply by the per-pound price, I am taken back to my annual childhood excursions to U-pick apple farms. We were having so much fun, we never realized we were doing math! Our lessons always extended into the kitchen, as well, where my mom would help us can, bake, and cook with the produce we brought home.
After we pay for our blueberries and head back to the car, I hear my youngest nephew breathe a huge sigh of satisfaction. As he hugs his bulging bag of fruit, his brothers are already untying theirs to dig into the berries and savor the sweet flavor of a Michigan summer. I’m happy, too. Agritourism is fun, and it feels good, as well. I know that my purchase supports local jobs, and fresh produce is the best thing I can feed my family. My grocery bill will be lighter this week, although my produce drawer will be much, much heavier. As my husband pulls out of the parking lot, I sit in the passenger seat and peruse a U-pick schedule. What will be in season next month? I can hardly wait to do this all over again.