Thinking out of the box about rural tourism

Rural towns in South Africa were formed to service farmers who had the need to purchase supplies (human and agricultural) in close proximity to their farms, so as to bring down their costs and save time. With the disintegration of rural communities, farmers have had to spend additional capital transporting their produce to cooperatives or distribution centres. While doing some research for a EURAC project, I interviewed a dairy farmer in Baardskeerdersbos who told me he that his milk is transported every day to Ladysmith Cheese, a dairy processing company that has recently been acquired by Sea Harvest for R527 million.

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Ladysmith Cheese is a value-adding dairy processing company that produces about 9 000 tons of cheese and butter and 7 500 tons of dairy and non-dairy powder every year. Most dairy farmers are forced to accept the price offered by large processing companies, because of the consolidation within the industry, with many smaller dairy farmers being forced to sell their farms or face bankruptcy. With fewer small farmers in rural areas and the increase in companies linked to the JSE entering the agricultural industry, managing these farms has become a highly competitive business. In turn, this has led to rural towns becoming dilapidated and the people living in the towns are poverty stricken as they do not have work.

Italy experienced the same rural emigration as South Africa in the Seventies as their small farms became unprofitable to farm. Government realised that Rural Tourism, or Agritourism, was the answer to keeping the rural economies alive. Italy succeeded in establishing a very effective and efficient Agritourism industry because it had the support of the National Government and the Tourism Industry. It would be wise for South Africa to follow in Italy’s footsteps.

It is vital that we as South Africans have a more focused approach to Agritourism in order for rural South Africans to benefit. Why? Staying on a farm where one can drink milk fresh from the cow (the taste is different from bottled milk), eat vegetables or fruit picked that day etc develops a healthy culture of eating habits. Fresh produce does not have to be sprayed with preserving chemicals, because it does not have to be transported for kilometres and remain on supermarket shelves for weeks. So Agritourism and food experiences are close bed fellows. Fresh air, exercise opportunities, (hiking, mountain biking etc), child-friendly activities are freely available on a farm. Just as importantly, in our current economic climate, is the cost of accommodation on a farm which is far cheaper than in a city. If there are so many benefits, then why is Agritourism still a small niche market in South Africa?

For several reasons:
Tourism bodies do not support Agritourism because they earn more income from hotels and guest houses in cities. Where in Italy, it was a government lead initiative, here it is NPO’s like Agritourism South Africa, that have to drive the process.

Another weak link is that farmers do not understand Agritourism or see the need for it, because farming in the past was always a profitable activity. Now with climate change, the increased involvement of companies who control the food chain from the farmer directly to the household and the exchange rate volatility, farmers have to think out of the box to find ways to earn additional income.

Agritourism around the world is a type of tourism that appeals to a self-drive, experiential market. South Africa is ideally suited to this type of visitors who want to travel at their own pace. We are lucky in that we have a variety of climates in South Africa, and therefore, farm produce.

Recently on a visit to farmers in the Langkloof area (over the Outeniqua mountains from George), it struck me that the opportunity for Agritourism is huge in this beautiful mountainous area. Ease of access (George airport), a variety of attractions (Cango caves, ostriches, hops etc) and well-maintained roads will ensure that this area becomes one of the most visited Agritourism destinations in South Africa. Farmers, like the Jonker’s, have identified Agritourism as a major growth area in their business. Instead of relying on income solely from the ostrich industry, which has had its fair share of challenges with bird flu, being one of them, they are now diversifying their core business to spread risk and earn additional income.

Agritourism does not have to be capital intensive. Visitors do not expect and do not want five-star hotel experiences, they want to experience the farm life. The time for South Africa to embrace Agritourism is now.

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