In October 2010 I participated in a study tour that visited the Languedoc – Roussillon region of southern France to observe how agriculture and tourism work together. Our visit was centered out of Montpellier which is located 43.3 degrees north latitude – the same latitude as central, lower Michigan. (See Figure above.) This gives Montpellier similar day lengths, but that’s pretty much where similarities end. Being close to the Mediterranean gives the area a drier and warmer climate. We share similar temperatures in Spring and Fall but Michigan has cooler, more moist summers and colder winters. In their climate they are able to grow the crops we grow and more. They have extended cool weather but never cold so chilling requirements are met for many temperate zone perennial crops. They grow grapes, cherries, peaches and other familiar crops alongside palms, citrus, figs, olives and crops more common to California.
Soils are also much different. The first notable thing is there is less of it. There are numerous exposed rock formations and topsoil is not as extensive or as fertile, either inherently or from centuries of cultivation. They plant grapes at 3-foot spacing compared to our 6-foot plus. Fields are also generally small, even by Michigan standards.
When thinking of France the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is food; especially wine, bread, cheese and desserts. Secondary things include street markets, quaint country villages, castles and narrow streets with people chaotically driving small cars and scooters. All those things are true. The French have raised food to almost an art form, and they take great delight and time in practicing their art.
French agricultural producers have many of the same concerns as US growers: government regulations, labor, no family member who wants to continue farming, and others. However, as an Agritourist from the United States my first reactons were, ‘There’s no comparison. We don’t have the history. We don’t have the climate and crops. There are regulations we have that they don’t. They can do things we can’t. And they don’t sue as readily as we do.’ So I was a bit frustrated. Then after a few days I changed my thinking to, ‘Okay. I can’t concentrate on what we can’t do. I have to start looking at what we can do.’ Then I began to see things much differently and this is a presentation in no particular order on some of the things.
Colors and lighting create atmosphere. Lighting is not something most shoppers consciously consider but it can create a more comfortable and relaxing experience causing shoppers to be drawn into a store and once in, spend more time and money. Many lights emit a bright white/blue wavelength that is great for seeing and reading but is not subconsciously relaxing. Other colors in the store will pick up this light and tend to magnify the effect. Lights that emit more yellow or red and colors that emphasize these wavelengths tend to create a warmer atmosphere more conducive for shopping.
Many French Agritourism operations go beyond production and sales of their product. Some of you are doing this already with weddings, corporate parties and others. If you are set up for it, you should consider renting out your facilities for corporate meetings. These could be corporate retreats or for client entertainment or education. Some French producers offer camping and week-long stays in apartments specifically designed to attract tourists. They find people want to have a country experience away from their city life.
Several growers around the city of Ganges have come together to sell their value added products (there is some fresh produce) in the same facility. The population of Ganges is around 3600 people and in the first year they expected to sell around $225,000 worth of product. They sold $300,000 and in their second year they are on track for selling $600,000. Cooperators need to spend 1.5 days per month at the store and 20% of sales go to the store for overhead. They expect to go to 15% for overhead soon and gradually are working toward 10%.
Uniqueness always draws attention and usually commands a higher price but does not mean it more costly to produce. Uniqueness causes your business or your product to be remembered. It could be for the product itself, the package the product is in or how you market the product. The problem with uniqueness is that it will be copied so it is a continual process.
Creative displays again cause people to remember their experience at your operation. They may not even involve anything yo have for sale but have to remember you are not just selling a product but an experience. So while they are at your operation give people and experience they will remember and that will lead to more sales.
Herbs are a big deal, especially if you are near a significant population center. This is not only the herbs themselves but education on how they are to be used. Offer classes that people have to register and pay for. Make it look like there is limited availability. You should be able to get $10 to $15 a person for a two hour program. Offer pick-your-own-herbs. The type of herbs for sale may depend on the ethnic makeup of your area.
When we think of branding we think of branding our own businesses but the French have developed the concept of branding the region. In the region we visited it was Sud de France or South of France. Participants are allowed to display the logo in their business and in marketing their products. You are already aware of this to some extent and may not know it. Technically Burgundy wine can only be produced in Burgundy, Champagne in Champagne, Bordeaux in Bordeaux, etc. Likewise with cheese – Roquefort can only be produced in the Roquefort region and Camembert in Camembert and so on. This is their concept of “Terroir” (pronounced tare-wah). To preserve the quality of the product, producers of these brands have to follow strict production practices within their region. If someone tries to use the same name from outside the region they are subject to liability. But the concept is greater than preserving product quality. It also helps preserve the commerce and way of life in that particular region.
I began to think of organizations or activities already in place that could aid in bringing the regionality concept to Michigan. And there are: Michigan Farm Market and Agritourism Association (MIFMAT) and the Pure Michigan campaign. MIFMAT can be the organization assuring its members meet certain standards in quality and service and they can coordinate publication and distribution of educational materials pertaining to on-farm experiences. The Pure Michigan campaign has already received national attention from its television and radio promotions. The Travel Michigan arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is the organization that can help “brand” Michigan. Travel Michigan is currently negotiating with the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) on how best to use the logo and how it can be displayed on packaging. They are hoping to have something in place by next growing season for use by the agricultural industry. Next year there will be someone at the EXPO explaining how the logo can be used.
Even within Michigan there are distinguishable sub regions. These regions are a combination of climate, soils, topography, history and economic activity. But is is all these things that go into making up the concept of “Terroir.” In France the concept is all about protecting tradition but in Michigan it should be all about starting tradition.