Montana State Hosts Inaugural Agritourism Conference

The Montana State University hosted the inaugural Montana Agritourism Conference on Friday, May 3, the culmination of an 18-month program that connected agricultural producers with knowledge and resources to expand their offerings into the realm of tourism.

The event drew more than 130 attendees, including the 2024 class of Montana Agritourism Fellows. The fellows, made up of agricultural producers from across Montana, are part of the larger Montana Agritourism program, which is supported by the Montana Department of Agriculture and Western SARE, a regional research and education program focused on sustainable agriculture, for which MSU serves as the host institution.

“Montana provides an ideal location for agritourism by offering an unlimited selection of experiences that showcase the beauty of our rural life,” said Shannon Arnold, a professor in MSU’s Department of Agricultural and Technology Education who served as the conference organizer and led the Montana Agritourism Fellows program. “Today, we have the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations, exchange ideas and learn from each other’s experiences.”

Friday’s event included a trade show and breakout sessions on topics such as starting an agritourism business and marketing and communications strategies. It featured keynote speakers who addressed topics relevant to the intersection of agriculture and tourism in the state.

One of those keynotes, by Glenna Brown and Elena Bigart from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, provided an overview of agritourism’s past in Montana. The ITRR, which is the research arm for Montana’s tourism and recreation industry, has for more than two decades conducted cross-state surveys on various aspects of tourism to help support planning and policymaking.

Brown and Bigart shared data and trends related to agritourism, including what draws visitors to Montana, the field’s economic impact in the state and what offerings visitors and business owners alike find most viable. In 2022, they noted, 638 agritourism businesses in Montana generated $1.26 billion in sales, up from $949 million in 2017. The biggest draws, they said, included farm tours, farm stands and wildlife watching.

Members of the agritourism fellows group attested that incorporating agritourism elements into their businesses – from farm tours or lodging to experiences such as hiking and hunting – were helping them to make their operations more sustainable for future generations.

“If we’re reaching one person at a time to make them ag-friendly, we are helping our industry stay alive so that we can keep doing what we do best,” said Tana Canen, a fifth-generation farmer and rancher in eastern Montana and member of the fellows cohort. “It’s also economic because it’s tough surviving in agriculture. We are practicing resilient transformation.”

Brown and Bigart cited a 1997 study in which producers identified the need for workshops that could help them plan and implement agritourism activities with guidance from experts and fellow producers who had successfully done so. Friday’s event was designed to fill that very need.

“The Montana Agritourism Fellows was established to develop agritourism in the state, educate others about sustainable agritourism and serve as advocates for our agritourism industry,” said Arnold. “Whether it’s touring a working farm, sampling value-added products or experiencing the thrill of a cattle drive, agritourism allows us to connect with the land, the people and the culture of Montana.”

In addition to Western SARE and the Montana Department of Agriculture, the Montana Agritourism Conference was supported by MSU Extension, the Montana Department of Commerce, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, LandTrust, the Montana Food and Agriculture Development Network and Prospera.


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