Farm to Table Vacation Rental
The best vacations are immersed in local experiences – sights, culture, entertainment and food. Nothing else, Duarte Morais suggests, could be termed “false tourism”.
Morais is a North Carolina State Extension Tourism specialist. His work includes efforts to funnel tourists – and tourism dollars – into authentic experiences that can only be found at the vacation destination.
“The pitch is to make locally specific and locally relevant and locally meaningful experiences over entertainment that can be copied anywhere,” he said.
This includes an initiative that extends the popular farm-to-table trend. Instead of going to a restaurant to eat locally produced food, at several locations across the state, visitors can participate in a farm-to-stove program called Agriculture supported by holidaymakers (VSA).
VSA is a project led by the P1tLab at North Carolina State University and NC Status Extension which connects small farmers to new opportunities to increase their income through the direct sale of fresh produce to holidaymakers.
It is modeled on Consumer Supported Agriculture, the program that connects North Carolinas with local farms to receive regular deliveries of fresh produce. A VSA is a week-long CSA, giving visitors the opportunity to order fresh, local food that is delivered to the door of their rental property.
“It’s a way to help farmers tap into the tourism economy,” Morais said. “Tourism is a highly competitive and integrated industry. Usually destinations are supported at the county level by destination planning and marketing organizations which are funded by the occupancy tax. The tourism system is designed to create more tourist tax. There aren’t really many mechanisms or people dedicated to helping the local community get involved in tourism.
The program is a partnership between Extension, farmers and vacation rental companies. The extension acts as a link between the farmers who supply the products and the rental companies who offer the VSA to their customers.
“We work with the supply side, with the farmers, to help them organize themselves and help them understand what tourists want,” Morais said. “We are also working with the hotel side, the vacation rental companies, to explain to them why they would benefit from presenting these products to their customers. We tell companies how much holidaymakers appreciate this and how important it is for them to engage local farmers. When they come on board, they usually stay with us.
The idea came from a discussion in Morais’ class on the economics of tourism.
“I was teaching economic leakage – how tourists can spend a lot of money on vacation but only some of it stays put,” he said.
An Outer Banks student said he saw it in action. Tourists coming to stay for a week often brought coolers full of food on a tray in the back of their vehicle. They weren’t even going to a local grocery store, let alone a farmers market.
“I had planned a coffee shop meeting with Becky (Bowen) and a few other colleagues a few days later,” Morais said. “I brought it up and said can we imagine a solution to this? You know of farmer groups, you have extension partners in those counties. Could we imagine a way to create a CSA for a week only? They added their ideas to it, and that’s how it was born.
Baby’s first steps took place in 2018 with a pilot program at Ocean Isle Beach in Brunswick County, as part of a Columbus County nonprofit called Men and women united for young people and families. Community farmers in Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties provided the food, which was delivered by The young ambassadors of Men and Women United. Extension centers in Braunschweig and Bladen counties provided training in food safety and food handling.
“It started as part of a USDA-funded project, a farmers’ market promotion grant,” Bowen said. “It was almost an afterthought. We didn’t know if it was going to go anywhere. We had other programs and strategies that we were also implementing under this grant. We sold out for a bit over $5,000 worth of product, which doesn’t seem like a lot. But it was success enough, and we had positive feedback from customers, that we felt it was worth continuing.
VSA expanded to five seaside communities in Brunswick County the following year and then began to move north. In 2021, the program was offered in seven coastal counties where vacationers typically stay for a week, with total sales reaching $91,397. Revenues are expected to increase further this year, in part because the season has extended beyond the 12 summer weeks. Tourists can now order provisions until the end of September.
Based on attendee feedback, bids have also increased. Customers have the option to add extras to their order.
“We expanded our produce, fruit and vegetable offerings, last year was the first year we offered eggs,” Bowen said. “We have also included fishmongers that offer shrimp. This year we are offering meat packs.
Offerings on Ocracoke Island in County of Hyde include fresh oysters, as well as a unique and authentic sightseeing experience.
“We help visitors pre-order oysters that will be there when they arrive,” Morais said. “Plus, they can step out into the oyster bed with a farmer and find out why the farmer decided to live this life, and their multi-generational connection to the island.”
Extension officers have an in-depth knowledge of the producers in their county, so they play an important role in introducing the program to farmers and ensuring that many of them have the opportunity to get a piece of the economic pie.
“The county agent, his role in general is to make sure that this income from tourism benefits the farmers in an equitable way,” Morais said. “They work with us to find farmers who are ready to innovate, able to try something new.”
There is an intentional effort by extension agents to include farmers from surrounding areas. Producers in 11 counties are involved in providing fresh food to VSA subscribers in all seven counties.
“Counties that have the beach communities benefit from tourism dollars, occupancy taxes and purchases made while in the beach community,” Bowen said. “But the neighboring counties of these coastal counties don’t necessarily benefit from tourists crossing over to get to the beach community. It’s a way to leverage tourist money and benefit some people in the neighboring county.
Chris and Christina Braswell, first-generation producers who direct Outlaw Acres Farm in Clyde in Haywood County, are among the farmers participating in the pilot program.
“We offer a bag that holds about 10 pounds of product,” Christina said. “You can add half a chicken, a bouquet of flowers, a dozen eggs. It’s a chance to eat like you’ve been to the farmer’s market. These are locally grown foods that you know are in season, you know will be grown very well. It comes directly from the farmer, so you are also supporting the local farmer.
Mountain holidaymakers tend to book chalet rentals for long weekends rather than staying a full week as they do on the coast. This can complicate finding VSA subscribers. The Braswells made about 10 sales during the 10 weeks of the pilot program.
“I was quite impressed that this was the pilot program,” Christina said. “I know it’s a wild success on the coast. We are always trying to gain ground.
The benefits of VSA go beyond subscription dollars. Participation in the program often encourages producers to explore other original activities.
“When farmers are successful in something new, even if it’s something small like starting a VSA partnership in their county, that little bit of success can lead them to try other innovations as well,” said Morais. “We have anecdotal evidence that happens with farmers involved in VSA. When they start working with us, they start to understand tourists, they start to understand hospitality businesses, and that drives them to try something else like CSAs or produce stalls or supply restaurants and things like that.