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(Australian Associated Press)
When beef farmers Sally and Mark Dent destocked their property after several gruelling years of drought they were forced to look at other income streams.
Sally picked up more work as a teacher, while her husband started up at an agri-business in the nearby town of Dunedoo in Central Western NSW.
By 2017 they had sold all but 50 of the 650 beef cattle, and life on the farm was grim.
“We were getting up at six in the morning, feeding what cattle we had left, going into town working getting back at six at night feeding again, so it was a very monotonous few years,” said Ms Dent.
As she sipped a morning cuppa she decided to convert the farm’s unused workers quarters into paid accommodation, and soon Cobbora Station began farming tourists.
“We had lots of positive feedback and they were mainly city families… they can go on walks, and go down to the river, and feed poddy calves, I think it does give them an idea of the day to day operation,” said the NSW beef producer.
Ms Dent told AAP the extra income stream allowed her family to slowly restock.
Agritourism is something Damen Wells discovered early on in his farming career.
The carpenter turned farmer is one of a handful of people who farms bison in Australia.
While he sells his non-breeding bulls for meat, he quickly turned to agritourism when he realised the interest in the native American animal.
“Just to keep money coming in while the bison are growing in the paddock, I sort of only get a pay cheque once or twice a year when we sell live animals,” said Mr Wells.
Today, he welcomes around 700 overnight visitors a year to his 1180 hectare property near Casino in Northern NSW.
According to Tourism Research Australia there were about 7.6 million domestic tourists visiting a farm gate or winery in 2020-21 spending about $6.4 billion on their trip.
That compares to 2019, before COVID and the Black Summer bushfires hit, when 9.9 million domestic and international visitors spent $11.8 billion.
But while the numbers of visitors are down by as much as 24 per cent some operators are reporting that business is turning around.
Rose Wright is a consultant whose been helping Australian farmers enter the agritourism market for the past 20 years.
“We’ve never been busier – there’s an enormous demand in consumers trying to connect… between farm and the consumer,” said Ms Wright.
She told AAP that while border closures have had an impact, farmers are telling her that future bookings are “through the roof”.
The managing director of Regionality said COVID-19 travel restrictions have sparked an interest from consumers in staying and buying locally, and tracing their products.
“They’re wanting to understand where their food and fibre is coming from,” she told AAP.
“For many of these farmers it’s about educating their consumers so that they understand how much goes into producing the food and fibre that we eat and wear.”
Education was high on Queensland fruit farmer Helen Hill’s mind when she recently began allowing campers to stay at her North Queensland property.
She runs the Achacha plantation near Townsville where she and her husband produce about 100 tonnes of the native Bolivian fruit achachairu.
The Hills set up the farm in 2003, which as well as being touted as the world’s first commercial plantation of the fruit, is organic and biodynamic.
This year the Hills started welcoming campers to the property, in part to educate people about achachairu, which takes seven years to grow.
“We’re a working farm and it’s a very good way of getting the word out about our fruit,” Ms Hill told AAP.
James Jooste from Hipcamp said his company has seen a spike in agritourism operators.
“What we are seeing as a rebound out of COVID is more campers than ever wanting to get away from the city, get away from their screens, get away from their phones, and completely unplug in the outdoors,” Mr Jooste said.
He said the number of landowners hosting on the platform has doubled to 2000 since the pandemic began, while the number of campers has tripled to 150,000.
Agritourism is “an extension of what farmers are already doing”, while allowing farmers to continue to be productive and continue to farm the land.
That’s exactly what Sally Dent intends to do.
Despite a challenging few years of coronavirus, fires and a mouse plague, Ms Dent told AAP they have recently expanded into camping too.
“The positives outweigh the challenges, you meet lovely people, you get to share your little part of the world, you also help your local community… it’s really boosted our local economy,” said Ms Dent.
Thanks to that on-farm income diversification the Dents have also increased their herd numbers once more, to almost pre-drought times.