Growing the local economy through food

ANKENY – If Iowa’s food producers, processors and preparers are looking for a recipe to improve agritourism they must:

Provide visitors with something interesting to eat.

Teach visitors something interesting about local Iowa culture and food.

Send visitors home with something unique about Iowa.

According to Rebecca LeHuep, the keynote speaker at the March 27 Iowa Culinary Summit, in Ankeny, the first ingredient is the most important.

LeHuep is executive director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance and creator of several Prince Edward County’s award-winning programs in Canada.

LeHuep’s audience consisted primarily of niche food growers, plus restauranteurs, wineries and representatives of chambers of commerce and visitors’ bureaus, including Fort Dodge and Webster City.

LeHuep told her audience that the one thing every tourist has in common with others is they want to eat.

“Food is the travel experience that touches all five senses,” LeHuep said.

Successful tourist destinations, she said, target the Millennial Generation, between the ages of 25 to 34.

By the year 2020, LeHuep said, one half of the traveling public will be Millennials, “and they love food and finding the undiscovered gems.

“They’ll put more money into what they’ll eat than where they’ll sleep.”

Creating a destination

Shannon Latham, of Sheffield, is owner-operator of her hobby farm, Enchanted Acres, primarily a pumpkin patch, but which also sells other fall-seasonal produce.

She said she attended the summit to get ideas of vertically integrating her farm produce to be served at nearby Ridge Stone Golf Club’s restaurant.

She said she and Ridge Stone “want to create a destination where people can play golf and enjoy fine dining. “Ag and local tourism are a natural fit,” Latham said.

She said she sees opportunities to partner with local pork producers, wineries and other food producers to develop “a taste of the area” food experience.

“Plus we can also answer questions about how food is grown,” Latham said. “If we can get people to relate with the people who grow the food, then we can reconnect the growers and consumers.”

A Taste of 20

Deb Brown, of the Webster City Area Chamber of Commerce, said she attended to get ideas of being part of a proposed food tour called A Taste of 20, consisting of food events and festivals along U.S. Highway 20.

She said the chamber is in the process of forming an agriculture committee.

“We have some good restaurants that use local (food) products,” Brown said, “but they don’t talk about it.

“I want to figure out how to bring farmers into tourism. We want (visitors) to spend the night, spend their money and eat the food.”

Kerrie Kuiper, marketing director for the Fort Dodge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Taste of 20 plan is in the works with eight communities pooling resources to print a brochure about the area.

“It’s a way to try and bring more people up that corridor,” Kuiper said of the four-lane highway.

“There’s some great ideas here,” she said of the summit.

She said she plans to bring information back to her board and begin building on attractions and get other community and farm businesses “to buy-in to this.”

Show and tell

LeHuep said successful tourism gives people a reason come to one’s area.

She said:

43 percent of tourists are looking for a tour, which can include farm visits.

67 percent said having products to take home was part of their destination choice.

87 percent want to try locally sourced products as a reason for determining where they’ll travel.

“They are visiting historic sites,” LeHuep said, “but they also want outdoor activities, live theater and visiting gardens.”

She said younger tourists don’t plan far ahead.

“In 2012,” she said, “60 percent booked a destination on a mobile device within 24 hours of leaving or arriving.”

Once they arrive, she said, they need a great experience, because they’ll immediately post through social media whether the event or destination was worth the time and effort.

To welcome the 21st century traveler, LeHuep said, the attraction must have a place set-apart to welcome them and “tell the local story” including:

A unique “taste of the place.”

Have local foods and beverages they can purchase.

Learn where the food and beverage came from and how processed.