Agritourism efforts display niche farming in Orange County

Valee Taylor likes to show people his aquaculture facility where he and his sister raise nearly 300,000 tilapia fish a year.

“It’s hard to expand because of UNC and UNC Hospitals, there’s little interest in this end of the county,” said Taylor, the founder and co-owner of Taylor Fish Farm and a UNC graduate.

Taylor’s aquaculture farm operates in a 10,000-square-foot building in northern Orange County.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget there’s more to Orange County than UNC — but new agritourism efforts seek to remind residents and visitors alike of the county’s agricultural roots.

Carl Matyac, county extension director at the Orange County Center, said agritourism shows people what the farm experience really is and where their food comes from. It accounts for a small fraction of agricultural revenue, but he said farmers in the area hope to see it grow.

Matyac said expanding for aquaculture facilities can be cumbersome.

“The market could hold a whole lot more (aquaculture) but they seem to be a little bit mired down with some of the technological details,” Matyac said.

The county has increased marketing of agritourism with a new campaign. Agritourism includes corn mazes, pumpkin patches and farm tours.

County Commissioner Earl McKee owns a farm near Hillsborough and said the county has the population base to make something like agritourism successful.

“People use their discretionary funds to enjoy entertainment like agritourism, which can be a challenge for some residents after paying living expenses,” McKee said.

Agritourism is a small component of the county’s overall agricultural industry, and more growth has happened in the production and direct market sales.

“Agritourism is not where the money’s at,” Matyac said.

In the five years leading up to 2007, income from farms in Orange County rose nearly 150 percent to $4.4 million, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farm-related income will likely increase again when the department releases new data, said Michael Lanier, an agribusiness agent at the Orange County Center.

Residents demand local, high-quality food, like the tilapia at Taylor Fish Farm, which is hormone-free, antibiotic-free and produced sustainably.

This interest makes the county a profitable place for farmers, McKee said. While farmers already in operation struggle to expand, the area’s unique market is attracting new farmers to open shop, specifically younger people interested in agriculture.

“A lot of new young people are interested and getting involved but cost of land is prohibitive and cost of equipment is expensive,” Matyac said.

Regardless of these challenges, the availability of direct markets makes the county unique for farmers as they develop personal relationships through sales, McKee said.

Farmers markets, roadside stands and programs that deliver local produce to homes foster this direct-market mentality.

Matyac and Lanier have worked with the county to support programs that keep farmers from going into debt.

The county offers intensive trainings for new farmers, farm incubators and assistance in local food processing.

“Anyone that can find a niche market, I think, will be able to do well,” McKee said.

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