Sometimes the best “work” to promote your ag operation is to “network” as it seems for about 20 businesses in Cayuga County, New York that have joined the Sweet Treat Trail.
Begun four years ago as an agritourism initiative that mimics the nearby Finger Lakes Wine Trails, the Sweet Treat Trail helps both locals and visitors focus on shopping at farm stores and mom-and-pop shops within the county. The trail spans north to south about 57 miles, from Fair Haven to King Ferry, NY.
Meg Vanek, executive director of the Cayuga County Office of Tourism in Auburn, NY, said to participate, businesses must make and sell something sweet or use local ingredients.
“It fits in with the farm-to-table trend,” Vanek said.
Operations that use mostly outside ingredients, factories or facilities that don’t sell anything or cannot accommodate visitors don’t fit the Sweet Treat Trail niche.
Visitors can use the printed or online Sweet Treat Trail maps to find the participating businesses, read descriptions and service information, and see photos as well.
Instead of viewing one another as competing businesses, it helps area businesses collaborate to generate more shopping dollars. Even if two maple syrup places join, that’s okay because their gift shops likely carry many different other items and offer unique experiences. They’re also probably in different parts of the county anyway.
To organize an ag-oriented trail, Vanek recommends a thorough review of what’s available in the area. The trail should have sufficient stops for a daytrip.
She said requesting interested parties join a focus group helped garner enough interested people to kick off the trail. Village and town clerks asked for participants in their newsletters. The Cayuga County Cornell Cooperative Extension helped get the word out, as did other associations and organizations related to agriculture.
Beyond meeting the initial qualifications, participants must also be willing to commit to hosting a tasting event for the trail’s annual kick-off; provide their information and hours for the brochure and keep the business hours listed. Stating “call for hours” won’t cut it for a tourism brochure.
“Every year, the trail changes slightly,” Vanek said. “For some folks, it doesn’t work for them. Maybe their staff isn’t prepared or their location isn’t ideal. We have a couple drop off and that’s fine, but we have a few come on. It’s easier after the first year.”
Each year, Vanek holds a required organizational meeting to ask what the organization should do differently and what would help.
This year, the trail has a two-week-long event where sites will have specials, like buy a cupcake, get one free. The Sweet Treat Trail used to have tasting events all in one place, but Vanek said that it’s better for businesses to host events at their own places of business for convenience and because people tend to spend more money once they’ve arrived at a farm store.
It also has helped the Sweet Treat Trail to provide promotional items. Vanek said tote bags were a hit; buttons — not so much. Visitors that stop at any participating Trail businesses during Spring Fling or Fall Fling receive a free tote bag. Those who receive stamps on their brochure from eight stops on the trail can enter to win one of three Sweet Treat Trail package of goodies.
The partners on the trail let Vanek know what customers like and don’t like. Partners receive banners, brochures and signs to help promote the trail.
To participate in the Sweet Treat Trail, they pay $25 per year, which isn’t much but Vanek said adding a fee helps partners stay committed to promoting the Sweet Treat Trail. When participation was free, some participants didn’t put a lot of effort into promoting the trail.
Vanek said she provides coaching to participating businesses to help them learn how to engage visitors and make their visit a memorable experience.
“The ones that ‘get it’ are not becoming millionaires off it but see extra attention to their spot. They have to have something experiential, like picking apples and a store where people can shop, see cider made and have a doughnut. This is what visitors want. They want to connect with their food.”
The farms, especially, usually don’t host visitors as their primary means of making money. But some have ramped up that aspect of their business partly because of working with the Sweet Treat Trail. Vanek said Strawberry Fields in Skaneateles constructed a new building to accommodate bus tours.
“They get a little tote and can get some jam,” Vanek said. “They also put out a chocolate fountain.”
The Sweet Treat Trail has become so successful that it won the New York State Travel Industry Association Cultural Tourism Award because visitors learn about local culture through food. USA Today also named the Sweet Treat Trail as one of its Top 10 Food Trails.
“Visitors like connecting with the farmer or person running the bake shop and they want to know about what they’re eating,” Vanek said.
The trail operates from June through late November. That timing works well for majority of the vendors along the trail that relate to agriculture, even Skaneateles-based Strawberry Fields. Owned by Linda Eldred, the farm grows ever-bearing, hydroponic strawberries. Eldred joined the Sweet Treat Trail at its inception, viewing the trail as a family-friendly “trail” to add to New York’s Beer Trail and Wine Trails.
“People of all ages can participate,” she said. “There’s lots we have to offer in Cayuga County.”
At the strawberry farm’s market, Eldred sells baked goods and jam made from the berries grown on the farm’s 15,000 plants and also the farm’s honey. The farm remains open until the end of October and re-opens during the holiday season. Amid the gift items and treats, Eldred dedicates counter space to Sweet Treat Trail brochures and promotional items.
“We love to tell people about the Sweet Treat Trail,” Eldred said. “When they discover it, they say they didn’t know it was going on and want to check out the other places on the trail.”
Another of those is Morgan’s Half-Acre Produce in Auburn. Co-owner Kelly Morgan has also participated in the Sweet Treat Trail from its inaugural year.
“I do think it’s helpful, especially for the visitors to our area, because they’re not as familiar with where things are,” Morgan said. “It gives them something to do and along the way as they drive, they can enjoy the scenery.”
Morgan’s Half-Acre Produce is open daily. The farm market sells vegetables and, from a partnering farm’s fruit, home-based fruit pies, quick breads, and shakes.
“People can enjoy whatever is in season at the farm market,” Morgan said.
To view the Sweet Treat Trail brochure, visit http://tinyurl.com/y82u6tpb.