If you play a word association game and ask people what first comes to mind when they hear the words “Finger Lakes,” it seems like nine times out of 10 the answer will have something to do with wine. But this region of Central and Western New York offers much more agriculturally.

To highlight everything outside of enology – farmers focused on raising animals for fiber, meat or dairy, harvesting the golden sweetness of honeybees, visiting U-pick destinations or simply promoting farm markets – Finger Lakes Farm Country (FLFC) was formed.

Arlene Wilson, executive director of CCE Yates, described the creation and maintenance of a collaborative interdisciplinary online agritourism presence, which is what FLFC is. The project is the result of a five-county collaborative which created website to increase awareness of the region and bring more traffic to it.

“We assembled as a group in 2018,” Wilson said of those behind FLFC – Cornell Cooperative Extension offices for Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga and Yates counties, local Chambers of Commerce and the Finger Lakes Wine Country Marketing Organization. “We had to find ways to collaborate – to stop looking at lines, because that’s not how tourists look.”

Previous events had shown support for the concept, including an agritourism panel at a Taste of the Finger Lakes event in Corning, with more than 300 attendees from across the FLFC footprint. A separate influencer event in Watkins Glen helped to highlight different farm visit experiences in the region.

“We found we worked really well together,” Wilson said. “It’s an interesting compilation – a multi-level marketing approach to working with farmers and growers. It’s a good arranged marriage.”

FLFC first developed an outreach plan to speak with farmers, and Wilson said they tried to make it as seamless as possible. “Some were already very hi-tech, had all the bells and whistles; others were without the technological savvy, and had maybe one or two paper brochures – they are dependent on word of mouth,” she said. “We asked ‘How do we as Extension support all of them?’”

Their timing was eerily perfect, as the project came together right before the height of COVID. FLFC uses multiple platforms – print, social media, video and its Tour and Trails app – to promote the first 55 farm businesses in the six-county swath. FLFC also offers promotional materials to help smaller enterprises market themselves.

Focus on Finger Lakes Farm Country

There’s more to the Finger Lakes than wine – as evidenced by these little visitors enjoying a maple tasting at Sweetrees Maple Products. Photo courtesy of Finger Lakes Farm Country

The app was launched in August 2021, and it already had over 400 downloads by September. Wilson also noted that website traffic increased 313% in 2021. The key is keeping content relevant and engaging.

“COVID was a mixed blessing for something like this,” Wilson said. “The advantage is that farms are outside. People still want to go to the country, where there’s room and they don’t have to worry as much about masking and social distancing.”

She added that now is a really good time to invest in local tourism websites and associations. “Now is a great time to consider partnering,” she said. “Farmers are putting together their taxes – looking at what went well, at their production, their expenses and wondering how can you increase revenue and traffic. We can help them think of what could be another line of business to bring to your farm.”

For example, Wilson said, if you’re already raising sheep and selling wool, maybe think about hosting a shearing activity. If you’re already raising chickens and ducks, charge a small fee to have visitors feed the flocks. Consider creating a walking trail through your woods. “You’re only limited by your imagination,” she said.

To measure the metrics of how successful FLFC is, Wilson said they have developed a survey to get feedback on how it’s impacted member business. She said they’ve already heard a lot of farm owners say they’re getting more people from out of the region.

The best part is that there is no fee and no cost to be a part of FLFC – there’s just a form to fill out. The group can even work with you to get high-quality photos.

“The Finger Lakes were a well-kept secret before COVID, but now the secret is out,” Wilson said.

To learn more, visit fingerlakesfarmcountry.com.

by Courtney Llewellyn