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Agritourism boom coming to Cape May County?

CAPE MAY - With birding, whale watching, and other back-to-nature activities so abundant around the southern peninsula of the Jersey Shore, ecotourism has long been a staple of the vacation-based economy, generating as much as $600 million a year in Cape May County.

CAPE MAY - With birding, whale watching, and other back-to-nature activities so abundant around the southern peninsula of the Jersey Shore, ecotourism has long been a staple of the vacation-based economy, generating as much as $600 million a year in Cape May County.

But lately, as more open-to-the-public farms, wineries, breweries, and even a distillery have arrived on the scene and the concept of farm-to-table has become as de rigueur on a menu as wild-caught-seafood and heirloom tomatoes, a new category of travel - agritourism - has sprouted in the region.

And as businesses are responding to meet the demand to accommodate even more visitors interested in getting outdoors beyond the beaches - for everything from pumpkin picking to vineyard weddings - officials are wondering just how this additional category entwines with the rest of tourism in the county and what its economic impact could be in the future.

So the Cape May County Tourism Department and Atlantic Cape Community College are creating a new survey that will be distributed to those nature-based enterprises within the next few weeks. And they want to have the results after the New Year, according to Diane F. Wieland, director of the county's tourism office.

"We can almost do a 'connect the dots' now when we look at how both of these categories are intersecting within the county," Wieland said. "Overall, what that means is that tourism here is becoming a more diverse industry . . . attracting all types of people with interests in doing more than just going to the beach. What we need to do is figure out how that impacts us as a region long term."

And while Wieland says the beach certainly remains the Shore's biggest draw, expanding visitor interest beyond the shoreline ultimately helps extend the season beyond June, July, and August - and the fall.

"We've already expanded our season up to the holidays with festivals and events and other special offerings for visitors," Wieland said. "With these new attractions, we can perhaps see a season extending beyond that, maybe bringing us to a point where we are more of a year-round destination."

Wieland said the county's second-home owners - people whose primary residence is somewhere else, but own a vacation home at the shore - are already a strong audience for the area's indoor, wintertime activities. But in recent years, incremental increases in the amount of occupancy tax collected at hotels and motels has pointed to an increase of more transient visitors.

"People are actually getting in their cars and making the shore an overnight destination in January and February," Wieland said. "That's something that was virtually unheard of 20 or 30 years ago."

That idea is music to the ears of entrepreneurs like Alfred Natali, 70, who opened Natali Vineyards in the Goshen section of Middle Township 10 years ago.

Natali is in the process of receiving approvals to more than double the size of his 1,200-square-foot winery and 300-square-foot tasting room on his 22-acre vineyard where he produces and sells about 1,600 cases of wine a year.

"I sense that there is enough interest, and growing interest, that my continued investment in this will pay off," said Natali. "It's hard to tell exactly what is drawing people here to the Shore, but it's becoming obvious that it isn't just one thing anymore."

Natali points to the fact that when he bought his sprawling Delsea Drive property in 2000, there were only a few vineyards in the county - now there are seven, with three more in the works - and the region is on its way to receiving its own federally designated viticulture to be known as the "Outer Coastal Plain," much like wines of California have their own microclimate designations.

Natali and the other wineries in the region have expanded their businesses beyond tasting rooms, most offering some sort of food component to their sales and space for catered events such as weddings and birthdays.

All that adds to the overall economic numbers, Wieland said.

"We already know that 11 percent of our revenue in the county comes from ecotourism," Wieland said. "We are interested now in finding out how much comes from agritourism."

Alicia Grasso, director of marketing at Cape May Brewery, which has been located in the Erma section of Lower Township for about five years, said those numbers will likely prove significant.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm among our customer base when we talk about sourcing our ingredients locally . . . it connects the beer to the region. And the fact that we are located in the Garden State with so many options for different ingredients makes it exciting," Grasso said.

The brewery has recently created three beers using just such ingredients, including two that are certified under the state Department of Agriculture's stringent Jersey Fresh criteria.

Cape May Honey Porter, which they were bottling at the brewery last week, is made with local honey, while another, called Beets by May, is an IPA that was brewed using actual beets from Formisano Farms in Buena.

A third beer offered by Cape May Brewery, called Three Plows, even incorporates hops, malt, and yeast all cultivated in New Jersey. But because one of the farms involved in the production isn't yet certified Jersey Fresh, it can't be labeled as such, Grasso said.

"We work closely with the Department of Agriculture in acquiring these ingredients in the state and creating these brews," Grasso said. "It's important to us and I think it is becoming increasingly important to consumers to know where their food and drink is coming from. We're looking forward to participating in the survey so we can talk about that."

And creating that survey - and asking the right questions - is the job of Richard Perniciaro, executive vice president of planning, research, and facilities at Atlantic Cape Community College.

"The phenomenon of agribusiness - which these days goes well beyond hayrides and pumpkin picking - is something that we need to get a benchmark for, so that moving forward we understand the importance of this particular category within our tourism economy," Perniciaro said.

It is unclear what the participation level among the county's 130 operating farms will be, but the survey will ask owners about their offerings, who their target audience is, the services, products or activities they offer visitors and what revenue they generate from their operations.

"I think once we establish a benchmark with this study, we can talk about growth going forward," Perniciaro said. "And I think the potential for growth is certainly here."