Take a trip to the South, and chances are you’ll be greeted with an ice-cold glass of sweet tea. In South Carolina, at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, guests can not only quench their thirst with the iconic drink, but they can learn about the entire process that goes into making tea, from the field to the glass.
“We’re the only commercial tea plant in the United States,” says owner Bill Hall, who bought the Charleston Tea Plantation in 1987, then partnered with the Bigelow Tea Company in 2003, bringing in the American Classic brand.
Though Charleston Tea is a working farm, Hall says they built certain aspects with visitors in mind, wanting to teach people about tea farming.
“I always knew I wanted to have agritourism aspects, and when I partnered with Bigelow, they really took off,” he says.
They built a facility that allows visitors to walk along a hallway with glass panels so they can see the tea being processed.
“It proved to be a very good decision and an educational opportunity for visitors to see that tea is being produced here in America,” says Hall. “People are more interested than ever in where their food comes from. They want to be proactive and buy local.”
More than just factory tours, Charleston Tea provides a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors. Guests can tour the fields, learn about the tea plants themselves and the equipment used to process tea, the horticultural aspects of tea and participate in as many tea tastings as they’d like.
The biggest event, which Hall says has become a huge draw, is the plantation’s First Flush FesTEAval, held each May. The festival celebrates the beginning of harvest season, and in 2014, the popular music group The Avett Brothers entertained more than 10,000 visitors. There are also food vendors, a kids’ play area and a limited edition tea brewed specifically for the event.
Hall says they plan to keep growing and planting even more tea and doing as much as they can to educate visitors.
“We’re a working farm, not just a tourist attraction,” Hall says. “But people have no idea where tea comes from, so we want to show them.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Windy Hill Orchard in York opened in 1988 as a wholesale apple cider production facility, but expanded into agritourism efforts around 1990 to increase direct consumer sales.
The family-owned and -operated farm opens from mid-August through Christmas, and visitors can pick their own apples, enjoy award-winning hard cider, hayrides and other apple treats, such as apple butter and pies. They also hold an annual Apple Harvest Festival on the third Saturday of October.
“Agritousim has benefited us by increasing our direct-to-consumer sales and giving consumers the opportunity to connect with our business,” says owner Matthew Gusmer. “As it has grown in popularity, other farms in our area are adding agritourism activities, which have helped create a cluster of recreation in our area, benefiting us, other farms, consumers and the entire state.”
Something for Everyone
The Charleston Tea Plantation and Windy Hill Orchard are just a couple of many diverse stops across South Carolina where consumers can learn more about agriculture while having fun.
“Agritourism is a combination of what South Carolina does best – agriculture and tourism,” says Jackie Moore, director of agritourism at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. “It encompasses everything from orchards in the Upstate to the tea plantation in the Low Country and everything in between.”
According to Moore, the number of agritourism farms increased from 376 to 581 in South Carolina in four years, bringing in $461,000. This added income helps farmers stay on their farms, while enticing younger generations to return to the farm or start a farm of their own.
The annual Ag & Art Tour is a great example of a unique event where consumers can learn more about where their food comes from. The free event, put on by the Catawba Regions farms, will take place June 27-28, 2015. The self-guided tour leads visitors through York, Lancaster, Chester and Fairfield counties, where they can watch local artists in action, see firsthand where their food is grown, learn more about rural life, and enjoy local bluegrass and folk music.
Moore says events like these appeal to the creative tourist, a participant who learns by doing.
“Agritourism is perfect for that,” she says.