On a crisp fall day just off Highway 64 in Woodruff County, people of all ages are making their way through a corn maze.
Others are traipsing through a pumpkin patch to find the perfect subject for a jack-o’-lantern or the ideal gourds for autumn decorations. Hayrides are happening, kids are active in a petting zoo and families are enjoying time together with picnic lunches.
This is a typical scene at Peebles Farm in Augusta, and it’s one of many similar sites in Arkansas, where agriculture and tourism have merged to provide many farmers with a new way to earn money. Dallas and Katie Peebles, Arkansas Grown members, have been involved in agritourism for the past decade through their fall-centered activities that attract thousands of visitors.
But the term covers a wide variety of ventures.
“We’ve always just left it up to the producers to define agritourism,” says Stacey McCullough, assistant professor who oversees the agritourism program for the University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture. “It could be pick-your-own, it could be the entertainment-type things in the fall, the on-farm hunting or bird-watching. It’s a broad spectrum.”
From wineries and farm tours to trail rides and pumpkin patches, the number of agritourism enterprises in the state has fluctuated in recent years. According to Census of Agriculture data, there were 268 such businesses in 2007, a decline from 478 in 2002. But the number bounced back in the next five years, climbing to 389 in 2012.
The upswing is due, at least partially, to state legislative initiatives passed in 2011, according to McCullough. One was a liability law that offers some protection for agribusiness entrepreneurs, and the other was the “Cottage Food” act that expands the number of products that can be sold by private individuals.
“It gives them a little more confidence,” McCullough says.
She adds that for the most part, farmers and producers who have embarked on an agritourism business have done it with baby steps.
“Usually, what we see are people that start out fairly small, and then each year try to add things to kind of expand and get people coming back, attract more people and try to get them to stay longer,” McCullough says.
That’s Peebles Farm in a nutshell. Just a few years after buying their farm to grow watermelons, cantaloupes, purple hull peas and sweet corn to sell to wholesalers, the Peebles began seeing people come to their property to buy directly from them. They set up a produce stand, and before long, they offered U-pick options and were adding more features.
By 2004, apple bobbing was on the list, and they hosted their first farm tour. The following year, Peebles Farm became an official agritourism destination and continued to add activities for guests to enjoy.
“We’ve been super pleased, and we’ve grown every year,” Katie Peebles says. “About 25,000 folks come out here each year. We get a lot of school kids too, about 5,000 each year.”
Therein lies a key reason for the popularity of agritourism. Life on the farm is something only a few people experience these days, especially kids.
“A lot of school groups are going to agritourism sites. It exposes kids to things they’ve never seen,” says Joe David Rice, tourism director for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “When my dad was growing up, about 80 percent of Arkansans grew up on a farm, and now it’s closer to 8 percent. So it lets kids experience the rural life and some of those special qualities that made America what it is today.”
Cotton Pickin’ Time
You may have visited a U-pick farm, where you can seek out sumptuous strawberries, find the perfect pumpkin or cut your own Christmas tree.
While the crop may have many uses, picking cotton doesn’t exactly deliver the immediate rewards as, say, eating a peach picked right off the tree.
But at Peebles Farm, folks are lining up to pick cotton.
“It’s one of the most popular activities out here,” says Katie Peebles, who owns the agritourism site in Augusta with her husband, Dallas. “People want to relive the old days. I’m just amazed at how many people have never seen cotton.”