NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, October 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the growth of agritourism.
The last census in 2010 showed more than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas.
So it should come as no surprise to you, then, that many urbanites long to experience life on the farm—even if just for a day.
And savvy landowners are happy to meet those needs.
They call the business agritourism.
EICHER: It might be a stint on a working ranch or just a fun time at a local pumpkin patch.
It’s good for farmers and for local economies.
Mississippi’s agritourism, for example, generates about $150 million dollars each year.
WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson now with a visit to one farm where the owners no longer bank solely on their crops.
KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: On a blue-sky October day, the drive to Mitchell Farms is filled with fall.
AUDIO: [Sound of car]
Golden oaks drape over tight, two-lane roads. Tractors roll through fields picked clean of their crops. Circular hay bales line up nice and neat next to fence rows.
At the farm, visitors pay $10 to run through a corn maze, see baby goats, and eat boiled peanuts. At day’s end, they can pick out a pumpkin to take home.
As Jo Lynn Mitchell tells it, the farm’s history is common enough.
MITCHELL: Mitchell Farms started back in 1960… through the years we’ve grown different crops… We still grow about 1,400 acres of row crops—corn, wheat, soybeans, peanuts, and now we’ve started doing pumpkins.
But things changed in 2006.
MITCHELL: We got to talking about doing a pumpkin patch. Agritourism really got kicked off in Mississippi… I got to go into meetings and learn a little about what farmers were doing on their farms, and I thought, oh my goodness. This is just wonderful.
What Mitchell learned was that farmers were multi-tasking. They were working while visitors watched. Visitors got a fun experience, and farmers earned supplemental income.
Jo Lynn liked the idea so much she quit her sales job to pursue it. A few weeks later the farm was ready for visitors.
MITCHELL: You know, if we could just have 5 or 600 people to come that month, that would pay my costs, give me a little money, and hopefully we would sell more peanuts. Well, it was just wonderful. We had about 5,000 people that came…
Since then, Mitchell Farms has grown into a full-blown agritourism adventure.
MITCHELL: Today I had 11 school groups here this morning, and seven homeschool groups this afternoon. But we also had a senior citizen group that come this morning…
The tour begins in a covered wagon pulled by a John Deere tractor. A recording tells about the huge peanut sheller by the barn and the field of sunflowers to the left.
MITCHELL: Aren’t they beautiful? We began planting sunflowers the first of August and plant three different stages, hoping to have blooming ones the entire month of October.
Mitchell says other farmers are making a go with activities that range from mushroom foraging to birdwatching.
MITCHELL: I’ve got friends who have dairy farms that’s parents were about to go out of business… They’re finding they can bring kids out to the farm and teach them how cows are milked and where milk comes from. That’s a whole other stream of income for them. And that way they can also bring other family members back to the farm to have a job and keep the farm going for at least another generation.
Having all these visitors raised questions about liability: What happens if visitors get hurt? Those concerns explain why Ohio, Texas, Florida and Mississippi recently passed laws to limit the liability of agritourism operators. Owners must take sensible efforts to make their property secure, but participants assume personal risk.
At Mitchell Farms, signs warn visitors about equipment and animal dangers. One hangs near an air blower…
AUDIO: [Sound of kids]
The air is filling a main attraction—a huge jumping pillow. Employee Jim Bush explains.
BUSH: It’s basically a jumping house without the house attached to it … A bladder. It inflates with air… Kids love it… This morning we had 500 toddlers at one time. They just love to get up there and jiggle and laugh… KH: Jim is sitting here under an umbrella. Gets hot out here, I guess? Jim: It does. It’s been nice today. KH: You look like a lifeguard, sorta. [Laughs]
The farm’s newest feature is a barn with double slides that land in a pool of corn.
WADE: Corn right out of the field… That we grow here, and they dump it in here. There is about 55 50-gallon drums in there.
That’s Bonnie Wade. She’s worked in agritourism for four years.
WADE: When I first got this job, I started in the corn pool, the smaller one. And I thought, the Lord is testing me with all these children. But I think I passed. I’ve been able to come back every year.
While kids like the active aspects of farm life, adult visitors gravitate toward the realm of front-porch rockers…
AUDIO: [Sound of rocking chair]
And autumn merchandise. It doesn’t take long to realize that agritourism is all about marketing the season.
HENDERSON: Here in the main store there’s candy apples, candy corn, kettle corn, peanut brittle, and apple cider for sale…
In the corner, a guest book is perched in front of an oscillating fan. Signatures from as far away as Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Illinois point to the extent of ag’s appeal.
Jo Lynn Mitchell has a theory as to why.
MITCHELL: God blessed us so much with such a beautiful place… Most people don’t have that anymore. Most people grow up in the city or grow up in town. They don’t have land anymore.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Collins, Mississippi.