Mississippi's agriculture had a farm gate value of $5.65 billion last year. But that was topped by the $5.7 billion spent by 3 million visitors to the state — many of them coming for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreational activities that have, or could have, ties to agriculture.

“These people are a massive market, and they'll come to you… if you tell them what you have, and if you invite them the right way,” says Ted Eubanks, who heads Fermata, Inc., which studies and promotes “experience” tourism as a sustainable economic approach for communities.

Travel/tourism spending “represents net new dollars that provide jobs and support businesses” he said at the Beyond the City Limits conference on agriculture called by Gov. Haley Barbour.

Today's population is becoming more experience-oriented, he says. “They're sophisticated and they travel and spend money for things that appeal to them.

“There are tens of millions of people who're looking for experiences that fit their particular interests. They're mostly baby boomers who don't want Disney, but want to reconnect with things that are real, authentic, and native. Mississippi has that in spades.”

They want to slow down and take trips that are special, Eubanks says. “Quality is very important,” and rural communities that develop ways to capitalize on “the business of nature” can attract those tourists and their dollars.

Bird watching is a prime example, he notes — now a $1 billion industry nationwide. His firm worked with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division to develop ecotourism and bird watching packages, and saw revenues go from $250,000 to more than $1.5 million in two years. McAllen, Texas, located on a major migratory bird flyway, attracted nearly 100,000 bird watchers last year, raking in nearly $40 million.

The Mississippi River and areas surrounding host a wide variety of migratory birds, Eubanks says. “There is an entire matrix of opportunities here. You have the resources; you just have to develop ways to capitalize on them and attract these people.

“Every welcome center in your state, every airport, every hotel — everything the traveling public comes in contact with should make its number one goal the selling of your state and the experiences it has to offer.”

Sidney Montgomery, executive director of the newly-formed Mississippi River Foundation, agrees. “The river is a jewel in the rough that wants to be discovered, explored. It's a resource people want to see, to experience.”

The 38 million hunters, fishermen, and sportsmen in the nation support more jobs than Wal-Mart, he says. “If they were ranked as a business, they'd be number five on the Fortune 500. Money spent on these pursuits in 2001 exceeded the value of the state's cotton crop.”

Wildlife leases are a major part of Mississippi's agricultural picture, Montgomery says, and represent a growing source of income to farmers and landowners.

“Tourists are willing to pay to be a part of this untapped natural resource. And the jobs we create here won't be exported to China or elsewhere.”