Farming today isn’t just about growing and harvesting crops — for an increasing number of farmers it’s also about cultivating and harvesting urban visitors, school and other groups, and tourists, all wanting unique rural lifestyle experiences for which they will gladly pay.

From corn mazes to pig races to pumpkin patches to face painting, to hayrides, petting zoos, paintball wars, gift shops, and even restaurants and lodging, farmers are offering a myriad of opportunities to those who come with cash and credit cards in hand.

“Agritourism is another way to help family farms add value and sustain their farming operations,” says Jane Eckert, who conducted a “Growing Green — Making More Money from Your Farm Business” seminar at a recent conference sponsored by the Mississippi Agritourism Association at Michael and Cathy Mays’ Lazy Acres Plantation at Chunky, Miss. Attendees were from Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.

What began as “a modest Christmas tree farm” for the Mays has grown into a multi-season agritourism business” that attracts thousands of visitors annually, says Michael Mays.

In addition to a number of fun activities, rides, food, etc., they host a fall pumpkin festival and have constructed a 7,000 square foot multi-purpose building that includes a shop featuring Christmas items and gifts, a banquet hall that can accommodate 350-400 people, and an indoor Christmas lighting display.

“When I finished high school and college, my intent was to get as far away from the farm as possible,” Mays says. “But I came back, and as we started looking for ways to expand and to capitalize on the assets we have, agritourism offered numerous opportunities to move in other directions.”

They have an informative Web site (Lazy Acres Plantation) and an ongoing promotional program to draw visitors.

The Mays operation is among the growing number of farms across the country that are offering visitors fun, food, and learning opportunities within an easy drive of metropolitan areas.

Jane Eckert, who conducted the agritourism seminar, is herself a sixth generation farmer’s daughter, who helped develop and promote her family’s farming operation into a major tourist destination, complete with a large sit-down restaurant and an extensive retail business. Starting as a retail fruit stand in 1910, Eckert’s Country Store and Farms, in southern Illinois near St. Louis, now draws 400,000 visitors annually.

She spent 15 years as a marketing specialist for major corporations and in 2001 established her own business, Eckert AgriMarketing, which works with farms across the country to develop agritourism opportunities.

“For decades, farmers have been existing only as commodity producers,” she says, “but for many, that model is no longer working, and they’re looking for new ways to generate income.”

The job description for farming has changed, Eckert says. “No longer can farmers just plant and grow crops and expect to make money — now, they have to be financial analysts, value-added manufacturers, and marketers, human resource managers, and increasingly, special events organizers, and they also have to be technology-proficient.

“More and more farmers are putting on marketing/hospitality hats and are using the Internet and other promotional methods to capitalize on techniques the big guys have spent millions of dollars to develop. In many states, agriculture and tourism are two of the largest revenue generators, and agritourism capitalizes on both of those sectors.

“If you can make a visit to your farm a memorable experience, people are willing to pay you for that experience.

“Many farmers who have had to work off-farm to supplement their income, but want their farms to be their sole means of income, are turning to agritourism.

“To maintain a way of life and to insure the sustainability of their family operations, they’re incorporating opportunities that can be found beyond production agriculture. They often start small, and many have grown into quite large operations.”

Agritourism is aimed at capitalizing on the desire of people to come to a farm for unique experiences that they can’t find at franchise operations, she says. “To provide these experiences, you have to innovate, to find ways to stand out from others.”

Family commitment is critical, Eckert says. “It’s very important to agree on where you want to go with the business, how many family members are willing to work in the operation, how you’ll attain the new skills necessary for success, and whether you’re willing to give up much of your privacy to support the operation. And you need to set aside regularly scheduled times for business meetings to discuss where you are and where you want to go.”

A careful, thorough evaluation of the farm property is a key first step, she says.

“What are some things you can do with your non-tillable land? Where would you locate the various parts of your agritourism enterprise? What will it take to make it happen? What are your physical assets? What can you offer to urban visitors to give them an experience that is special and will make them want to return? What is the family’s financial comfort level — are you willing to take on debt, or will it be pay as you go? What will it cost? When do you expect it to turn a profit? Where can you obtain help to evaluate the potential of your agritourism business?

“And importantly, who are the customers you want to attract: young families with children, seniors, young adults, or all of those? How do you plan to reach and market to these potential customers?”

Property layout, scenic vistas, and a rural farming ambiance can add to visitors’ experiences, Eckert says.

“Never underestimate the value of first impressions. What does your farm look like to someone driving up to it? Is there adequate, informative signage, well-marked parking areas, attractive landscaping (no broken-down equipment, pesticide cans, and other unsightly items littering the area)?

You don’t have to spend a lot of money creating a favorable first impression — a lot of little things can make a big difference.

“Helping people get to your farm is important. Web sites should include both maps and written directions and be sure to include your address, phone number, and hours of operation; it’s amazing how many Web sites I see that don’t include this vital information. More people are using navigation systems, so include GPS latitude/longitude coordinates for your farm.

“Web sites and promotional materials should emphasize what you offer that is unique — things to see, do, taste, and buy.”

All signs should have a similar theme, Eckert says. “Make sure your on-farm signs are functional, directing people to activities, food, and buildings. Many operations include educational signage to teach visitors about agriculture. Signage on your pickups and vehicles can also promote your operation wherever you drive.”

Food sales can be a very important source of income, she notes. Many operations are now generating $6 to $8 per person in food sales in addition to entrance fees and activities fees.

“There’s real money to be made by offering a variety of country-themed foods, with a full array of drinks, including bottled water with your own label design. Play up the farm-fresh angle, and develop signature products. Be sure you have plenty of seating and tables, and that you offer a variety of hand-held foods. You can start simple and keep adding items. Bakery products always work well.

“Retail food products can include home-grown/prepared items, private label products, and value-added products. Display them attractively, creatively — you want it to be different from a grocery store experience. Think Cracker Barrel, which does an outstanding job of displaying their offerings. And very importantly, offer tastes and samples, which dramatically increase sales. Include recipe cards and cooking instructions. Consider cooking demonstrations. Cookbooks are a consistent seller.

“Gifts should be themed to match your farm. Go slowly at first to get a feel for what sells and so you don’t end up with a lot of unsold items.”

As the business grows, Eckert says, “You should continually be developing ways to market your business, to attract more customers, enhance their experiences, and increase gross receipts. The bar for agritourism is being raised all the time, so you need to constantly innovate. Gradually add activities, more foods, a gift shop, pick-your-own vegetables, hunting/fishing opportunities. “Wildlife/bird/nature viewing can take advantage of your unique scenery and animals, and ATV trails, canoeing, etc., are ways to extend the time visitors spend at your farm — the longer they stay, the more they will spend.” Several have done quite well with paintball activities, which can become a year-round draw and a significant revenue generator.

It’s important, she says, to accept credit cards; some operations even have ATMs.

Many agritourism operations have reached the level that they are open year-round, with an extensive calendar of special events, permanent facilities, and paved parking.

School tours can add to the revenue stream, Eckert says. “These can not only generate more cash, but create future customers, so treat students as well as you do adults. Wagon rides, how to grow a hamburger, where milk comes from, how farm crops and animals become food and fiber — all these can provide an educational component while having fun. Determine what you want to teach and make it appropriate for target age levels. Offer botany/biology field trips for students. The opportunities are numerous.”

Fall is often a good season to start an agritourism enterprise, Eckert says. “It’s a time of year that evokes a positive emotion in people, and Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas offer a myriad of opportunities for family-oriented experiences, as well as excellent retail sales opportunities.”

Corn mazes have become very popular; many are quite elaborate and attract large numbers of visitors. Often, tie-in sponsorships can be arranged, with mazes laid out as corporate logos.

“In addition to just plain pumpkins, offer painted pumpkins and gourds to increase their value. Pots of chrysanthemums and other fall flowers/plants can be big sellers. Set the stage with attractive decorations to make your farm come alive with color and to provide plenty of opportunity for photos. Offer activities such as make-your-own scarecrow, make your own gingerbread house, pumpkin carving contests, haunted hayrides, spook houses, flashlight corn mazes, bonfires (some farms get $75 or more for setting up a bonfire area for groups). Play areas for small children are important, and there should be activities for various age levels. Add seasonal foods such as hot chocolate, cider, gingerbread, etc.”

Workshops, classes for various crafts, retreats, and day camps also can work well, Eckert notes. “Scrapbook-making has proven an excellent revenue generator,

“Offer special weekend events. Partner with organizations such as Boy Scouts and arrange tie-ins with local or area events and celebrations.”

Many farms are now offering lodging, either bed-and-breakfast, or standalone cabins/lodges, she says. “It doesn’t have to be fancy — some have been very successful with tepees and even Conestoga wagons.”

However modest or extensive the enterprise, Eckert says, it’s important to monitor sales and other financial aspects. “Too many operators shortchange themselves on this part of the business. Develop a detailed records and reporting system that will allow you to know where you stand and to react quickly if changes are needed. Establish benchmarks to help you refine and increase sales.”

And, she says, be involved in local and area organizations. “Join your local chamber of commerce, state tourism organizations — get involved, develop partnerships with other businesses and attractions and with events in your area. Be sure you’re listed on your state’s tourism Web sites.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com