“It sure as heck beats growing soybeans,” says Dennis Mitchell of the thousands of visitors who come each year to Mitchell Farms to have rural lifestyle experiences — and pay for doing so.
The Mitchell operation at Collins, Miss., produces 20 different crops, ranging from peanuts to melons to blueberries to butterbeans, Mitchell says, but agritourism has added a new, profitable dimension to their farming enterprise.
His daughter-in-law, Jo Lynn Mitchell, past president of the Mississippi Agritourism Association, “really jumped into this feet first and has done a great job of promoting and building our tourism business,” Mitchell says.
It’s now a year-round operation that includes a spectacularly successful fall pumpkin patch, at-the-farm vegetable sales and you-pick, a 100-year-old log cabin with antiques, early era tools, animals, and other attractions. They host school and group tours (“We have a tour group from Norway coming through next week”), weddings, and other events.
More and more farmers are parlaying a desire for additional revenue and a knack for interacting with people into successful tourist destinations, says Jane Eckert, Eckert AgriMarketing, who conducted a seminar for the Mississippi Agritourism Association. “It’s farmers looking at things in new ways, to help sustain their families and their businesses,” she says.
Extremely popular in recent years are corn mazes, often covering several acres in quite intricate patterns. Kids and families find them a source of much fun — for which they’re willing to pay.
Donald and Vicki Courville, whose Cajun Country Corn Maze at Pine Grove, La., draws families and groups from all over the region, have a complex sports design maze for which they have a commercial tie-in. Other attractions include a cow train ride, corn and water balloon launchers, and duck race. “Everybody has fun — and we make money,” says Donald.
Doug and Rhonda Webb, eighth generation Mississippians who “grew up loving farm life and the outdoors,” operate Fiddlin’ Rooster Farm at Water Valley, Miss.
They combine a passion for farm life, music, fun, and food, with a goal of “teaching today’s youth about the importance of agriculture to their daily lives.” As musicians, they have entertained audiences large and small and “love teaching about Mississippi’s rich musical heritage,” particularly as it pertains to old time string band music, a forerunner of today’s bluegrass.
In addition to a corn maze, the Webbs also organize and host field trips, campfires/parties, week-long summer camps and educational events, and their Little Red Hen Bakery has mouth-watering goodies like burnt sugar caramel cakes and mile high meringue pies in a flaky crust “just like grandma used to make.”
These are samples of the variety of on-farm experiences being offered around the Mid-South. Tourism has become a key economic sector for every state, and farmers are increasingly finding ways to use their land, water, and creativity to tap into that lucrative market.