In 2004, Jo Lynn Mitchell attended one of the first meetings of the Mississippi Agritourism Association and recalls, “I was so enthusiastic about it, I wanted to quit my job and launch an agritourism operation here on our farm.”

Mitchell Farms, founded by her husband Don’s parents, Dennis and Nelda Mitchell, more than half a century ago, had long been involved in the production of peanuts, row crops, and timber.

Located down a winding road with overhanging trees that create a path of green to the farm in the rolling hills of Covington County, near the Leaf River in south central Mississippi, the farm encompasses 1,500 acres — about 1,100 acres in crops, including peanuts, corn, wheat that’s double-cropped with no-till soybeans, about 20 different kinds of vegetables and fruits, and 400 acres of timber.

“For some time before I attended the MAA meeting, I had wanted to try and find some way I could work here at the farm and have more time with family,” Jo Lynn recalls, “but there was no way I could make up for the kind of income I was earning as a medical sales rep.”

The agritourism idea wouldn’t let go, though, and she kept talking it up with Don, who runs much of Mitchell Farms’ crop operations, and Dennis and Nelda, who are still very active in the operation.

She laughs: “I don’t know if they just wanted to shut me up about it, but they agreed that I could give it a try. We started in 2006 with a pumpkin patch, an 8-acre sudangrass maze cut into a pumpkin design, some picnic tables and port-a-potties. We had no idea how it would work, but the first year did much better than we’d expected, the next year doubled that, and business has grown steadily ever since. Every year, we add something new to enhance our visitors’ experiences.”

Many of the visitors to the farm are from the nearby cities of Laurel, Hattiesburg, and Jackson, but Jo Lynn says, “We have people from south Mississippi and Louisiana, and we get quite a few foreign visitors — we had a group recently from Sweden.”

Now, thousands of visitors yearly come for the fun, entertainment, and educational experiences of a working farm, plus a lot more who come to make purchases.

A historic log cabin, built in 1877, was moved onto the property and turned into the visitor headquarters, and later two others were added. All are filled with early-era furnishings and implements, photographs, huge collections of miniature skillets, old graters, and wood carvings and paintings by Nelda Mitchell. There’s also an old-fashioned grist mill that grinds fresh corn meal.

Nelda provides a fascinating, hands-on tour of the artifacts and memorabilia, along with commentary about their history and use. An old Andrew Jackson military road runs through the property, so there is also historical significance for the farm.

 “Every building on the farm has a name,” Jo Lynn notes, including the little admissions building, which bears a carved wooden sign, “Don’t, Miss.” That was actually the name of the rural post office that, years ago, was located nearby.

 “Our new barn/meeting facility was built with lumber that Don sawed from trees cut here on the farm,” she says. “It’s a beautiful facility, that can host large groups. We’ve had a number of weddings and family reunions here, a lot of church and school groups, and civic clubs. It’s also great in case of rain — we can bring people inside for various activities. Even with all the rain we had in the last half of 2009, we only closed two days.”

Fall, and particularly Halloween, is the busiest time for farm visitors. “On many Saturdays, we’ll have 1,500 or more people,” Jo Lynn says.

In addition to the 6-acre maze, they have round bale and square bale hay mazes; an animal barn with turkeys, peacocks, chickens, and other animals; a hay bale pyramid for climbing, a merry-go-round, ropes suspended from tall oaks from which kids can swing, a la Tarzan, into a huge sandpile. And there’s a “corn pool,” a large area made from an old grain bin that was painted like a sunflower and filled with corn kernels for kids to wallow in.

There are lots of cutout figures, pumpkin/corn decorations, scarecrows, scattered around the area to provide opportunities for photos. A number of antique tractors and farm implements are on display.

There is a goat castle, which Dennis built, where kids watch goats clamber around and can feed them through the fence rails. They plant acres of sunflowers for color and landscape plots of flowers and attractive plants dot the farm grounds.

And if you ever wondered what happened to all the cotton trailers that were displaced by the advent of module builders, some of them we brought to Mitchell Farms and converted to trailers to transport visitors for educational tours of the farm. They installed benches, bright yellow canvas covers, and decorated them with colorful cutouts of peanuts, pumpkins, and other farm produce. Large parking areas in adjacent fields can accommodate hundreds of vehicles.

The farm is open to the general public on weekends, while group tours are scheduled on weekdays.

“In a year’s time,” she says, “we’ll have thousands of kids come for a visit: school groups, church groups, Scout groups, etc.” Each tour lasts two and a half to three hours, and visitors get to see the various crops on the farm — cotton, soybeans, corn, peanuts, sunflowers, and numerous vegetables. Some days, visitors in groups will total more than 500.

A single admission fee covers everything, including the mazes, and entitles the guest to select a pumpkin to take with them — “they’re all sizes,” she says, “and if you can carry it, you can have it.

“We try to offer something for every age group,” she says. “Whether a visitor comes for vegetables, peanuts, pumpkins, to see a working farm operation, or just to have fun in friendly, welcoming surroundings, we want them to feel that they’re a part of our family and that they got more than they paid for.

“But, while they’re here, we also want it to be a learning experience — to make them more aware of agriculture, of the contribution it makes to our way of life, how dedicated farmers are to protecting and preserving their land and resources for future generations, and of the steps it takes to get the things they eat onto the supermarket shelves.

“As the older generations are dying out and the population becomes more urbanized, those links to the land and food production are also becoming more tenuous. While a lot of people come for the fun things, a lot come just to see a working farm. Ninety percent of the people who visit here have no concept of what’s involved in row crop and vegetable production. Only a few people in our county still grow crops.

“We grow the vegetables we sell, and pick them fresh daily. Customers can call ahead to have them ready for pickup, or they can pick their own. The vegetable season begins late May and continues through the end of July, when the peanut sales season kicks into high gear. We sell a lot of watermelons, peanuts, and other produce to peddlers for resale elsewhere.”

Mitchell Farms has been growing peanuts for more than 30 years. Starting in August, Jo Lynn says, “the phone never stops ringing” — all the peanuts they produce from 200 acres are sold at the farm.

“We sell most of them green for boiling, but about 20 percent are dried for roasting. We’re also moving in the direction of offering hand-graded and washed peanuts.”

A lot of the farm’s hay and wheat straw is baled; the square bales are sold for income and the round bales are used for a maze and for decoration.

The pumpkin patch opens in late September and runs through early November.

“On weekends, we’ll have 20 or 25 people working here to insure safety, answer questions, show visitors around, handle sales of items in the store and at the you-pick location, and just being sure that everyone has a good time. We keep all the you-pick areas mowed so people will have easy access to the plots.

“We sell thousands of bushels of shelled peas and butterbeans during the season,” says Beverly Mitchell Bakalyar, who manages the you-pick and shelling operation. Though she now lives in Tampa, Fla., she has returned to the farm each summer for almost 30 years.

“We’ll have people lining up at daybreak to be the first into the okra section, or to pick buckets full of tomatoes or other vegetables,” she says. “Our pea shelling machines are running sunup to sundown, and we provide part-time employment for dozens of youngsters shelling butterbeans and doing other chores.”

While food is available for visitors to purchase, there is an extensive picnic area, and Jo Lynn says, “We welcome people to bring food and have picnics” while they’re enjoying the farm’s activities.

She emphasizes that continuing promotion and publicity are important to make potential visitors aware of the farm and to encourage return visits. She makes a number of speaking appearances at schools and before various groups during the year to talk about agriculture and about the farm.

“We have a professionally designed Web site (mitchellfarms-ms.com) that includes travel directions, contact information, what people can expect to see and do, operating hours, farm and family history, and extensive photos of the various activities that are offered.”

Dennis Mitchell, the farm’s patriarch, admits to being somewhat dubious when Jo Lynn first started talking about the possibilities in agritourism.

But now, he says, “She’s made a believer out of me. She’s put a ton of work into it, and she’s always thinking of things to do to make our visitors’ experiences even better.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com