Stanley Wise's neighbors thought he had lost his mind when they saw him planting a field of corn in early August one year. “Uh, Stanley, that corn is not going to get ready,” one after another said. It didn't help much when he explained he was in the process of building a corn maze. They'd think for a second, then reply, “That corn still isn't going to get ready, Stanley.”
Stanley and his wife, Shelaine, are partners in Wise Farms, Boonesville, Miss., where they grow and market fresh produce in the summer and operate an agritourism business in the fall. Both also work for the Mississippi Extension Service.
Shelaine told attendees of the Natural Resources Landowners Workshop, held at Mallard Lodge, near Valley Park, Miss., in May, that agritourism can be a lucrative business for someone with a farm, patience for people and a little imagination.
Studies indicate that nationally, agritourism will grow by 30 percent a year over the next decade. Studies also say that agritourism is the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry in Mississippi.
“There is no reason why Mississippians shouldn't be jumping on this bandwagon and taking advantage of some of the money that is out there,” said Wise. “A 2005 survey by USDA and the Mississippi Extension Service of seven agritourism enterprises in northeast Mississippi showed a total of $500,000 in income on less than 100 acres of land. The operations were open only on weekends and for four weekends each year.”
In 2004, prior to Hurricane Katrina, 2.9 million people were served just through Mississippi's welcome centers, Wise noted. “A lot of money is generated in Mississippi, primarily from the casinos. But many people are bringing their families into the Tunica area and are looking for things that kids can do, so they can have more of a family time.
“People like to visit the farm. They like to bring their families and teach their children something. They don't want their children to think that milk comes from the grocery store. They want them to experience the farm life. Kids today are four generations removed from the farm. That's kind of scary. Agritourism gives us a chance to educate our kids about farms.”
Wise defines agritourism as the blending of agriculture and tourism — anytime a person visits a working farm or ranch for the purpose of entertainment. “For example, if they're visiting a pumpkin patch, a corn maze or even to pick fresh vegetables.”
The centerpiece of the Wise's agritourism enterprise is their corn maze. They charge $6 per person to go through the maze, and in 2005, averaged 3,000 people over each of the four weekends they were open.
According to Wise, professional maze designers charge $1,500 to $2,000 to cut a design plus require 6 percent of the gross income from the proceeds. “We wanted to prove that it could be done by regular people. We found the design we wanted to use and scanned it into a computer program. We used a hand-held GPS to build the design.” The first year, the Wises tromped down maze pathways by foot, but recently have learned that a lawnmower will do an excellent job if done early.
“The first year we opened the corn maze, we anticipated that we would only see teenage kids,” Wise said. “We found that parents were showing up with little kids, and there wasn't anything for them to do. We went as fast as we could to the tractor supply store, bought some tricycles, brought some hay out and made a riding rink for them. Sometimes, we've found tricycles out in the corn maze, but that's the kind of thing you have to deal with.”
The Wises planted cotton on the farm this year, “so when school groups come out, we can take them out to the field to touch some cotton and pick the cotton. They'll know that the blue jeans and t-shirts they have on come from cotton.”
Other enterprises include a hay pyramid, a modern version of the old game, King of the Hill; a corn swimming pool for kids, where visitors take their shoes off and walk through a container full of corn; a snack bar; and school tours.
They also added bonfire parties — focused on church groups and limited to small groups. “We put them on a wagon and take them out to our pasture where we have a fire pit waiting for them. We have a table set up with hot dogs and all the trimmings they would need. When that's over, we pick them up and take them through the corn maze.
“It was so popular that we had three fire pits going every night we were open. We averaged four groups a night. One night, we had 47 people in one church group for a bonfire party. One Saturday out of the month is our community festival day. We allow any of the churches in the community to come up at no charge to set up a booth and sell things for fund raisers for their youth.”
One barrier to agritourism is acquiring adequate insurance for the various enterprises. “Our regular farm insurance does not cover our corn maze and wagon rides. It does cover our U-Pick operations. So we have to get special event insurance. Last year, we were turned down five times before an insurance company accepted us.”
Last year, the Wises' insurance coverage for four weekends in October was around $1,200.
But there's no doubt that agritourism can bring the landowner or farmer extra income. “We have a lot of farmers in our area who are (hurting economically) and we're trying to show them that this is a way to bring in extra income. It gives mothers a chance to stay at home and helps you keep possession of your land.
“We have found that it gives us more family time. My husband comes from a large family with six brothers and sisters. His parents are 88 years old and we need every one of them to help us with our corn maze in October.”
Agritourism is not for everyone, Wise stresses. “If you're not an outgoing person, or if at least one person of your family is not outgoing, don't think about getting into agritourism. If you don't like kids, forget it. You have to have a different mindset. You're going to tell kids to stay on the trails, and to not cut through the corn. But kids being kids, they're going to cut through the corn.”