SCHLATER, Miss. -- Many Delta farmers, it is said, have but two seasons on their calendars: crop season and hunting season.
In recent years, a number of them have turned their love of the outdoors into a business — leasing hunting rights to clubs or businesses, collecting fees from individuals who want to hunt on their land, or even providing guided hunts.
Schlater, Miss., farmer Bo Prestidge saw hunting as a way to diversify his operation, to generate additional income, and to include neighboring farmers in that enterprise.
Nine years later, he has hunting leases on 40,000 acres of farmland within a 15-mile radius, and his Wildlife, Inc., business attracts clients nationally and internationally, including show biz celebrities and captains of industry, and has garnered exposure in a bevy of national outdoors TV shows and publications.
"The years of shutting down everything on the farm for the winter are past," Prestidge says. "We've got some of the best hunting land in the country, particularly for waterfowl, so why not capitalize on that in order to provide additional diversification and income?"
His own farm consists of 4,300 acres — 1,000 acres of rice, 400 acres of soybeans, 500 acres each of cotton and catfish, which he leases out, and the rest in woodland, used in his hunting operation.
Several years ago, concerned about the downturn in agriculture, he decided to put his own love of hunting and outdoors to work in a business venture. An arrangement was forged with Mossy Oak, a West Point, Miss., company that sells camouflage clothing and other outdoor products worldwide through retail stores such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart, sporting goods outlets, co-ops, mail order, and the Internet, and with Jackson, Miss.-based Primos Game Calls, which sells game calls and outdoors videos worldwide.
"We've grown into it slowly," Prestidge says. "Along the way, we've built two lodges totaling 7,600 square feet and are now expanding the second one.
"We offer a complete package — a place to stay, meals, hunting, transportation, everything. We're fully booked every year, averaging about 300 clients during the Dec. 1 to Jan. 31 season.
"Most come from the Southeast states, but we've had people from 28 states and four foreign countries. We've had movie and music stars, NASCAR winners, and corporate moguls. They come in Learjets, helicopters, custom buses — you name it. And they spend a lot of money while they're in the state, so they contribute to both local and state economies."
Prestidge says he fields thousands of phone calls during the year from people seeking information or wanting to book hunts.
Jay Rose, representative for a Greenwood, Miss., equipment dealer, says, "One of the reasons Bo has been so successful with this is that he loves what he does, he has a knack for entertaining and getting along with people, and he goes out of his way to make sure everyone has a first-class experience."
Says Prestidge: "Everything's personal to us, and we do everything we can to give our clients top value. In addition to duck and deer hunting, they can spend their afternoons shooting sporting clays, quail hunting, or anything else they want to do — from golf to fishing to sightseeing.
"We offer a clean, smoke-free facility, with good meals and a family-type atmosphere. A father can come with his young son or daughter, or his wife, and have a good time with others who share their interests in the outdoors. We clean and process all their game and have it packed and ready to go when they leave.
"More and more of our clients don't even hunt. They may want to just do photography, or just come for the Mississippi flyway migratory waterfowl experience. Other areas of the country aren't blessed with the abundance and variety of waterfowl that come through here in the winter."
In addition to providing income to area farmers through leases, Prestidge's operation gives employment to about 15 people who work as guides and handle other duties.
"Some are farmers, who don't care about running this kind of business themselves, but enjoy working as guides. Others are ag consultants, cotton scouts, and area businessmen; a couple are dentists and doctors; there's even a golf pro. When somebody will get up at 3:45 a.m. and not go to bed until 10:30, you know they enjoy what they're doing."
Wildlife, Inc., has been the beneficiary of extensive publicity, much of it generated through word-of-mouth from clients spreading the news about their experiences in the Delta.
"We've been very fortunate to have received more national TV exposure than just about any hunting lodge. We've been on TNN Outdoors, Remington Outdoors, ESPN, The Outdoors Channel, Mississippi Outdoors, Hunting In The Country; we've been included in numerous hunting/outdoors videos; and we've been featured in many national magazines. All this, of course, has helped bring in more business, as has our Website (www.wildlifeinc.net)."
Prestidge is in the process of expanding his arrangement with Mossy Oak to work with Mid-South farmers who want to sell prime agricultural land suited to outdoors use.
"We hope to offer a better opportunity to farmers seeking buyers who understand the importance of the recreational and wildlife aspects of land in order to generate income 12 months a year."
Plans are to expand nationally and worldwide.
Now in the process of preparing promotional materials (Slogan: "Secure Your Future — Invest In Land"), getting a Website up and running (www.wildlifeaglands.net), and arranging for billboards along major area interstates, he's looking forward to the challenges of the new venture.
"Farmland hasn't been exactly a hot market for a while, but with so many investors having been burned in the stock market, more people are now looking for an investment they can put their hands on. We think this will open new opportunities for farmers to sell their land to those who see a value in it beyond just cropping."