Small farmers cultivating tourist trade

By Nancy Cole

ST. FRANCIS — Ellen and Darrell Dalton started growing a few acres of pumpkins almost 20 years ago on their 120-acre farm near Piggott in the state’s northeast corner.

The venture soon evolved and took on the name Pumpkin Hollow, now in its 15 th year of operation.

School groups and families can pick pumpkins, take hayrides and participate in pig scrambles at the Dalton’s farm. Cornfield mazes, forest walks, pony rides, a petting zoo and special “haunted” attractions also are available. This year’s admission prices range from a basic $ 6 tour to as much as $ 20 for combination tickets.

“Many farms get bigger to survive. We got different,” Ellen Dalton said, explaining why the couple decided to invite people to visit their farm during about five weeks each fall.

Pumpkin Hollow is an example of agritourism, a growing sector that blends agriculture with tourism. The enterprises vary widely, from wineries and “U-pick” orchards to Christmas tree farms, dude ranches, and fee-based hunting and fishing businesses.

“People are doing this because they need to develop other sources of income beyond their farm products,” said Jane Eckert, chief executive officer of St. Louis-based Eckert AgriMarketing. And the demand for agritourism is expected to grow as more and more people live in urban environments, she said.

“People want to have their children see a cow first-hand, rather than in a book,” Eckert said. “They want to see where their food comes from and who grows it.”

In Arkansas, nearly 1, 500 farms, or 3. 1 percent of all the state’s farms, sold agricultural products directly to the public in 2002, up from about 1, 200 farms in 1997, according to the U. S. Census of Agriculture. The farms posted more than $ 5. 6 million in direct sales in 2002, up from $ 5. 3 million, but still representing only 0. 1 percent of all agricultural sales in the state.

A little over a year ago, an organized effort began to develop agritourism in Arkansas. Spearheading the push is Joe Foster, program coordinator for the University of Arkansas’ Winthrop Rockefeller Institute at Petit Jean Mountain.

The institute received a $ 50, 000 grant from the U. S. Department of Agriculture for an 18-month pilot project in seven counties in the Arkansas River Valley. About 40 visits have been made to small farms already involved in agritourism as well as others that want to incorporate the concept, Foster said.

“We’re trying to develop a strategic plan for this area that we can eventually apply to the entire state,” he said. “The industry’s got a lot of potential.”

An initial statewide list of about 350 Arkansas farms involved in agritourism has been compiled, said Stacey Mc-Cullough, who works for the University of Arkansas’ Cooperative Extension Service. And an online survey — at www. aragriculture. org / agritour ism — has been established to collect information about those farms and their needs.

WHY AGRITOURISM ? “The simplest definition of agritourism is anything that brings the buyer to the property,” said Miles Phillips, who oversees nature tourism in Texas. Nature tourism includes not only agritourism but also hunting, fishing and adventure tourism, he said. “There’s a lot of activity in the whole sector,” Phillips said, spurred in part by Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv wrote that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and the physical and emotional health of children and adults.

Katherine Adam, an agriculture specialist with the Southeast office of the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Fayetteville, said many existing agritourism enterprises in Arkansas have an ecotourism component because of the natural beauty of the state. She prepared a September 2004 business management guide for “entertainment farming” and agritourism.

Agritourism also involves direct marketing, said Bruce Wicks, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“That’s the key to the whole thing, cutting out the middleman between the producer and the consumer,” Wicks said. The sale of higher value products and services bolsters the income of small farmers.

“If people have a smaller farm, they either have to change their operation or sell it,” Wicks said. “Five- or six-hundred acres of corn and soybeans doesn’t cut it anymore in Illinois. You need 1, 000 to 2, 000 acres to really be profitable.”

Many agritourism ventures are run by women who want to work on the farm with the rest of their family, Wicks said, and the phenomenon is global. “I did an agritourism plan for Antigua in the Caribbean,” he said.

The industry also meshes well with other trends including the “slow food” and “eat local” movements, a resurgence in farmers markets, and the popularity of community-supported agriculture, Wicks said.

“Agritourism is a necessary part of survival for those farmers who are doing it,” said Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association, based in Southampton, Mass. The association, which has 600 to 700 members in Canada and the United States, offers training and peer-to-peer mentoring programs for farmers involved in direct marketing, Touchette said. “A majority of our members still do wholesale marketing,” but all have diversified in terms of their products and how they market them, he said. The association’s 2008 convention, which will be held in early February in Wisconsin, will incorporate nearly a week of activities including a multiday bus tour, conference, trade show and workshops, Touchette said. The 2009 convention will be held in Georgia.

PUMPKINS AND GOURDS Like most agritourism enterprises, Pumpkin Hollow has grown over time, adding and updating its educational and entertainment activities. The Daltons now produce 20 to 25 varieties of pumpkins annually on about 20 acres of farmland and devote nearly 30 acres to attractions and parking. Pumpkin Hollow normally employs six to eight workers, but their number swells to about 50 for the farm’s eight “fright nights” as Halloween nears. Most visitors are drawn from a 75-mile radius, Ellen Dalton said.

“Right before we open, there are 20 million details to attend to, and I only sleep every third night,” she said. The season began Sept. 29 and continues through Oct. 31. More information may be obtained at www. pumpkinhollow. com.

Although the Daltons began growing traditional row-crops — cotton, soybeans, corn and milo — in 1969, their production now is limited to pumpkins and about 20 acres of gourds. Pumpkin Hollow sells more than 30 varieties of gourds to artists who paint and carve what many people refer to as “nature’s Tupperware.”

Each spring, the Daltons haul trailerloads of dried gourds to Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina for sale at craft shows. Pumpkin Hollow also regularly ships gourds to domestic and international artists and floral distributors. The farm also fills orders for gourd birdhouses placed through the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s Web page (pur plemartin. org ).

“We’re kind of weird,” Darrell Dalton said, “but we have a lot of fun.”

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