Agritourism Unites Urban, Rural Arkansas

by Jeanni Brosius ([email protected]) 183 views 

Editor’s note: This article appears in our latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics, which you can read at this link.

Agriculture is an important part of Arkansas’ heritage and it still plays a large role in the state’s economy, but if state leaders and business owners play it right, the family farm could become a major destination attraction for travelers.

“Agriculture contributes about $17 billion to the state’s economy, and one in six jobs in Arkansas are in agricultural,” said Zachary Taylor, director of marketing at the Arkansas Agriculture Department. “That’s about 260,000 jobs.”

One way to connect urban and rural Arkansas is through agritourism, which is a relatively new term in the tourism industry. Tourists can leave the city and tour farms, pick fruit, milk cows, meander through a corn maze or just simply go on a trail ride. Agritourism is another tourism niche that is being advertised to draw people to different regions of the state.

Only about 10 percent of farms participated in some kind of agritourism in 2008, according to a study by the University of Arkansas Division of Agricultural Public Policy Center. Based on the study, agritourism contributes about $7 million directly to Arkansas agriculture and about $12 million to the state’s economy.

“Arkansas is in a beautiful position to take advantage of agritourism,” said Richard Davies, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. “We have the climate and the produce, and some of the best restaurants in the country to feature it. … There’s a big interest in food these days. People are interested in where it comes from. Many of the restaurants are featuring locally grown food, and people have started to notice.”

The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism’s brochure, “Arkansas Grown Good Times: Agritourism in the Natural State,” features festivals that celebrate agriculture in Arkansas as well as farms where people can visit and pick their own food.

Davies said driving through Arkansas, it’s difficult to miss all the soybean fields, crop dusters flying overhead and animals grazing in the pastures. The brochure “helps parents answer all those questions coming from the back seat.”

“Agritourism is good for Arkansas because it can showcase some of the best Arkansas has to offer to visitors from out of state, help reconnect people to our rich agricultural heritage and inform them on how and where their food comes from,” said P. Allen Smith, who is the host of “P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home” and “Garden to Table” television shows.

Smith also built Moss Mountain Farm – overlooking the Arkansas River Valley at Roland – because he wanted to exemplify a message that is important to him: farm life and growing food.

“I had the good fortune to grow up on a farm and understand now more than ever before how meaningful that has been to me,” he said. “Sharing the message of good conservation practices, teaching our audience ways to grow some of their own food and improve their lives in a beautiful setting made the farm an important next step, back in 2006 when we began the restoration of the property.”

The farm opened up to tourists in 2010 because of the overwhelming requests through social media and emails from Smith’s fans. He said about 6,000 to 8,000 people visit the farm each year for tours, weddings and other events.

“They clearly wanted to be able to come and see it firsthand,” he said. “Many of these ardent fans had followed the construction of every aspect of the farm on our PBS television show ‘P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home,’ now in its 14th season of production. It’s amusing when we have groups to the farm and these visitors can tell me exactly when certain aspects of the house or farm were featured on the show, and honestly, they can tell me more about details than I can now remember.”

Tickets for a day’s tour are $90 per person. Guests arrive at the farm at 10:30 a.m. and are taken on a guided tour of the house and gardens that includes the terrace gardens, vegetable garden, 18,000 square-foot rose garden and the poultry house, aka Poultryville.

“They have lunch comprised of recipes from my cookbook, ‘P. Allen Smith’s Seasonal Recipes.’ The buttermilk pecan pie is a favorite,” he said. “After lunch guests can wander about the property and visit the gift shop. If I am in town, I like to attend the tours to meet the guests and answer questions. Accessibility and hospitality are an important part of our brand. … I want everything served at the farm to support our message of the value of good food and a meal shared. ”

While touring the “garden rooms” on the farm, visitors may meet Trudy the horse or Moose the donkey, who have both had guest appearances on Smith’s television shows. Dorper sheep and a variety of heritage poultry breeds also live on the farm.

Not so far away, in Scott, Barbara Armstrong stood atop a wooden picnic table and greeted more than 150 guests to Scott Heritage Farm. Many of these weren’t every day visitors; they were shareholders in her farm. Shareholders invest in the farm up front and share in the harvest. Each year, Armstrong hosts a farm-to-table dinner where she can showcase the work that has been done around the farm.

“Many of our guests come back year after year, and are amazed at the growth and liveliness of the farm,” she said. “This is what it should be about. This is what I want our visitors to experience. This is a lifestyle. Many get chuckles when I tell them that my outdoor bathtub is where I spend some quality time at the end of the day with a glass of wine. … It was two years ago that I finally got city water on the farm. I fill it up during summer and let the summer sun warm the water throughout the day, so that at the end of the day, I can enjoy a nice bubble bath and a glass of wine overlooking the farm.”

In 2010, Armstrong moved onto a part of the Alexander Plantation in Scott, which is owned by Joan Alexander Dietz. Living in a tent, Armstrong said there was nothing but pigweed as tall as a tree and mosquitoes “as big as dragonflies” on the property. Now she has an organic farm with fruits, vegetables, chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, goats and bee hives.

“Living in a tent; can you imagine? Mosquitoes buzzing your head, hot humid nights and, oh yeah, no water to cool off in. So, [living in a tent] was the only solution,” she said. “Shortly some funding was available, and we built a greenhouse and moved the tent into the greenhouse. It was at least dry during raining days and nights. Well, sort of – a couple of farm angels knew what we were doing and loaned us some money. We started to build a little cabin along the Bayou. We moved the tent on a second level of the cabin. At least it was off the ground at this point … I had a very rough time and my farm angels picked me up, and helped me to finish the cabin for a safe and dry place for me and my two dogs.”

The next farm-to-table family dinner at Scott Heritage Farm will be on Sept. 27.

Believing that agritourism is the new wave of economic development in rural communities, Jill Forrester of Whitton Farms in Tyronza said that people living in these rural areas are hungry for work; however, there aren’t very many jobs available.

“Most individuals already have close ties to agriculture, whether it be working on a commodity farm, raising a garden to put food on the table, canning … and the list goes on,” said Forrester, who runs the Poinsett County farm with her husband, Keith. “To me, it only makes sense to find ways in which to incorporate those experiences into economic opportunities. One of our main goals is to reinvest our efforts into creating jobs in our neck of the woods. We believe Northeast Arkansas is rich in history and filled with beautiful landscapes.”

Whitton farms began by accident about 10 years ago when the Forresters were living on property that had been in Keith’s family for about a century.

“We were initially mowing close to 10 acres, and because of my love of flowers, I asked my husband to help me plant a very large cut-flower garden in April of 2004,” she said. “By July, we had so many flowers in bloom that we didn’t know what to do.”

That’s when a family friend told them about a farmers market in Memphis where she could sell her cut flowers. After one day of selling flowers at the market, the couple surpassed Keith’s income for the week as a teacher.

“It got us thinking that we could develop our grounds and finally be able to work alongside one another each day,” she said. “It was and has been a dream come true for us. We are both so passionate about farming, and love being outside each day watching the developments of our crops.”

Ten years later, the couple owns two farm-to-table restaurants, Trolley Stop Market in Memphis and Tyboogie’s in Tyronza.

“We also opened Whitton Farms Cannery, in Memphis, Tennessee, a state-regulated food manufacturing facility and incubator kitchen for clients. We also operate a 100-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in Memphis and Jonesboro. We grow produce year round.”

She said many of the clients who use the cannery also sell their items at the farmers market, and they need a regulated kitchen to prepare and cook their products.

In addition to cut flowers, the farm now produces eggs, medicinal and culinary herbs, pigs, turkeys and transplants. Plans are being made to expand the farm to include trees and native plants.

Whitton Farms sells produce at the Arkansas State University Regional Farmers’ Market and the Memphis Botanic Garden Farmers’ Market, and the farm also accepts orders for pickup.