Farms finding success with agritourism
Like many families across North Carolina, David Ferrell's family has deep roots in tobacco. For more than a century, the Ferrells grew tobacco and other crops on their farm in western Wake County.
Green Acres Farm stopped growing tobacco about 10 years ago, but the Ferrells have kept the family farm going through agritourism. The farm is one of about 600 N.C. farms involved in agritourism.
"Tobacco put me through school. My family's in the position we're in because of tobacco," Ferrell said. "There isn't a cash crop that will do that anymore and agritourism is a good income."
Agritourism can include everything from pick-your-own farms and pumpkin patches to wedding venues and wineries. The Ferrells began selling Christmas trees on their farm in 1999. In 2009, they added a corn maze, which has grown into an even larger business.
"We were looking for extra income and trying to draw people here for the Christmas trees," Ferrell said. "Now the corn maze has taken over."
Plans for the corn maze begin each July, and the season runs from mid-September through October. During that period, Green Acres hosts school groups, church groups, corporate family days and birthday parties looking for a little fall fun.
Hill Ridge Farms in Youngsville has also found success in agritourism. For 44 years, the farm has offered some sort of agritourism to visitors.
Owner John Hill started the venture as a pick-your-own vegetable farm on his family's farm and has since expanded it to include activities throughout the year, including a corn playhouse, life-sized fort and teepee, train rides, a pumpkin patch and hayrides.
This year, Hill extended his agritourism season further with the Festival of Lights. The Christmas attraction included a display with more than 100,000 lights and nightly visits from Santa.
"We want to keep this thing forever," Hill said. "And this is one reason we're trying to add things to it to sustain additional families."
Both Ferrell and Hill agree that part of the challenge with making a successful agritourism farm is marketing.
"A lot of it is marketing," Ferrell said. His wife, Beth, has a degree in business and handles the marketing for Green Acres. He said Green Acres gets a lot of traffic from curious drivers passing by, but said they also supplement with ads on radio and television.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services can assist farmers with starting and marketing their agritourism farm through the Agritourism Office. Martha Glass has been managing the office since 2003.
"The USDA recently said that agritourism is one of the most popular things rising and growing in the agriculture industry," Glass said. "We're here to help our farmers figure out how they can select agritourism options appropriate for their farms."
One of the ways the office helps is through the Agritourism Networking Association, which has grown to 250 member farms.
Throughout the year, the group hosts workshops, networking events and conferences for farmers to share ideas and learn how to improve their operations.
Hill is a member of ANA and has participated in national conferences on agritourism.
"The thing Martha's doing is a good thing," Hill said. "It's taking people who've dealt with growing things and selling wholesale and don't have skills to deal with the public, and they end up learning how to do it."
The ANA will host its annual conference Feb. 21-22 in Carolina Beach. The conference includes workshops, networking opportunities and an open house at seven coastal agritourism farms. Early-bird registration ends Feb. 5.
Farmers interested in learning more about starting an agritourism farm, should attend an upcoming mini-conference. Three mini-conferences will be held this spring: Oak Haven Farm in Rockingham County, Feb. 28; The Fork Farm in Stanly County, March 14; and St. Paul Mountain Vineyard in Henderson County, March 28.
For more on the conferences, contact Martha Glass in the Agritourism Office at 919-707-3120. Extended interviews with David Ferrell and John Hill can be found on the In the Field blog at http://info.ncagr.com/blog/?p=18823.