Agritourism growing in state
By John Lovett Times Record
Agritourism is growing in Arkansas as more farm owners open their gates to tourists and form a spiderweb-like network among several state agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Pumpkin patches, corn mazes, "U-Pick Farms" and vineyard tours in Arkansas’ wine country are successful examples of agritourism, but the local food movement is taking a bigger part as more farmers recognize a desire for people to reconnect with their agrarian roots.
In May, Ozark Natural Foods held its first Tour De Farms event in northwest Arkansas to give people an opportunity to better see where its food comes from, and St. Joseph Farm in North Little Rock has developed a Farm and Food Innovation Center to show farm owners ways to take advantage of agritourism. Near Fox in Stone County, Meadowcreek serves as a "sustainable agriculture training and demonstration center."
According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census, from 2007 to 2012 the number of Arkansas farms participating in agritourism programs increased from 268 to 389, likely prompted by a 2011 Arkansas law that helps protect farmers from liability issues, says Stacy McCullough of the University of Arkansas Extension Service Public Policy Center.
"People are starting to come around to it," McCullough said. "There’s just been too many success stories for them not to, and even some cases of people saving the family farm with it."
The Agritourism Liability Protection law was based on those in other states, McCullough said, and protects the civil liberties of those who invite the public onto their land to observe or participate in farming activities.
"People want to experience that life," said Cathy Greene, owner of Wild Things Farm near Pocola, and a member of the Oklahoma Agritourism Board. "It’s been missing in America."
Greene, who is busy preparing for the fall pumpkin patch and corn maze in this 15th year of Wild Things, said more farms in Oklahoma are starting to offer weekend "farm stays" as part of agritourism.
McCullough said that having a central agritourism board like Oklahoma "would be nice," but a Natural State network has developed over the years that has filled that role, especially as agritourism becomes a more popular idea.
Agritourism has a broad definition that includes hunting on private land, but in July 2006 leaders from the agriculture and tourism industries in Arkansas convened at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute to talk about agritourism and find a way to get it up to the levels seen in other states around the country.
A major outcome of that meeting was the adoption of a formal definition for agritourism in Arkansas: "any activity, enterprise or business which is designed to increase farm and community income through combining the essential elements of the tourism and agriculture industries."
In 2008 the Arkansas Agritourism Initiative was formally launched as a partnership between the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, National Agricultural Law Center, Arkansas Agriculture Department, and Arkansas Farm Bureau.
Several of those organizations are using money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to develop a mobile app to connect small farmers to consumers.
"Right now, we’re working to populate the information in the app," Andrew Guffey, Arkansas Farm Bureau’s assistant director of education and Ag in the Classroom, stated in a news release. "We need producers and farmers’ markets to log in and create an account at localandgrown.org."
The app, which is expected to be released this fall, will allow consumers to search for products near them based on their location.