NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - In a tough year for Tennessee's state budget, the departments of tourism and agriculture have found a mutual silver lining: a boomlet in agricultural tourism.
Milking cows (sort of), wandering through corn and cotton mazes, watching chicks hatch, having a country wedding and picking melons are among the activities drawing city folks and their pocketbooks to farms around Tennessee.
Officials from the state Department of Agriculture say more than 600 such operations can be found across Tennessee today. And some of the farmers have crossed into the cyberspace world, setting up Web sites and Facebook pages.
With an estimated loss of 11.5 acres of Tennessee farmland per hour to development, conservationists wanting to preserve the state's green landscapes are also among those supporting the movement.
"It's very much a growing industry in Tennessee," said Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens.
Figures from a 2006 University of Tennessee study showed annual spending of about $32 million, including $17 million in direct spending. The report came out after efforts began cranking up three years earlier to actively promote what became labeled as agritourism.
Some farmers open their farms for family reunions, for scarecrow festivals, pumpkin picking or hayrides so that they can help make ends meet.
Others, like Billy Donnell, whose Jackson-area farm has been in the family since 1835, view agritourism as a way to educate the public about farming, while still raising cattle and crops.
The tours and activities, which he said pay for themselves – plus a little extra – include playing in a giant "sandbox" filled with dry, shelled corn instead of sand, and feeding chickens.
"Milking" water out of a cow made of wood with rubber teats is a favorite activity there, as seen on the Donnell Century Farm's YouTube video.
Amy Ladd and her husband, Jason, launched the 60-acre Lucky Ladd Farms in Rutherford County's Eagleville with a passel of farm animals to visit in hopes of providing their primary income.
"We're loaded with pregnant animals right now," Amy Ladd said. "We're on baby watch as we speak. Several goats are due to kid, starting this week."
Youngsters like the 100-foot slide, but the real attraction is petable farm creatures. The Ladds have about 100 animals, including pigs, alpacas, llamas, cattle, miniature donkeys and Olde English Miniature Babydoll Southdown sheep, which just came off the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's endangered species list.
Like most farms of its kind, the Ladd farm is closed now, but it will have a spring festival with baby chicks hatching and Easter egg hunts.
In the five weeks they were open last year, about 10,000 visitors came. That was with downpours that kept some away, Amy Ladd said.
"We can make a living like this," she said.
The Ladds' Facebook page has a total of 452 fans, while Pick Tennessee Products' page, which provides info on agritourism possibilities statewide, has 4,473.
Mazes made by farmers' planting crops and then mowing designs into them have increased to the point that 55 are listed on the PickTnProducts.org Web site.
Corn mazes, which are most common, in the past have included faces of now President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, country superstar Johnny Cash and even county road maps.
The Ladds' maze is made by cutting through sorghum, and at least one maze in West Tennessee has been cut into cotton plants.
"Having this new industry of agritourism grow within the state is good for tourism, but it's good for local communities, too," state Tourist Development Commissioner Susan Whitaker said.
Some farms have bed-and-breakfasts. Some provide facilities for company outings or birthdays.
At a Davidson County site, Rockin' R Sheep Farm in Whites Creek, students can see a sheep shearing demonstration and learn how wool is made into a usable fiber.
Riverview Mounds Century Farms in Clarksville has Indian mound viewing in addition to farm activities.
The state's most recent figures show that 8,500 farms and 600,000 acres have been lost over the six years ending in 2007.
Agritourism is one of the tools to help farms be sustainable, Commissioner Givens said.
At one time, tobacco brought about $300 million into the state, but that has shrunk to about $75 million in a good year. Farms have closed down over the years, with about 82,000 counted today — most family-owned.
Agricultural enhancement money is used to try to boost farming potential, including cattle ranching and agritourism, Givens said.
So far, mainly Tennesseans are visiting the farms, but the plan is to try to pull more visitors from out of state, with a series of trails and byways that direct visitors to farms as well as historical and other sites.
"I think it's going nowhere but up," Givens said.