CABOT, Ark. The Arkansas Agritourism Initiative is designed to help consumers find local vendors as well as farms that offer tours or other attractions. Organizers launched a Web site Saturday that will help promote the industry through the state's tourism department and other avenues.
"In Arkansas, more and more people are living in urban areas and we're losing sight of the rich agricultural heritage in the state," said Joe Foster, program coordinator with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute at Petit Jean Mountain and one of the initiative organizers. "These businesses bridge the gap between rural and urban life here in Arkansas."
The notion of agritourism goes beyond U-pick farms and hay rides. Farmers markets, on-site farm sales, horse riding, ranching, fish farm tours and even leasing east Arkansas farmland during duck season all fit the category. The initiative aims to bring them together on the Web site and help the industry grow by promoting it with all the state's other attractions.
Other agencies and groups backing the effort include the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the National Agricultural Law Center. The state Agriculture Department already was maintaining a Web site for producers who sell to the public but said the new site will have greater reach.
A farmer taking on a venture with the public will have to be prepared to adopt a new perspective, said Larry Odom of Holland Bottom Farms outside of Cabot.
"We offer flavor and freshness," Odom said Friday as he stood among crates of just-picked peaches, tomatoes and okra at his roadside produce business on Arkansas 321. "But you're also marketing the whole farm and you're marketing yourself. That is not to be overlooked."
Odom, 64, said he had not had a day off since April and does not to expect to have one until the stand closes for the season in August.
Tom Ellison, marketing director for the Arkansas Agriculture Department, said farmers have to be sure adding a tourism component would improve the overall business, especially considering the need to make physical improvements and perhaps adding staff.
"You have to decide if you have a story there to tell that people will want to come see," Ellison said.
Ellen Dalton and her husband run Pumpkin Hollow in Piggott, where aside from their produce they offer corn mazes and tours of their barns, including an old concrete milking barn from the 1950s.
"They like to know things like that and how the farm evolved," Dalton said.
She added that visitors often want to know if she's really a farmer or being paid to act like one.
"They want to know that we grow our own things," Dalton said. "We are who the farm is."
Opening a farm to public visits can create a number of costs, including insurance, restrooms, shady sitting areas, facilities for refreshments and additional staff.
"People don't want to pull up to a closed gate where there's a big dog that doesn't welcome you," said Donna Perrin of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department. "They won't want to get out of the car."
Perrin said her agency is offering hospitality programs geared specifically to farmers and advising farmers on how they can increase revenue. For instance, advertising on the Internet is essential, accepting credit cards accommodates customers who want to make big purchases, keeping events listings current helps draw patrons and being open during advertised hours is critical for sustaining business.
Ellison said agritourism businesses can grow as the industry builds momentum. If there are several different attractions open in an area, a family will be more likely to invest the time and gas money in a day trip than if there is only one operation, he said.
"The main goal is to bring more people to your farm," Ellison said.
Odom, pausing from helping fill a large order of peaches for a farmers market, said anyone willing to make the commitment should give it a try.
"I encourage competition," he said. "The water's fine."