Celebrating Mississippi’s Agritourism Down on the Farm
As Mississippi’s Agritourism Month gets underway, farms are creating unique experiences for visitors and hoping to attract the next generation to farming.
As long as there have been farms, there have been farmers seeking ways to make a steady living from the land. A simplistic notion perhaps, but when looking at how the American agricultural base has shifted in a short half century, this pursuit takes on a whole new dimension.
Where families could once sustain a living on a smaller plot of land and even sell the excess, today it’s a difficult road. As for those wed to their land or lifestyle, lack of traditional farming ventures forced creative thinking about rural properties and farms, leading to a whole new industry called agritourism.
In short, this trend seeks to answer several questions: How do farmers attract visitors and tourists to rural working farms, maximize an experience, and maybe make additional income?
October marks Mississippi’s Agritourism month, and given that agriculture is still Mississippi’s largest economic sector, talking about the agricultural assets and tourism only makes sense. Agriculture touches all 82 counties in Mississippi, and agritourism activities are as diverse as the state’s farms. Farm festivals celebrate everything from sweet potatoes to sugar cane, hogs to chickens. Farm tours help connect kids to even the most basic rural practices like raising chickens or to just enjoying hay rides. Seasonal operations include pumpkin patches, Christmas trees, and Easter egg hunts. More and more rural properties are taking advantage of the event space, offering up barns or scenic spaces for weddings, gatherings and business meetings.
Long before the new buzzword agritourism hit the airwaves, one north Mississippi family, owners of Cedar Hill Farms located in Love, began thinking about this concept more than 20 years ago.
“My parents Mike and Martha Foster got the idea back in 1996. Agritourism wasn’t an official thing yet,” says son Robert Foster who has served as a Mississippi Representative for House District 28 since 2016 while helping run the farm.
The Foster family approached the tourism concept from a different angle.
“We didn’t think about the farm as a farm but rather as entertainment,” he adds.
Foster reminds that many farms have always had what some might call a primitive form of agritourism with roadside produce stands. As the Fosters began formulating their plan, the family visited many operations including Eckert’s in St. Louis, a family orchard and farm that began in 1837 and has grown into a large, year-long agri-enterprise. They visited farm playgrounds, concession stands and petting zoos.
“I really think we may have been the first farm in the Mid-South region that began offering farm activities,” says Foster. More than 20 years later, Cedar Hill Farms is a beloved destination for many families, many of whom Foster says drive from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. “I find people will drive up to four hours to find us.”
Today, Cedar Hill Farms offers year-round fun. They began developing their farm with Christmas trees, pumpkin patches, blackberries and a corn maze. “We’re really selling an ag experience and there is a giant list of things farms can do.”
Finding that niche or right mix takes time and creativity. What fits one farm may not fit another. Over the years, the Fosters have included paintball and a truck produce operation.
“This year, we’re ending the paintball,” he says. Foster began selling his produce at the Hernando Farmers Market almost 10 years ago and learned a valuable lesson during those years. “The produce just didn’t fit into our big picture, and it’s a really labor-intensive pursuit. Produce production can really be its own operation in itself.”
Foster believes farms need to decide on a definite direction from the start and determine what fits in with the major activity. Their family decided to offer the farm for public and private events, hosting everything from birthday parties to weddings. In the end, the event business has proven to be a key part of their operation and success.
In Panola County, brothers Marshall and Jemison Bartlett founded Home Place Pastures with the long-term goal of establishing a USDA-approved processing plant for beef, hog, lamb and goat. After several years of developing wholesale markets with noted chefs across the Southeast from New Orleans to Nashville, the Bartletts cut the ribbon on the new plant in late 2016, ushering in a new era for local meat production in the northern half of the state.
More importantly, Marshall’s unwavering dedication to the rural county and its residents has led to a unique agritourism event that connects the most sophisticated urban food cultures directly to the rural food traditions ̶ specifically whole animal utilization.
This year marked the 4th Annual Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic where more than two dozen chefs gathered in August to create original small plate offerings for guests and locals. The event also celebrates Hill Country blues by including local musicians who have gained international recognition for their authentic voices and music, including Sharde Turner and the Como Mamas.
“We just want to create an incredible, fun, open, warm weekend to just eat some amazing food, meet some new friends and experience some classic Hill Country music,” says Bartlett.
Recognizing that more people wanted access to a complete farm experience, Home Place Pastures has grown to offer camping, educational tours, butcher demonstrations and farm tours. With a retail butcher shop located on the farm, travelers passing Como on I-55 have the rare opportunity to visit and purchase meat raised, processed and packaged right on the farm.
“This is something we can only do right here on the home place in Como, Mississippi,” he adds.
As labor jobs have vanished from the farms due to technology, the modern-day agritourism farmer values and believes that creating micro-economies through steady employment is just as important as the primary farm pursuits.
“We want to be able to employ local labor in an area that doesn’t have a lot of jobs,” says Bartlett.
Foster agrees. Cedar Hill Farms employs 150 seasonal full-time and part-time employees just through the fall season from September to November. With the legislature in full session through the winter months from January to March, Foster says he’s able to fulfill both his primary responsibilities as a state rep and a farm owner. “I could never have done both if the timing didn’t work out,” he says.
As the industry has gained structure and recognition, state organizations like the Mississippi Department of Agriculture & Commerce (MDAC) have introduced additional programs to support agritourism. One specific program offers increased liability protection to farms and another provides additional directional signs to farms.
Farmers like Bartlett and Foster share a distinctive drive and vision for their operations, equally enjoying building ventures and sharing them with the public. “I still enjoy being able to dream it up and build it ̶ then seeing people enjoy it.” While not on the farm, he continues to fight for farms as a legislator, working to change labor laws and create farm-friendly policies.
“We have a huge opportunity to draw the next generation to the farm,” says Foster.