Hunting and fishing have always been popular in Mississippi, but landowners are now adding wildlife watching, horseback riding and other agricultural entertainment businesses, such as pumpkin patches and bed and breakfasts, to the mix.
Daryl Jones, an associate Extension professor in Mississippi State University’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center, said outdoor recreation involving hunting, angling and wildlife watching generates $2.7 billion annually and represents more than 71,000 Mississippi jobs. Agritainment, which includes farm tours, corn mazes and U-pick fruit and vegetable plots, generates another $150 million annually in the state and is one of the fastest growing tourism markets.
"Agritourism has increased 30 percent compared to other tourism sectors in Mississippi," Jones said. "People remember that November morning when they went hunting with Granddaddy and the feeling they had when that covey of quail exploded in front of pointing dogs. They want to experience that again and have their children experience it with them."
Landowners in Mississippi can offer those experiences and add value to their current agricultural operations by starting agritourism enterprises.
"Outdoor recreation on private lands adds as much as $654 of value per acre, or an increase of 52 percent," Jones said. "Outdoor recreational businesses fit very well into existing agriculture and forestry production procedures. Many practices that farmers use in their current operations, such as prescribed burning and managing field borders, are beneficial to wildlife. Consequently, these same practices support recreational enterprises on the farm that promote income diversification and conservation. For a lot of people, it can be a complementary scenario.&quo;
Jones said multiple enterprises are sometimes a good option. A turkey hunting enterprise could expand its business by using the same blinds and trails for bird watching and horseback riding other times of the year.
Researching the agritourism possibilities and creating a business plan can help landowners decide how best to proceed.
"A written business plan serves to convince me that the business will be a feasible opportunity and provides me with a management plan and a financial projection," Jones said.
Jo Lynn Mitchell had done her research when she first expressed a desire to add a pumpkin patch to the family farm in Collins.
"It took me two years to convince my family that this would work," she told a crowd of 88 at a natural resources enterprises workshop June 26 in Jackson. "But I had done my research, and I knew we could be successful."
Mitchell’s family grows peanuts, blueberries, corn, peaches, wheat and soybeans on the 50-year-old farm. In 2006, the family opened the pumpkin patch, which offers wagon rides, group tours for children and adults, a corn maze, interaction with farm animals and a play area. They also offer their venue for weddings and other events.
"The pumpkin patch has been a huge success," Mitchell said. "We well exceeded our expected numbers the first year, and they have been growing each year since."
She said the farm’s website has contributed to the success of the family’s agritourism venture.
"Word-of-mouth is the best advertisement, but the website is the second best form of advertising. We had visitors from Norway one year. They were visiting Texas, saw our website and decided to come over to Mississippi to see us while they were here," Mitchell said.
Besides diversifying the farm’s enterprises, the pumpkin patch is providing an educational opportunity for kids and adults.
"We have kids come who don’t have any idea what a farm is all about," Mitchell said. "When we ask the kids where corn comes from, they say the store. We live in a rural community, and it is amazing that kids don’t understand where their food comes from. So we feel like this endeavor is significant on many levels.
"We enjoy sharing our farm with people and connecting with them through agriculture," Mitchell said. "It’s what our family has done for 50 years."
The passage of Mississippi Senate Bill 2439 earlier this year gives landowners added liability protection. The law went into effect July 1.
Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith said the details of the law have yet to be worked out, but it will provide protection for landowners who post the proper signage. The law comes up for renewal in two years and may be amended then.
"I am so thrilled we got this passed because agritourism opens so many avenues for Mississippi, and a lot of people would not take a chance on an agritourism business without this law," Hyde-Smith said at the natural resources enterprises workshop.
Jones said the law protects landowners as long as they make reasonable efforts to keep their property safe and warn visitors of any known hazards. He also advises landowners to seek legal advice when considering an outdoor recreational or agritourism enterprise.
For more information about beginning an agritourism business, contact Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or (662) 325-3133 or Adam Rohnke at (601) 857-2284.