Leader Blues

Friday, July 18, 2008

TOP STORY > >Cabot farmers pioneer selling crops to public

By CHUCK BARTELS
Associated Press business writer

A new state effort is getting underway to encourage consumers to do business with Arkansas farmers and to bring more growers into the agritourism industry.

The Arkansas Agritourism Initiative is designed to help consumers find local vendors as well as farms that offer tours or other attractions. Organizers have a Web site that helps promote the industry through the state’s tourism department and other avenues — www.arkagritourism.org.

The groups are also encouraging more farmers to branch into retail.

“If they really believe in what they are doing and want to share their experiences on the farm with others, it may be the right move,” said Joe Foster, program coordinator with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute at Petit Jean Mountain and one of the initiative organizers. A farmer taking on a venture with the public will have to be prepared to adopt a new perspective, said Larry Odom of Holland Bottoms Farm in Cabot.

“We offer flavor and freshness,” Odom said 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, who has a math degree, said he had not had a day off since April and does not 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.

Bob Barnhill, 77, who also operates a Cabot-area farm and produce stand, said his target market is people with extra pocket money, not folks doing their primary food shopping.

“We’re here to sell to people who have disposable income,” Barnhill said. “It’s a different world than Wal-Mart.”

To compete against Wal-Mart and other retailers, agritourism businesses have to offer special touches not available in the city, Foster said.

“In Arkansas, more and more people are living in urban areas and we’re losing sight of the rich agricultural heritage in the state,” Foster said. “These businesses bridge the gap between rural and urban life here in Arkansas.’’

One challenge for farmers who open their gates to the public is the cost of insurance. That was enough to lead Barnhill to stop offering hay rides, instead focusing on sales only. Foster said updating insurance is among investments that can include adding restrooms, shady sitting areas and facilities for refreshments. Other agencies and groups backing the effort include the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the National Agricultural Law Center. The state Agriculture Department already maintains a Web site for producers who sell to the public — www.naturallyarkansas.org — but said the new site will have greater reach.

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 Arkansas Agritourism 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. Donna Perrin of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department said the agency is offering hospitality programs geared specifically to farmers. She said the department is 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.

“People don’t want to pull up to a closed gate where there’s a big dog that doesn’t welcome you,’’ Perrin said. “They won’t want to get out of the car.’’

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.