JACKSON, Miss. - A working farm, a Halloween corn maze and pumpkin patch, a petting zoo, wagon rides, you pick 'em farms, a winery and Christmas tree farms amount to year round agritourism activities in Mississippi that generate $150 million annually.
Tourism officials say agritourism is now one of the fastest growing tourism markets, providing employment and revenue for local business owners.
Activities promoting agritourism, such as those held statewide during the month of October, help farmers and landowners by giving them more visibility and increasing the demand for their products, officials said.
"Mississippi's agricultural industry is flourishing, and our state continues to produce some of the most diverse and enticing attractions for visitors seeking an authentic experience," Malcolm White, director of the Mississippi Development Authority's Tourism Division, said.
"Visiting our agritourism sites is a great way to gain hands-on experience and learn how things are grown, made and produced in a natural setting. And more importantly, it's fun for the whole family."
The state's 13 welcome centres showcase different themes every month and in October it was agritourism's turn.
The Bethel Plantation home and working farm helped educate visitors at the Woodville Hospitality Station earlier this month.
Nanette Carter, supervisor of the Hospitality Station, said the centre hosts visitors travelling along Highway 61. "A lot of people stop by," she said. Travelers are familiar with the state's blues music heritage but not necessarily its agritourism side. Those who stopped at the centre on Oct. 1 got a firsthand look at one of Bethel Farm's inhabitants they likely had never seen before: A Nigerian dwarf dairy goat.
White isn't exaggerating when he said the state's attractions are diverse. The broad agritourism category includes winery tours, a shrimping tour, agricultural fairs and festivals, farmers markets, garden and nursery tours, agriculture related museums, hayrides, wildlife viewing, farm or ranch vacations, fishing and bird watching are all considered agritourism activities.
The festivals run the gamut as well. There's the Mississippi Gourd Festival in Raleigh, the brand new Mississippi Peanut Festival in Collins and the 61st annual Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Show just to name a few.
Among the state's registered agritourism venues is A Stroka Gene-US Alpacas, a working alpaca farm, in Stringer. Owner Mary Ann Stroka moved the operation about a year ago from near Buffalo, N.Y., to Mississippi. It took two trips to haul the 38 animals and the assorted equipment for the five-year-old enterprise, she said.
Visitors to the alpaca farm, which is open year round, learn about the animals and the fiber they produce. Demonstrations from shearing to making finished products are offered, as are classes in all fiber arts. RV and motor home hook-ups are available to visitors.
The farm guests can do "as much or as little as they want of farm life," Stroka said, including chores and learning the whole process from sheering the animals to making finished products like hats made out of the yarn.
The farm tours are especially popular with school and church groups.
"We show people the raw fiber and how we card and spin," she said. "That's the best thing since we've been here."
Interest in the farm is growing, Stroka said. Local residents will visit the farm and then when they have guests from out of town they bring them to see the alpacas.
Stroka is planning the first ever Stringer Alpaca Festival Nov. 23, which she hopes becomes an annual event.
"You'll get to meet and feed the alpacas and learn about them," she said.
Thirty five vendors will also be on hand, along with a dulcimer group. Food, pony rides and bounce houses also will be available.
Operations such as Stroka's farm can pay the state $50 a year to register with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
Information from: Mississippi Business Journal, http://www.msbusiness.com