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Ag tourism goes main

Agriculture.com Staff 12/18/2006 @ 12:58pm

On the last Saturday in October, I drove across Kansas, returning from two farms in the western end of the state.

As Interstate 70 ribboned over the bluestem prairies of the Flint Hills, the late afternoon sun lit the cottonwoods in the valleys a golden yellow. Patches of greening winter wheat and reddish unharvested milo pieced the landscape into a quilt of fall color.

Clearly, there's nothing plain about the Great Plains.

I grew up in Nebraska, so I've experienced the inferiority complex the region once had. That's no longer true. A few farmers are beginning to see their homes and neighborhoods through the eyes of an outsider. They're discovering that Americans living in cities hunger for open space, fresh air, and unpolluted skies that remain a 1940s postcard blue.

One group of Nebraska farmers not only hope to diversify their businesses with tourism, but also they've launched a Web site that other farmers and ranchers can use to buy liability insurance, advertise to consumers, and handle bookings.

The Web site is called Country-Adventures.com (described briefly in the November issue on page 16). Corn farmer John Willoughby thinks visitors might enjoy riding along in his combine at harvest or experiencing other chances to be a farmer for a day.

The farmers behind Country-Adventures are the Kearney Area Ag Producers Alliance (KAAPA). It's a group that includes state and local leaders of the Nebraska Corn Growers. When KAAPA launched their Web site, the governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman, showed up. KAAPA is about as mainstream as you can get.

Another sign that agritourism is legit is that the lending community recognizes it. Writing in the economics magazine, Choices, economist David Kohl and master's student Alicia M. Morris, both of Virginia Tech, describe seven unique business and lifestyle models lenders should consider as agriculture evolves. They write, ". . . the fastest growing model will be coined as the agri-entertainer. Financing of lodges for hunting, pumpkin festivals, bed- and-breakfasts, the urban farmer's market, horse trails, or all-terrain vehicle recreational sites will become more commonplace."

To reach its potential, though, agritourism needs three things:

1. Coordination. Consumers are fickle, and they like variety. The overnight catfishing once advertised on KAAPA's Web site will appeal to some sportsmen. Their wives might prefer antiquing. Kids who pick pumpkins in the morning might want to pick apples in the afternoon at another farm. Willoughby envisions something like a rural mall of potential adventures. This takes planning, hard work, and organizing. It will pay off.

2. Consulting. You need an outsider to look over the place before visitors arrive -- to be sure they have a great first impression and good lasting memories. Country-Adventures offers that in Nebraska for a modest fee. And if you're serious about agritourism, I also recommend the national authority, Jane Eckert (www.eckertagrimarketing.com).

3. Cash. There may be a role for some government help in all this, from road signs and trails that promote regional attractions to tourists, to perhaps more help in the form of loans and grants from USDA's rural development programs. Too much can overbuild this industry, as has happened with some European rural bed-and-breakfast programs.

In the long run, more interaction between consumers and farmers and ranchers should benefit our industry. If the public is to understand farming, it needs to know farmers.

On the last Saturday in October, I drove across Kansas, returning from two farms in the western end of the state.

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