Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry for Arkansas, and it is more than just getting people from other states and countries to visit here.
It is also getting people to travel from one part of the state to another and that can be for a variety of reasons – from an overnight stay at a cabin on Mount Nebo to stopping at Mount Ida’s legendary Dairyette for dinner enroute to a high school football game.
It might also mean packing up the family and going two counties over to visit a corn maze and that’s where the Arkansas Agritourism Association comes in.
Ruth Pepler serves as the organization’s president and owns and operates Dogwood Hills Guest Farm in Searcy County’s Harriet.
Pepler says the state conducts an agricultural census and in 2017, “it found 295 farms engaged in agritourism in Arkansas. Farmers are looking to agritourism as an added revenue source for their farms.”
And her organization has agritourism under a very broad umbrella.
“This is not limited to just corn mazes and pumpkin patches,” she says. “It also includes u-pick, vineyards, orchards, farm markets, petting zoo, on farm events, farm wedding venues, tree farms and farm stays.”
That same 2017 study found that “annual receipts from agritourism activities were $4.7 million with an average per farm of $15,949,” Pepler says.
Amanda McWhirt, the fruit and vegetable specialist for the University of Arkansas Extension Service, says, “This type of enterprise can be successful and profitable” about farms that “offer learning and entertainment opportunities.”
One such operation is Jackson Farm in Lawrence County. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the farm was bustling with people, who had traveled from across Northeast and Central Arkansas and paid $10 a person to go on hayrides and check out activities like pig races and a petting barn.
It also has an elaborate, six-acre corn maze that was custom-cut, but it met an unfortunate end.
“We put hundreds of man hours into getting it ready,” says Bill Jackson as he was driving the tractor on one of those hayrides. “Then a storm rolled in and knocked it all down.”
Pepler says, Tthe association is currently working on guide book of member farms” and “is compiling a list of all of the operators and members of the association.”
The organization is relatively new as it first started meeting informally in 2017 about starting a state-wide association with the first official meeting in February 2018.
The University of Arkansas Extension Service and the state’s departments of Parks and Tourism and Agriculture assisted the organization in starting and still provide support.
In addition to Pepler other board members include:
- Vice-President: Jason Mullins, Fair Haven Farm, Trumann
- Treasurer: Beth Eggers, Wye Mountain Flowers & Berries, Roland
- Secretary: Logan Duvall, Me & McGee Market, North Little Rock
- Central Representative: Kevin Hicks, Hicks Family Farms, Lonoke
- Northeast Representative; Jerry Whitten, Mootown, Brookland
- Northwest Representative, Audrey House, Chaeatu Aux ARC Vineyards & Winery, Altus
- Southwest Representative: Deedee Alston, Holly Springs Homestead, Mena
- Southeast Representative: Laurie Black, The Pickens Plantation, Pickins
- Serving as technical advisors are: Stacy McCullough, UA Extension; Tamora Williams, Parks & Tourism and Mary Elizabeth Lea, Agriculture Department.
Pepler says the goal of the organization was a simple one.
“We are moving forward to increase agritourism in Arkansas,” she says. “[To] draw tourists to the state and increase revenue to the farmer as well as tourism tax for the state.”
Pepler adds that anyone interested in learning more can visit the organization’s website at aragritourism.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aragritourism.