By Michael Prochaska | file photos by Angelina bellebuono
Agritourism is a growing business locally and across the state
Since its inception in 2009, the Georgia Agritourism Association (GAA) was destined to grow based on statistics alone. Agriculture is Georgia’s number one industry, said Billy Skaggs, chief operating officer at the Georgia Department of Agriculture. At number two is tourism, so it’s no wonder that the two industries have taken root – pun intended – together.
Although GAA is a brand new organization, agritourism is nothing new to the state of Georgia. The term “agritourism” is broad in meaning and can include anything from petting zoos to corn mazes to strawberry patches to orchards and wineries. Closer to home, Madison-Morgan Conservancy’s Greenprint Ramble, Bostwick’s Cotton Gin Festival and Wes Holt's annual Sunflower Farm Festival are great examples of agritourism at its finest.
GAA has refined the already existing industry to make it more comprehensive by linking agritourism businesses across the state. By bringing businesses together, state and federal grants, among other resources, become more accessible.
As of now Sunflower Farm and Hundred Acre Farm are two of the few members of GAA from Morgan County, but that number is expected to grow.
“It is all a big network and the more farms that do this, the more people we will have coming in to visit [the county],” Holt said, noting that the Sunflower Farm Festival sees 80 to 85 percent of the visitors from outside the county. “It definitely impacts the county and the cities in Morgan County, for the people who come out for the day to go to a farm will need to eat, drink, buy gas, shop for antiques, tour the historic sites and maybe spend the night.”
One of the main components of agritourism is education. "The potential for our school children to learn where their hamburger comes from, where their milk comes from and fruit and things like that is important,” said GAA President Jeff Manley. “We are quickly becoming removed from a generation that understands where agriculture and food comes from.”
Manley said he loves nothing more than having a visitor ask how his cattle ranch, the Rock Ranch, operates. And the majority of people are driving more than an hour away, he said, including 56 visitors from Miami, Fla., last year.
"My passion for this whole thing is that we come together as a state in agritourism and creating this association is one step in that direction,” Manley said. “Georgia has been really backwards, immature maybe, at least politically for creating a port for agritourism in the state.”
Manley attempted to bring businesses together six years ago, but it didn’t pan out because the Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner at the time didn’t have a passion for it, he said.
With the help of the University of Georgia and the current administration under the Department of Agriculture, agritourism is now valued within the state more than ever.
“Now with Commissioner Gary Black and his team, there’s a real passion and interest,” said Manley.
Skaggs worked with agritourism several years on a signage program in which the Department of Agriculture would approve signs and then send their approval to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Promotion is an essential element to GAA. At the group’s first conference of 2012 in Savannah, Holt presented his experience with a new marketing tool, FARMeander, which combines the marketing effort of farms that sell their products directly to the consumer at their farm or through farmer’s markets. The group was organized by the Madison-Morgan Conservancy, which helped create a driving map that locals and visitors to the county can take and find farms, festivals, lodging and events. The 2012 version will even include farms in Walton and Newton counties.
FARMeander is in the vein of the Georgia Grown campaign, which supports locally grown produce vendors and just re-launched a new Web site Jan. 9.
Another topic of the conference was ordinances. According to Kent Wolfe, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, taxpayers tend to think of agritourism as being commercial entities, rather than agricultural.
Though members of GAA make money from their produce, cattle or agricultural ventures, profitability from tourism helps them stay in business.
"Just company picnics on our farm is a huge thing," Manley said of profitability. "We make as much or more on company picnics than our cattle operation. If the bottom falls out of the cattle operation, we can spend more on picnics."
According to a 2010 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report by the University of Georgia, Georgia’s total agricultural production value was at $12 billion, up $746 million from 2009. Ag-based tourism, nature-based tourism and other income brought in about $640 million,
Morgan County alone produced about $2.3 million from agritourism and other income.
For some, the economics is not as important as another goal: improving life for residents of a community. “Attracting more residence to our county is not my goal; it is attracting more opportunity for the people that already live here,” Holt said.
Manley even considers his job to be one of the best in the world. Why? Because every day he helps strong families and businesses thrive.
Printed in the January 26, 2012 edition