Why These Tennessee Farms Added Agritourism
In junior high, Andrew Dixon and his brother, Philip, began selling corn stalk bundles to crafting enthusiasts to earn spending money. In 2005, a neighboring agritourism farmer retired and encouraged the young men to take up the torch. The next fall, the Dixons, along with their parents, Steve and Karen, opened Grandaddy’s Farm in Estill Springs to the public, adding a tourism element to the mainstay crops of corn, wheat and soybeans on the property cultivated by the younger Dixons’ great-grandfather, Charles, in 1951.
“It was a way for me to be able to bring in extra income so I could stay and work on the farm,” Andrew Dixon says. “And then it opened up opportunities for our siblings.”
What began as a small operation with a corn maze, a hayride and a few animals now regularly draws crowds with a pick-your-own pumpkin patch, the 150-foot Landslide, pig and duck races, a bustling market featuring homemade apple cider donuts and more. Grandaddy’s welcomes school field trips on weekday mornings.
Tennessee Agritourism Adds Up
According to a 2012 study by the University of Tennessee Center for Profitable Agriculture, 171 Tennessee agritourism respondents reported hosting more than 1.75 million visitors that year. The estimated economic impact was $35 million, with a $54 million ripple effect – more than double from 10 years before.
Adding tours and other entertainment helps sustain rural economies, educates the public about food production and allows new generations to work on the farm, says Megan Leffew, a UT Extension agent and marketing specialist who is fielding a growing number of calls from farmers interested in the niche industry. “We think of agritourism as a way that farmers can add value to their resources,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to bring the public to the farm and share what they have.”
Tennessee Farms Find the Right Fit
Agritourism isn’t for everyone, though, Leffew points out. From adhering to new regulations and avoiding liability issues to investing in infrastructure, the challenges can be daunting. Then there’s the unpredictable weather, which can impact visitor participation. It also helps to be a “people” person.
If You Go...
Amazin’ Acres of Fun – 2857 Old Kentucky Road, Sparta 38583
(931) 761-2971, amazinacres.com
Donnell Century Farm – 3720 US 70 E, Jackson 38305
(731) 424-4526, donnellcenturyfarm.com
Grandaddy’s Farm – 454 Highland Ridge Road, Estill Springs 37330
(931) 327-4080, grandaddysfarm.com
Myers Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze – 3415 Gap Creek Road, Bulls Gap 37711
(423) 235-4796, myerspumpkinpatch.com
“It’s very different from working in the field where it’s relatively quiet,” Leffew notes. “I think a lot of people may go by one of these operations and count the cars and the school buses, then multiply by how many people they think there are and the admission charge, and think that these farmers are rolling in the money and that it’s so easy. That is not necessarily the case.”
The ideal agritourism entrepreneur, Leffew says, is a self-starter and effective communicator who adapts well to change and has plenty of hands-on family support.
For Dixon, the initial learning curve was steep. “Our biggest struggle was transitioning from wholesale over to retail and actually attracting customers out to the farm to buy products,” says Dixon, who reaches potential visitors through social media and radio.
But many agritourism farmers say the payoff is worth it.
Rose Ann Donnell had an epiphany one day after climbing into the hayloft in an old mule barn she and her husband, Billy, had renovated at their Donnell Century Farm in Jackson. “I thought, ‘There are so many people who have never been in a hayloft, children who have never seen the wonder of looking up really high. I would like to have them come and learn about agriculture on our farm.’ ”
Her spouse agreed, and the couple set out to share the heritage of their 1835 farm, starting with a small spring event about 10 years ago. Donnell Century Farm Adventure now offers 35 fall activities, including the popular Jumpin Pumpkin Pillow, a close-to-the-ground Bee Line kids’ zipline and a chance to mingle with goats, sheep and other barnyard animals.
Both the Dixons and Donnells open their doors to guests from mid-September through the first weekend of November.
“In a lot of ways we didn’t know what to expect, but we enjoyed it and it worked,” Dixon says. “It wasn’t a big moneymaker overnight and still isn’t, but it fits the farm and allows us to do what we’d like to do. It’s another way we diversify the farming operation to spread the risk out. You never know what the corn is going to do or how the weather is going to be, so if one thing does poorly, hopefully something else is going to do well.”
What’s more, he says, “It’s a great thing for the community. Seeing the kids and the families out there having a great time makes it all worthwhile.”
“Nobody ever comes up and says, ‘I just want to thank you for growing cotton.’ But we do have people that thank us for what we do (for the kids),” Donnell says. “To see the faces of these children and hear the giggles and the squeals – that’s the biggest benefit.”
When to Add Agritourism
Thinking of turning your farm into a tourist draw? Here’s what you need to know:
• Talk to others who are already doing it and tour their farms. Join the Tennessee Agritourism Association (tennesseeagritourism.org) or other group and network with likeminded growers.
• Attend agritourism conferences and workshops for ideas about what might work for you.
• Develop a written business and marketing plan to work out potential challenges on paper before you dive in. “This can help prevent you from getting into something that may not be successful or find some of the roadblocks that you may come up against before making those mistakes with money involved,” says Megan Bruch Leffew, Extension agent and marketing specialist at the UT Center for Profitable Agriculture (cpa.utk.edu).
• Don’t try to copy your neighbor. “Everyone can’t be a pumpkin patch (destination),” says Andrew Dixon, agritourism manager at Grandaddy’s Farm in Estill Springs. “We’ve got to have the Christmas-tree farmers, and we’ve got to have the spring events. We can’t all do the same thing.” • Don’t focus solely on the education element. “We have learned that people will not come just to learn,” says Rose Ann Donnell, co-owner of Donnell Century Farm in Jackson. “They’ve got to have a good time.”