Better weather boosts agritourism

By CARLIE KOLLATH / NEMS Daily Journal


This time of year, children move through corn fields in Northeast Mississippi and there’s no scary music in the background.
Instead, they laugh and giggle as they work with their friends, parents, grandparents and teachers to figure out how to navigate the maze.
Corn mazes are a popular activity this month, along with picking pumpkins out of a pumpkin patch, taking a wagon ride, climbing a hay pyramid or “chunkin’ a punkin.”
Last year, heavy fall rains put the kibosh on many outdoor activities. But this year, dry weather is making it easier for residents to enjoy traditional fall agritourism events with their families and friends.
According to the Mississippi Agritourism Association, agritourism is a business on a working farm or other agricultural enterprise that offers an educational and fun experience for visitors while generating supplemental income for the owner.
The state, through its tourism and agriculture departments, has made a big push during the past few years to promote Mississippi’s agritourism destinations.

During the fall, the play-filled outings give a boost to farmers like Jan Holley, part of the family ownership of Holley Farm in Fulton.
The Holleys grow row crops during the year, but come October, their farm focuses on fun things like pumpkins, a corn maze, a sorghum maze and wagon rides.
“It’s a way we can keep the children and grandchildren on the farm,” Holley said.
During October weekends, about 20 members are on hand to welcome families, friends and church groups to the farm.
Clay Meeks is another row crop farmer who opens his Blue Mountain farm in October to visitors.
“It’s not a ‘two months out of the year’ farm,” he said. “It’s a 12-month farm.”
When it’s not a pumpkin patch, it’s a soybean field.
Pumpkin Patch Farms has been in business for 14 years. The business’s pumpkin patch is a popular destination for school field trips and church groups.
“Business this year is the best year so far,” Meeks said. “Last year was a really, really rough year.”
Last fall, the region was inundated in rain. Corn maze operators like Meeks and Holley said attendance took a hit because of the weather.
Added Holley, “Last year, we actually had pumpkins that floated out of the field and into the creek. We had more rained-out days than open days.”
The rain was so bad in Booneville, Adkins Farms didn’t open for visitors at all last year. Co-owner Charlotte Adkins said the pumpkins got so much water they were “oozing white foam from their stems.”
“We were afraid to let someone get a pumpkin,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they had a good time, it’s the bad pumpkin they’ll remember.”
This year, it’s an entirely different story for agritourism operators.
“Busy, busy, busy but that’s a good thing,” Holley said. “Good weather and good crowds and we’re not complaining.”
Added Sheryl Yancey, co-owner of Circle Y Equestrian Center in Corinth, “It’s going pretty good. The weather’s been gorgeous.”
Visits have been up at most farms, and operators cite the better weather for the increase.
Places like the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo in Tupelo report that group bookings have grown this year, while other destinations like Pumpkin Patch Farms report more walk-in traffic this year.
“Every year, we’ve got one guy and he brings a different set of kids and grandkids” each week, Meeks said. “He comes about three times. It’s just a tradition with them. … It’s good, clean family entertainment.”
At Wise Family Farm in Pontotoc, Glynda Wise Coker said the farm’s “Twilight”-themed corn maze has been a huge draw for visitors this year.
“They have just absolutely gone crazy with it,” she said.
The maze, based on the popular vampire-werewolf book series for young adults, is cut to look like a werewolf holding an apple. Inside the maze, there are props that fans of the books and movies will recognize, Coker said.
“It’s crazy how the children relate to it,” she said.

Good pumpkin crop
While the mazes attract some of the older kids, the younger visitors flock to the pumpkin patches.
Growers say the drier weather this year made a good pumpkin crop.
“It’s been great,” said Meeks in Blue Mountain. “I had a great year with pumpkins. With the dry weather and the heat, I thought it’d cut us back but it doesn’t seem to have too much.”
Adkins and her husband, Garry, planted a variety of pumpkins, squash and gourds in Booneville that have lumps and bumps all over them. They’re called freaky pumpkins.
“I like them,” Adkins said. “They’re weird and different.”
Along with getting the experience of picking pumpkins, the visitors also get a dose of education about farm life. Adkins this year has been teaching school kids about honeybees and snakes.
“Two years ago, we grew peanuts and the kids didn’t have a clue they came out of the ground,” she said.
Wise Family Farm and Holley Farm also focus on education and teach visitors about farming practices and the history of the region.
“We hope they take away something from the farm while they are having fun,” Holley said.

Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.