Agritourism is another way for area farms to help their bottom lines; however, most farms in the Cape Fear region see it as a significant means of connecting with the community.
Chuck Wooten and his family own and operate Bear Ridge Farms in Maple Hill. In addition to growing collards, green peanuts, strawberries and sweet corn, Wooten explained, “We do what we can to keep our customers coming through.”
That means opening his farm up to visitors each season to pick their own strawberries.
“Agritourism to me is a beneficial way to teach kids about agriculture. It is helpful with strawberries to get kids and families here. It helps with the income, but it helps show kids how they grow,” Wooten said.
Connecting to the community motivates Wooten and his family to continue to reach out in various ways for others to see the importance of what they do.
“I love to take people out on the farm, show people how to pick and what to look for. There’s a beneficial side to it since a lot people don’t know where food comes from,” Wooten said.
The Wootens also have a retail store where they sell goods from other farms, including bread, glass bottle milk, canned goods, and pork products. For the fall Halloween season, they grew pumpkins with a U-Pick field and they will have Christmas trees on site starting the week before Thanksgiving.
“We are making a living out of it when a lot of farms are getting bought up and commercialized and getting gone. It is an ever-changing thing. Tourism is a nice part of it. Land is getting scarce,” Wooten said. “We are friendly and outgoing and we want people to enjoy themselves. The idea of agritourism is all about the experience, to have a good, fun time.”
Agritourism is a small part of the massive tourism industry in the region.
“Agriculture and timber combined was the No. 1 industry in Pender County until 2021, but the tourism revenue report reveals it jumped to $165 million from $131 million,” said Mark Seitz, Pender County extension director. “Coming out of COVID, everyone was tired of being cooped up and hit the road.”
Many farms are taking advantage of those numbers to boost their revenue throughout the cold seasons. Trask Family Farms just finished their fall season with a variety of events to help them do just that.
Their fall fun included a “Who Done It?” Farm Scene Investigation for customers to help find Farmer Joe within the corn maze. They offered four miles of corn mazes with different levels of difficulty.
“Our staff is driven by hospitality, trying to make each customer happy,” George Trask said. “The fall fun is the last event until the farm closes for the winter. The heart of who we are is produce farmers, so this fall season helps us to sustain funds until the next growing season.”
The farm will reopen in the early spring with the Trask Family Farms Flower Festival to kick off the growing season.
With a new farm building complete, Trask has been happy to welcome crowds from around the region.
“We have a perfect spot. Fifteen minutes from the heart of Wilmington. It is really close, it does not take a lot of time to get here, and it’s been great,” Trask said.
Seitz explained that farmers in the Cape Fear region have to be creative in order to attract people to their farms for events.
“It depends on how much help [farmers] have and how much passion or commitment they have to put into it,” Seitz said. Many farms are working to keep their farms going year-round using greenhouses, selling plants to larger retailers, and growing different kinds of plants for retail.”
Maud Kelley of Greenlands Farm in Bolivia is passionate about education and community outreach. Her farm offers open farm days where they invite the community for one-hour guided, educational tours.
Greenlands Farm also offers a self-service farm open on weekends, and in warmer months, farm yoga is offered once a month.
“And we have cow cuddling where you get to hang out with Elsie the cow for an hour all by yourself. It’s very therapeutic,” Kelley said.
Kelley’s farm also provides mobile programs offsite to schools, and next year, her farm plans to add a day camp for kids.
“We like to make that connection to farm life for people without having to be devoted to it like we are. It is a special experience for people and we like to be a part of it,” Kelley said.
Greenlands Farm is also a wedding and event venue. In addition, the farm is currently working toward their Farmstead certification in order to be a Harvest Host, a club for RV campers.
“I like their idea to support farmers without overextending what we already do,” Kelley said. “We just like to share our lifestyle with people. We are interested more in sharing, although it would be nice to make some money someday.”
Agritourism takes as much effort as a traditional business with a number of additional variables to consider including crop health and weather.
“There’s almost a half a million people in this region. That is a lot of people, but you got to have a product people want and you got to deliver it on a consistent basis,” Seitz said. “It is not for everyone. It is a big commitment. Got to consider what kind of risk you’re willing to inherit.”
The NCSU extension offers strategies for people to follow and templates on how to manage that risk, Seitz explained. There are a variety of resources for those interested, and any extension office can answer questions and find answers for those who need them.
One of those resources include the NC Farm School starting in February. The four-week, 12-hour classroom course focuses on the business and marketing skills needed to run a small farm business.
“Tourism is a billion-dollar industry in New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Agriculture in those two counties is small by comparison,” Seitz said. “There is a lot of opportunity for agritourism in the Wilmington area, but what I and the NC State University extension recommend to people is to put as much effort into marketing before you put a crop into the ground, build a corn maze, or a retail shop.”