Originally created 05/11/04

Tourism grows on farms



During the third weekend in June each year, McCorkle Nurseries, a plant wholesale company, holds a public sale.

This year, nursery owners are considering giving customers a bonus - tours of the nurseries and the facility's research center, where employees study horticulture, said Skeetter McCorkle, the president of the Dearing, Ga., nursery.

With more and more customers inquiring about tours, the owners of McCorkle Nurseries are participating in a new trend designed to attract visitors and increase business: agrotourism - the promotion of agricultural sites such as farms, nurseries and vineyards.

Lindsey Hammock, a regional tourism representative for the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, said the organization began studying ways to encourage agriculture as a tourist draw about a year and a half ago.

With many farmers selling their crops at lower prices and taking other financial hits, agrotourism is a way to turn possible losses into gains, Ms. Hammock said. And farmers aren't the only ones expressing interest in agrotourism, she added.

Many tourists now seek attractions that remind them of carefree times or places that offer relaxed and leisurely activities.

That's why agrotourism appeals to a variety of people, tourism experts say, including older folks who grew up in rural areas and their urban grandchildren who might have never seen a working farm.

"One of the trends the tourism industry has seen since Sept. 11 is the desire for people to reconnect to their past," Ms. Hammock said. "There is just a desire to get back to a slower pace of life."

State officials, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, are making efforts to bring attention to agricultural issues, tourism officials say.

Mr. McCorkle, a member of Mr. Perdue's Agricultural Advisory Committee, says agrotourism is a definite topic of conversation on the committee.

"There's been a lot of discussion about importance of agriculture and ways to get agriculture exposure around our state," he said. "I think there's a great deal of interest."

But this push from state government and Georgia's tourism organizations is so new, the term agrotourism is hard to define, Ms. Hammock said.

It can cover traditional agricultural sites such as berry farms and crop fields, but it also can pertain to less traditional Christmas tree farms or honeybee farms, she said.

The newness of agrotourism also has kept the field from going mainstream.

"Now we're beginning to see more of an increase as agrotourism gets out there, but we're still in the process of convincing farmers there is an alternative," Ms. Hammock said.

Another problem with increasing agrotourism awareness is that the trend can't grow in cities.

"Because Augusta is mostly a metropolitan area, we don't have a lot in Richmond County that could be considered agrotourism," said Jennifer Bowen, the public relations director of the Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But Augusta tourists are here for other reasons.

About 1.5 million visitors come to downtown Augusta annually, Mrs. Bowen said. Most stay for two days and come to see friends or family, she said. Other tourists are part of business conventions or arrive in motor coaches.

Downtown attractions such as Fort Discovery, the Morris Museum of Art and the Augusta Canal are popular attractions, Mrs. Bowen said.

To increase awareness of agrotourism in Augusta and nearby communities, the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism is holding a seminar June 17 for those interested in the trend, Ms. Hammock said.

It will focus on agrotourism issues such as target markets and safety concerns in the field and will be held at the Best Western White Columns Inn in Thomson, Ms. Hammock said.

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.