Agritourism blossoming for Oklahoma farmers

Monday, October 17th 2005, 9:52 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Some Oklahoma farmers hope expanding agritourism programs will help increase the value of the crops they grow and further bolster one of the state's largest industries.

``We can't grow enough pumpkins for all the tourists we get,'' said Glenn Orr, who runs a pumpkin patch each fall at the Orr Family Farm in south Oklahoma City.

He estimates his farm welcomes 15,000 to 20,000 visitors in the fall and said he has to buy some pumpkins from other farms just to meet the demand. He sells or gives away more than 15,000 pumpkins a season, he said.

``I think people like coming out here because it is a different environment. People have said it is serene here,'' Orr said. ``It is probably an escape to people and is a place they can relax and just enjoy.''

Pumpkin patches and another fall staple, the cornfield maze, are success stories in the growing agritourism business. Francie Tolle, the state director of agritourism, says other agritourism industries are using these fall farms as a business model.

Loren Liebscher operates a pumpkin patch and cornfield maze at his PBar Farms in Weatherford. He estimates about 17,000 tourists visit his farm in September and October.

``In the past, it wasn't that strange to go out on a farm,'' Liebscher said. ``But now we have people that don't even know peanuts grow under the ground. We just took what we had done for a living and (tourism) became a byproduct of what we were selling.''

The key is for businesses to work together, said Jack Whiteman, whose Grape Ranch winery in Okemah opened a year and half ago.

``We have to file for federal and state licensing to sell wine, so it is a little different than just growing pumpkins,'' he said. ``But the tough part is getting people to come out; you can't just build it and they will come.''

Whiteman said 25% of his traffic is from out of state, which means agritourism businesses need to band together to give travelers a reason to stop. He said he directs tourists to other attractions in his area, and vice versa, but he can't do that if he doesn't know what businesses are out there.

``We need to have a central clearing house,'' he said. ``If we don't know 'Joe's Pumpkin Patch' exists, it is hard to promote it.''

And Liebscher said farmers starting agritourism businesses need a central program to help them know how to enter into their new ventures legally.

Before starting a side business, he said, farmers need to learn a lot of rules, from concessions licenses to the collegiate licensing fee he had to pay to carve OU and OSU logos into his corn maze.

``The hard thing about agritourism is that a lot of people don't know how to do this legally,'' he said. ``We need to get more information out there so people know what the standards are if they want to get involved.

``There are a lot of things on the farm that are unsafe, and precautions have to be taken.''