Every farmer and rancher knows the uncertainties associated with agricultural production. Escalating input costs, the pressures of disease and drought, political standoffs and delays over farm legislation, and the need to keep up with new technology developments are all factors that can make agriculture a winning or losing enterprise.
On any given year a multitude of these and other challenges can determine the success or failure of a farm or ranching operation which, in turn, will determine whether the farm or ranch will be in the red or in the black at year’s end. With such a variable financial outcome, many farming and ranching families have turned to alternative ways of producing revenue to supplement agricultural efforts.
For some this means one or more family members seek off-farm employment while other family members continue raising crops or livestock. In recent times, a growing number of farming families have discovered the value of generating non-traditional farm income by offering products or services to the public that go beyond traditional crop or livestock offerings.
Some, like Stowers Farm in Hunt, Texas, attract non-rural visitors who are looking to connect with nature and the great outdoors. Visitors to this farm can hike on designated nature trails that weave through the pristine Hill Country landscape, try their hand at fly fishing on a creek, sit in a blind for birding opportunities or to snap wildlife photographs.
At other nature farms visitors can enjoy chuck wagon cook outs and cowboy poetry, trail riding or trail driving; a few offer the chance to get your hands dirty working in an herb garden or nursery.
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On other farm operations, like the very successful Marburger Orchard near Fredericksburg, Texas, visitors can pick-their-own fruit and other specialty crops, including peaches, blackberries, tomatoes and vegetables in season. And it doesn't stop there. In Texas the list of farm and ranch attractions is growing. Seasonal attractions include pumpkin patches, corn mazes, Christmas tree farms and the like, and some offer pony rides, hay rides, and living history exhibits year round.
Successful agri-tainment and agritourism operations in Texas also include hunting leases, fishing camps, vineyard/orchard tours, adventure farms that offer zip lines, rafting or canoeing trips as special attractions. At least one creative ranch owner offers helicopter rides to weekend visitors, meaning (you might say), that when it comes to creating or staging attractions, events and activities on your farm or ranch to generate non-traditional farm revenue, the sky truly is the limit.
While it would require more space than available to list histories behind every successful agritourism operation in the state, the story behind two very different farm and ranch attractions in Texas might illustrate the spectrum of imaginative and creative operations launched in recent times.
In one instance, a rural piece of property, for years a rice farm in southeast Texas, was purchased by a working entomologist and crop consultant who abandoned crop production in favor of opening a major farm-style theme park targeting families in the greater Houston metro area. The other is a South Texas heritage ranching family who went to great extremes to create interest in the rich ranching history of Texas by developing attractions that educate, inform and entertain while sharing the values of rural lifestyles with inquisitive visitors.
From rice to riches: The story of Dewberry Farm
Larry and Mary Emerson, accompanied by their friend and partner, Dan Bradshaw, founded and opened Dewberry Farm near Houston in 2002 with little more than high spirits and a single corn maze. Larry had served as an entomologist and crop consultant many years for rice farmers in the Katy area before researching the opening of a tourist-oriented attraction on property near Brookshire. Eventually, that led to what today is known far and wide as Dewberry Farm.
Eleven years after opening the gates to the public featuring a single corn maze, the list of growing attractions provide fun for families of all shapes and sizes. In addition to over 30 unique attractions, Dewberry Farm also offers prepared foods such as smoked turkey legs and barbeque dinners to please the crowds that visit each fall.
But despite their modern success, things didn’t start so easily in the beginning, as Mary Emerson explained.
“Our first year we expected 75,000 visitors and only had 3,500 pass through the gates,” she said. “We had made a huge investment in buildings, employees, and land improvements. Fortunately, Larry was still receiving income as a working entomologist and our partner Dan was a working crop consultant. This kept us afloat until we were able to better establish ourselves.”
According to Mary, the first two years were hard going and she warns like minded farm owners and operators who wish to tap into non-traditional farm income to “keep your day job until you can establish yourself.”
Other tips she offers for aspiring agri-tainers include a willingness to share ideas and to listen to others who have already ventured into agritourism.
“There are very few original ideas on our farm; we’ve gotten these ideas from other people and tweaked them a little bit over time. We’ve learned a great deal by being members of organizations dedicated to farm attractions, like the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA).”
Dewberry Farms is an example of a converted farm operation. The farm no longer produces a crop and is solely dedicated to providing entertainment to the public through its many attractions. Over the years, the farm attraction has grown and now sports the popular eight-acre corn maze, an eight-acre pumpkin patch featuring 500 lighted pumpkins, and a mile-long miniature railroad that carries visitors across the farm. In recent years the farm has added a Christmas tree forest where visitors can select and purchase a Christmas tree for the holidays.
Other popular attractions and activities include a petting zoo, pig races, zip lines, a corn cannon, pony rides and an elaborate playground for the little ones.
The Emersons and partner Dan say while their successful operation attracts thousands from the greater Houston area, the project required years of development and hard work before it became a major success.
While Dewberry Farm represents an example of how a former rice farm can be converted into a successful stand-alone farm attraction, most farm attractions are located on working farms or ranches and only supplement traditional streams of revenue from crops or livestock.
Such is the case of a South Texas ranching family who wanted to attract visitors to help generate non-traditional revenues but also wanted to preserve Texas ranching heritage to educate the public while preserving a piece of fading history.
La Mota Ranch in Hebronville: A Path to the Past
Charles, James, and Charlotte Hellen own and operate the La Mota Ranch in Hebbronville in Deep South Texas. Though La Mota has been a working ranch since 1894, today it is a combination historical site and sport hunting location in conjunction with nearby El Ebanito Ranch.
The ranch is just one of many that dot the South Texas Heritage Trail, a 300-mile historical trek that covers tracks laid decades before the American Revolution as odds-defying Spanish and Mexican pioneers bravely claimed ranching lands beyond the edge of a thinly populated frontier. The area is credited with giving birth to the American cowboy, born from generations of Mexican ranch hands known as vaqueros.
Recently, the Texas Legislature designated El Ebanito Ranch as the official Vaquero Capitol of Texas. It was in the scrub brush of the Llanos Mesteños, or "the Wild Horse Plains," that cattle ranching rose to lay its brand on North America and the world.
The La Mota Ranch is still owned and managed today by descendents of the original owner, Charles Hellen. The ranch's primary business is its purebred and commercial cattle herds. The Hellen family, lovers of history and heritage ranching, saw the value in promoting the unique mixture of Mexican and Texan ranching history along the South Texas border. They were encouraged by the state legislature’s recent recognition of the area’s historical significance, and capitalized on their natural amenities, historic buildings and local color to create a successful agritourism business.
Owner/operator Bill Hellen attributes his success to identifying a market niche. In recent years La Mota Ranch received multiple busloads of tourists per week and charged around $60 per person. The added income from running tours allowed the Hellen family to keep the ranch working, and the involvement of the entire Hellen family in the tourist enterprise has made the business what it is today. In fact, the Hellens became agritourism leaders in their region and helped develop other businesses through a regional agritourism collaboration known as the Llanos Mesteños South Texas Heritage Trail.
After the coming of the railroad, Hebbronville, Jim Hogg County, became, for a time, the largest cattle-shipping center in the nation. Today, it remains the home and commercial center for many family-owned cattle ranches with the large undeveloped tracts of diverse grass and brush land that are important to birding and wildlife enthusiasts worldwide.
Crowds flock to the area and the many ranches spread across the heritage trail each year to enjoy world class birding, hunting opportunities and nature study.
South Texas, where temperate and tropical climates gently overlap, harbors eleven major plant community sub regions and serves like the neck of an hourglass to funnel migratory bird and butterfly species to destinations at the limits of the Central and Mississippian Flyways. No other zone in North America brings together such an abundance and diversity of winged and terrestrial life from so many distant places.
A look at these two very successful agritourism operations provides but a glimpse of the creative and aggressive efforts of America's farm and ranch community to preserve agriculture history while generating revenue to support their rural business endeavors.
While agri-tainment and agritourism may be a viable objective for many farm and ranch owners, it is proving to be a successful venture for the many who are willing to plow new trails and opportunities to succeed with their rural offerings.
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