Kyle Peveto | 9/18/2018 7:49:39 PM
Heather Hughes wasn’t familiar with the agritourism business when her family opened their pumpkin patch in Tangipahoa Parish about 15 years ago.
“I just thought it was fun playing with the kids,” Hughes said. “I love to be outside, and it was just having fun letting the kids do the things we used to do.”
Since then Mrs. Heather’s Farm has expanded from a pumpkin patch to strawberry picking and weddings, becoming an example of a prosperous agricultural attraction.
Agritourism can include any agricultural operation open to the public for lodging, recreation, education or other activities, such as bed-and-breakfast accommodations, campsites, hayrides, berry farms or Christmas tree farms.
“An agritourism operation is a business enterprise where agriculture and tourism merge,” said Maria Bampasidou, an LSU AgCenter economist who studies agricultural business.
Whether as a part-time pursuit or as a main source of income, agritourism is growing nationwide. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, agritourism and recreational services on farms brought $8.9 million in income to operators nationwide. In Louisiana, agritourism and recreation on farms grew 110 percent from 2007 to 2012 from 170 farms to 361, according the census. The data from the most recent census in 2017 are not yet available.
The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry offers a certification program for agritourism sites. Seventy-nine are certified, Bampasidou said. Bruce Garner, the AgCenter state coordinator for agritourism, helps guide these operators through the process.
Heather Hughes, 48, and her husband, Trey Hughes, 50, were both born into dairy farming families, and they ran a dairy themselves until 2003, when they sold their dairy herd to focus on raising beef cattle. That dovetailed with the start of their pumpkin patch venture.
At first they planted a field of pumpkins without any goal in mind. Heather Hughes called area schools and invited them to bring children to the patch, where they could ride her old pony and get their faces painted. That first year, 200 to 300 children visited.
Now Mrs. Heather’s Farm sees 10,000 to 20,000 children per year. She charges $7 per child, and parents can bring a picnic and spend the day.
Guests can walk nature trails, jump on a huge jumping pillow, wander mazes of hay and corn and play all kinds of games Hughes imagines. There are plenty of photo opportunities for mom and dad’s social media feeds, with rustic bridges, green pastures and a re-creation of Tow Mater, the tow truck from the “Cars” animated films.
“I tell them to get all the pictures mama wants, then go get dirty,” Hughes said.
Mrs. Heather’s is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from the end of September to the beginning of November in pumpkin patch season and from mid-March to Mother’s Day for strawberry season.
At the pumpkin patch, Hughes trucks in additional pumpkins from another farm so each child has a pumpkin to carve or paint. At the strawberry patch, picking berries is the main attraction.
The Hughes family works year-round. They run 200 to 250 head of beef cattle on 600 acres. Heather Hughes also drives a school bus “for health insurance,” she said.
A new venture in their agritourism operation is offering a wedding venue. A few years ago their new hay barn, with charming board-and-batten siding, caught the attention of some of the young women working part-time for Hughes.
“They said, ‘Let me have my wedding in it before you put the hay in it,’” Hughes said. “It was strictly going to be a hay barn at first.”
Now Hughes rents the barn with tables and chairs, and it’s a slightly hands-off source of revenue.
The strawberry and pumpkin patches are never hands-off. Even in the summer while the pumpkins are growing, Hughes is cutting hay for the hay maze and fighting armyworms in the corn maze. She’s also planning her next attraction to keep the farm interesting for children who return every year. Maybe something like tree houses.
“My weekends are gone,” Hughes said. “We call them our turnarounds. As far as us going somewhere and doing something on weekends, that’s gone.”
Now, agritourism provides half the family’s income, Hughes said. But the operation can still be affected by weather. Cold can delay the strawberry season, and a rainy spring can prevent families from coming to the berry patch.
Agriculture always involves risk, Bampasidou said. Operators face risks that the harvest could be affected by weather or that the value of a crop could change because of world events. Agritourism can help temper that risk.
“I like to think of agritourism as a risk diversification tool,” Bampasidou said. “You can utilize your resources — say, a tractor — to offer educational tours in your operation as you prepare for harvesting, or your land by repurposing an area to a B and B that can hold special events, such as weddings.”
In recent years Mrs. Heather’s Farm has become a role model for some producers considering agritourism operations. Bampasidou has teamed with Hughes to survey agritourism operators, and the AgCenter has hosted a safety workshop at the farm.
Now farm operators go to Hughes for advice. She tells them it’s a tough business, but she loves it.
“You have to be creative, and you have to be committed,” Hughes said. “It’s not just a few days a year. It’s a big commitment.”
Kyle Peveto is assistant specialist with Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the summer 2018 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Arlen Whitehead, of Gretna, picks strawberries with her daughter, Rose, at Mrs. Heather's Strawberry Farm. Photo by Tobie Blanchard