The word agritourism only made it into Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2006, but as an industry in Oklahoma it has taken off like lush pasture after a spring rain.
The agritourism boom, cultivated in large part by the three-year-old Oklahoma Agritourism initiative, a partnership between the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department and the Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry Division, has identified more than 500 agritourism events and attractions in the state.
Operating with a budget of $300,000, the initiative last month unveiled two new resources: a multi-fold agritourism map and Web site (http://agritourism.travelok.com), which lists hundreds of agritourism attractions by city, region and type of attraction.
“We started this program with the goal of making Oklahoma the premier agritourism destination in the country,” said Abby Cash, director of Oklahoma Agritourism. “We really think that we are on the way to doing that.”
“We are excited about the diversity that we have to offer in our state in terms of agritourism product,” she said. “As far as we know, there is no other state in the country that has both the resource development and the marketing component working together in their program like we do in our state.”
Tom Warren’s Meadowlake Ranch, 15 minutes from downtown Tulsa at 3450 S. 137th West Ave., Sand Springs, demonstrates how a property owner can reap the benefits of agritourism in many ways.
One of 80 agritourism destinations listed in the Northeastern Oklahoma Green Country region on the Oklahoma Agritourism Map, Meadowlake Ranch falls into five of the dozen categories identified for agritourism operations: guest ranch, hunting, horseback riding, country stays and birding tours.
Warren bought the more than 300-acre ranch eight years ago, and as he developed the land as a retirement property, the former chiropractor and his wife, Sue Lynn, operators of Estate Sales Plus, Ltd., found themselves building a 6,000-SF shop and two apartments.
“We just bought it to retire to. In the process of doing that, I bought a tractor and box blade and brush hog just to kind of peck around on it to get it ready for us to build our retirement home,” he said. “It has some real pretty lakes, about 30 acres of lakes on it, and big high hills and gorgeous pastures.”
After building the shop and apartments, Warren said, “Some friends came out and said, ‘This is a great place – you ought to make this a bed and breakfast.’ By this time I had bought a back hoe and a bulldozer and a dump truck and my diesel bill is $300 a month.”
“It was strictly opportunistic. I had no intention whatsoever of making this a business,” he said. “But, I have these two apartments sitting here, and they have this gorgeous view, and it’s 15 minutes from downtown and I thought, ‘Well, shoot yeah.’”
It was 2001, and the U.S. Open was coming to Tulsa at Southern Hills Country Club and “they were begging for places to put people up,” so Warren opened the apartments to golf tourists.
“We ended up making about $5 grand that first week, of the two weeks the Open was in town,” Warren said. “I thought, ‘Holy smoke, this might be a business,’ and I stuck a sign up out at the road and put up a Web site up, and, all of a sudden, we were renting out the bed and breakfast all the time.”
The Warrens have since added hunting, a dude ranch, corporate events and weddings.
“Now about 25 percent of our business is international, and we expect that to go to 50 percent in the next couple of years,” he said. “We are still in the construction phase – we are building the ranch and evolving the ranch. We find an area we want to move into, and just build more in that direction.”
Warren said Meadowlake Ranch did no start out as a “giant, well-financed, highly planned campaign.”
“This was agritourism in the purist sense,” he said. “It is getting harder and harder making a living on the land, but you can make a very good living with the land. Now a lot of people like myself, instead of farming hay or wheat, we are farming people. There are all kinds of ways to do this.”
Trees and Berries
Bill Jacobs was looking for a little extra income for retirement when he and his wife Paula started the Owasso Tree and Berry Farm, 11039 N. 129th East Ave.
“We started from scratch,” he said. “I was a traveling salesman in my real life. I traveled for 37 years and never had a retirement. We bought this place in ‘80-81 and have been growing for 26 years and selling trees for 20 years.”
On the 40-acre farm, the couple grows 10 acres of Virginia Pine, the “only species that grows really well in Oklahoma,” planting and harvesting about 2,000-2,500 Christmas trees a year that sell for a maximum of $7 a foot, Jacobs said.
The trees are grown in a five-year rotation and are sold direct to the consumer as a “choose and cut” operation, he said.
They began shipping in cut trees from out of state when they saw opportunity driving away.
“When we first started selling, we had people driving in our driveway asking for short needle fir trees which will not grow in Oklahoma,” Jacobs said. “After seeing people back out of our driveway with money in their pocket ready to spend, we decided to get into that business. Now we buy several semi loads of trees from Oregon and North Carolina.”
They also added blackberries to the operation about 10 years ago when they decided to look for a summer income, he said.
“We tried pumpkins and a few other things that didn’t really work for us, and then we started planting blackberries. We have five acres of blackberries now,” he said.
The blackberry crop, which can range from 10,000-20,000 pounds a year, is almost totally harvested by customers who pick their own at $3 a pound.
“We pick very few ourselves for sale otherwise,” Jacobs said. “You pickers basically pick everything we have.”
Although the berry crop is mostly a local draw, the Christmas tree business is more regional, bringing in customers from as far as Springdale and Fayetteville, Ark.; Independence, Kan., Muskogee and Okmulgee, he said.
Although Jacobs and his wife work the farm with a part-time helper, most of the year, during the tree-selling season, they will hire as many as 25 people to help, mostly local high school boys, he said.
Visitors from Around the World
Although Warren was reluctant to reveal budget or revenue numbers, he said his Meadowlake Ranch operation, which employs up to nine at times, is profitable.
“This is a business because you are starting with known quantities, you are starting with things you already own,” he said. “Someone who is new in the agritourism industry can literally make a profit their very first year, more than they would have if they continued with what they were already doing.
Other opportunities include corn mazes, wineries, farmers markets and more.
“There are so many things,” he said. “They are now doing something called farm stays, where folks from Europe, Germany in particular, will come in and pay you $3,000 a month to stay on your ranch and work for you. Now how good a deal is that? They will pay you to come work for you.”
“It is being opportunistic. It is finding a way to take what you already have and selling it a different way,” Warren said. “What you find is that when you sell a wedding for $1,000, it is more profitable than selling a bunch of hay that you had to grow, nurture, cut and pick up.”
Let the Marketing Begin
The Oklahoma Agritourism initiative is in the beginning stages of launching its marketing campaign, build around a logo and statewide branding campaign called “Oklahoma’s Growing Adventures,” Cash said.
“Our new Web site was just released. Our first agritourism map was just released. Within the next month and a half you will begin to see an extensive online advertising campaign dedicated to driving people to www.travelok.com to find an agritourism experience,” she said. “Because we have such an incredible diversity in our product in our state, we will be hitting local, domestic and international markets. We will be hitting it very hard in the spring travel months, which start in March.”
The initiative will also help agritourism ventures with a cooperative advertising program, grants and low-interest loans. ?