March 12, 2009

More and more, Kentucky farmers are inviting their neighbors, school groups and the general public to come have fun on their farms.

In the past several years, agritourism or "agritainment" has really taken off in the Bluegrass state as former tobacco farmers try to diversify and hobby farmers look for niches to supplement family-supporting income. Even amidst the economic downturn, many farms offering agritourism activities have managed to stay afloat and even thrive.

Janet Johnson, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer sciences in Allen County, recently took part in a Kentucky Farms are Fun conference in Bowling Green, where farmers offering agritainment throughout the state came together to share ideas and get inspired by some great speakers.

"Farmers, of course, are eternally optimistic about next season, next year, so there is that inherent value of living on the farm to show that we can survive," she said. "We can make it, we can have good times. Even in bad times, families can find things to do together because you can have fun on very little."

She said farms naturally are places that provide a family atmosphere - a place to build relationships, find friendly people and just have fun.

"Almost everybody I know in this business had a good year last year. It was just a common theme all the way through our type of business," said Bill Jackson, owner of Jackson's Orchard near Bowling Green.

Last year, he said, farmers in agritourism saw some of the economic pinch with $4 gas; however those prices did tend to keep people closer to home, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing for agritourism.

"I think maybe folks aren't going to take the long vacations, but they are going to take vacations. Maybe it's just a half-day to come out to our farm," Jackson said. "But they are going to have time with the family; they are going to look for recreation things ... to do, and we're close to home, and we offer that opportunity. I think our business is great; I think this whole agritourism segment is perfectly positioned to grow during these times."

Larry Snell of the Kentucky Center for Agricultural Development told farmers that good times usually follow tough times. He said farmers have been dealing with uncertain economies for a long time, since they not only have to deal with the general economy but also with the weather.

"You've gone through tough times before," he said. "You've survived them very well. You need to be a person that sees the glass as half full rather than half empty. The sun goes up, and the sun goes down, and in between those times, we can accomplish a lot. From what I hear, yes, people have less money, but they aren't going to give up vacations and entertainment. They may cut down length and distance, but that is an opportunity for us in Kentucky, and we can offer them fun, enjoyable and affordable fun, on our farms."

UK Cooperative Extension Service has offices in every county and farmers can contact them or the Kentucky Department of Agriculture for more information about agritourism. Kentuckians interested in finding a nearby agritourism opportunity can visit http://www.kentucky farmsarefun.com and search by attraction or region.