Agri-tourism discussed in Selma

Published 12:55 am Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ken Barber grows blackberries, blueberries, muscadines, peaches and nectarines on his farm in Millbrook.

Between May and September, people flock to Barber Berry Farms LLC to pick Barber’s crop. What visitors do not pick, Barber places in a large fruit stand next to a tall sign on his property. While he is selling his goods, Barber cannot help but think about all the people driving down the highway with no clue his farm even exists.

Due to current legislation, Barber cannot place a sign along the highway. If the state elected to participate in the Federal Highway Association’s Tourist Oriented Directional Signs program, Barber could pay between $80 and $150 to have the Alabama Department of Transportation manufacture and erect a shiny new sign near his farm.

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“There’s nobody in their right mind that would disagree that’s a good deal,” Barber said. “I think that would bring a lot of folks.”

Barber attended an Agri-Tourism meeting at the Central Alabama Farmer’s Cooperative in Selma Tuesday. At the meeting, representatives from six state agencies discussed forming a statewide Agri-Tourism Association and answered questions about the fledgling industry. If formed, the association would push for the state to participate in the TODS program, which would allow farmers who are interested in Agri-Tourism, like Barber, to purchase two-foot tall by six-foot wide signs with mileage and directional information along U.S. highways and interstates.

“Agri-Tourism just keeps growing,” said Tom Chestnut, Alabama Cooperative Extension System tourism specialist. “One of the things we’re trying to do is put additional money into the hands of the entrepreneur.”

Agriculture and tourism are two of the top industries in Alabama. In 2007, tourists spent $9.3 billion in the state, and Alabama farmers grow everything from strawberries to crawfish.

“Why not combine the two,” Chestnut said.

It is a combination sixth-generation farmer Cooper Holmes would welcome. Holmes’ family has been raising cattle and growing timber on the same plot of land in Folsom, a small community near Marion, since 1819. An old gristmill, cotton gin and blacksmith shop stand on the Holmes farm, too. He said it lends itself to rural tourism.

“I think it’d be great for the Black Belt,” Holmes said. “Just finding new sources of income is a great idea.”

Chestnut said without a statewide association, all the ideas tossed around at the meeting were worthless. Chestnut said the association would provide the unified voice needed to pass legislation regarding Agri-Tourism signage. That is why Chestnut, along with representatives from the Alabama Farmer’s Market Authority, the Alabama Department of Tourism, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the Alabama Farmer’s Federation and the Alabama Department of Tourism, researched Agri-Tourism Associations in states like Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Then, they took their show on the road. The group traveled across the state holding information sessions for farmers and developers interested in Agri-Tourism. Chestnut said an association would begin forming at a March 19 meeting in Clanton.

Tim Wood, general manager of the Central Alabama Farmer’s Cooperative, said Agri-Tourism would thrive in the Black Belt. He said people want to reconnect with a rural way of life.

“It’s an opportunity where we can maintain a rural part of our state,” he said. “Absolutely, I think it’ll work.”