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Making money down on the farm

Attracting tourists can help boost revenue

POSTED: November 14, 2007 5:05 a.m.

LULA — Agritourism, or bringing tourism into the realm of agriculture, is a $27.1 million business in Georgia.

The business of getting visitors to farming venues, such as dairies, orchards and vineyards, is a fast growing segment of agriculture.

About five years ago, Drew Echols had the idea for growing a corn maze. It took him three years to convince his family to give it a try.

A year ago, the 6.5-acre Barnyard Adventure corn maze was a rousing success. This year, it has brought 20,000 additional visitors to the family’s farm market on Ga. 365, near the Habersham County line.

For Echols, who followed his grandfather and father into the family business, it is a chance to introduce agriculture to a new audience.

"You’d be surprised how many kids don’t get to see this sort of thing," Echols said. "A lot of teachers feel that this is a hands-on field trip."

The "Barnyard Adventures" maze includes cutouts of the likeness of cows, a barn and a horse. It was designed by Maize Quest, a company in New Park, Pa., that has designed mazes in 27 locations in North America.

The company cuts the intricate design using a GPS directional system. In addition, they provide educational activities and games within the maze to enhance the experience.

"Our pumpkin crop, our field trips and our corn maze has been some of our bright spots this year," Echols said. The family operation saw its highly acclaimed peach and apple crops virtually destroyed by an Easter weekend freeze.

The maze will officially close today, bringing an end to a two month season. Once closed, the corn crop will be sold to a cattle producer for winter feed.

Planting of the corn takes place in July, and the design was cut in August when the corn had reached knee-high.

The extreme high temperatures of August, along with 24 straight days without rain, required irrigation of the corn. On Saturday, the once green maze was a sea of gold as the stalks had lost almost any trace of color.

Other attractions at the maze include a pedal car race track and an apple sling-shot that propels an apple into a target about 25 yards away.

The other benefit for the Echols’ family is the additional traffic generated for the farm market.

Drew’s uncle, Judah, said that tourist business is important to the open-air market.

"Tourists make up one-third of our business," said Judah Echols. "But in October, they can be as much as one-half."

On any given day, tour buses heading for the mountains will stop off to allow their passengers to shop for apples, jams, jellies and other market products.

Another growing segment is tour groups from churches making day trips to the region.

Echols said buses and vans from Stone Mountain, Lilburn, Douglasville and Jonesboro, to name a few, have stopped by in recent weeks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates more than 62 million people 16 years old and older visit farms each year.

Later this month, a meeting has been scheduled to discuss agritourism in Georgia. "Symposium of Discovery: Agritourism and the Creative Economies in Georgia," will be Nov. 13-14 at the Agricenter in Perry.



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