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In bleak economy, agritourism a spotlight of success

Liz Engel Clark
Thursday, Nov 17, 2011

A Sycamore Springs Farm visitor picks a pumpkin from a pumpkin patch.

JAMESTOWN - It’s a sunny day in late October and a group of Scott County school children are not in a classroom. Instead, they’re at Sycamore Springs Farm, hopping on hayrides, plucking bright, orange pumpkins ripe from the vine and learning all about the Tennessee state bird, flower and tree.

From the ground up, this Jamestown farm looks like your typical fall activity center – with its gourds, pumpkins and scarecrows. But it took years to mature – just like the Christmas trees that now dot its landscape, the white pines, Scotch pines and Cameron firs planted every year starting seven years ago.

This year will be the first year that Lyna and Joe Pennycuff, retired school teachers and owners of the 90-acre property on Country Club Road for some 20 years, and Matt and Kaycee Harris will allow those trees to be cut for the Christmas season, specifically starting the Saturday after Thanksgiving. In the time between, they’ve planted and sold pumpkins, developed and enhanced their signature hayride and constructed a welcome center for people to sit, eat and visit - ultimately molding quite the tourist attraction.

“I’ve always wanted to be a Christmas tree farmer,” Lyna said. “We love the hospitality aspect of it. We love getting back to nature, getting back to land, getting back to agriculture.”

The Pennycuff’s were recently part of the Pick Tennessee Products’ 25th anniversary media tour, which aimed to celebrate locally grown agriculture products throughout the state. The couple could have just as easily served as a poster child for agritourism’s recent success in Tennessee, particularly considering the current economic conditions. Combining the state’s top two industries – agriculture being No. 1, and tourism being No. 2 – only makes perfect sense.

In fact, it’s one of the few sectors in the black today. There are now more than 700 agritourism locations in Tennessee, according to the Department of Agriculture. In 2007, that number was 510. These venues contribute to the local economy, and many provide jobs in rural communities. Those farms reported an estimated $6.5 million in income during the last agriculture census five years ago.

“I think there’s just a lot of enthusiasm for it,” said Ed Harlan, agribusiness development coordinator with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “People can take their families and be gone from home for two or three hours and see something different and learn something.

“I don’t think it’s peaked, either,” Harlan added. “Quite honestly, it’s been phenomenal, the growth.”

There are dozens of other examples of agritourism/agribusiness success stories throughout the state, from corn mazes, pumpkin patches and berry farms to dairy operations, vineyards and cattle ranches.

Most recently, Cobb-Vantress, an Arkansas-headquartered company, picked neighboring Morgan County for a new poultry pedigree breeding complex, which will bring jobs to the three-county region that also includes Fentress and Scott. Becky Ruppe, executive director of the Morgan County Economic Development Board, said Cobb is investing $19 million in buildings and equipment and will hire a total of 118 people. The company’s yearly budget will be more than $28 million, she said, with a payroll of more than $4 million. The complex is scheduled to open in January.

“A county like Morgan, if you want to get ready for industry, you think of Plateau Park, where you’ve got interstates, water and sewer. Cobb chose the most remote area of our county in Deer Lodge,” Ruppe said. “You would have never dreamed they would locate there, but since they have, we’ve had other agriculture-related businesses contact us as well.

“It’s going to have a huge impact. We were very fortunate,” Ruppe added.

She doesn’t think agritourism has hit its peak, either. People enjoy getting back to their roots, she said, and like visiting places that take them “off the beaten path.”

“You have to build up these businesses just like you do any other business, but I think we’re going to see more and more of it,” she said. “I think when people have trouble putting gas in their car, they’re not going to go to Myrtle Beach, they’re going to go to historic Rugby. You might go to Big South Fork. You stay closer to home and save money. The more people stay closer to home, the more they realize what we have here. There’s a lot to the old saying, ‘There’s no place like home.’”

The Pennycuff’s, meanwhile, are learning something new every day - for example, that Frazier firs really can’t survive this far south, since every single tree of the 1,000 that were planted died. And that diversification is key. TAEP, or Tennessee Agriculture Enhancement Program, grant money has helped that. But, most importantly, it’s about fun.

“There are kids today who don’t know where their food comes from,” Lyna said. “It’s something we really need to get back to. We want families and groups to come to the farm and select the perfect Christmas tree. We want them to have that memory because we had that memory. And if they have a great time, they’ll remember it.”

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