By Brian Jewell
The South has always been a leading agricultural area, producing livestock and crops that feed folks all around America. Today, as people grow more interested in visiting farms and eating local products, Southern farms and ranches provide great opportunities for agritourism.
Visiting a farm gives groups the chance to have an authentic culinary experience, tracing the lifecycle of their food from seed and soil to the dining room table. The distinctive flavors of the South start on farms throughout the region, and touring these spots offers visitors a taste of area produce and history.
Take a tour of a farm in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Georgia and Virginia, and you’ll meet some of the farming families that continue to carry out the South’s great agricultural traditions. You’ll also find plenty of ways to entertain and educate your group along the way.
In central Mississippi, the Collins family has operated their farm for more than 50 years. Today, they open up their facilities for groups to enjoy agricultural history and modern flavors.
“Our farm has been in operation since 1960,” said Jo Lynn Mitchell. “We’re a family farm, and we farm about 1,500 acres. We farm corn, wheat soybeans and peanuts. We also grow peaches, blackberries and pumpkins in the fall.”
Groups that visit Mitchell Farms get a look at the different crops growing during a guided tour on a tractor-drawn trailer. Along the way, they learn about the farm’s history and the importance of agriculture to the Mississippi economy.
“Depending on the group, we tell them about different things,” Mitchell said. “If it’s students, we can talk to them about the marketing and business side of the farm or about our irrigation systems. If it’s adults, they want to hear about the history of the farm.”
Adult groups also enjoy visiting the three historic cabins at the farm; each exhibits antiques that are more than 100 years old. Visitors will find cooking utensils, photographs, rope beds, quilts and artwork throughout the cabins.
After the tour, groups can taste some of the farm’s produce, such as peanuts or sweet corn. Groups can arrange a full farm-fresh meal in advance.
For an even more robust peanut experience, plan a visit to coincide with the Mississippi Peanut Festival, which takes place at the farm the first week of October.
“We have about 100 vendors come in and set up all kinds of arts and crafts,” Mitchell said.
Fish Hawk Acres
Rock Cave, West Virginia
In central West Virginia, Dale Hawkins has organized a cooperation of local farms into Fish Hawk Acres, a farm, market and catering company that offers a variety of experiences for travelers.
“We believe in supporting local and regional food systems,” Hawkins said. “We look for producers that use sustainable practices. A large part of our products come from within a 100-mile radius, and items like cheese and coffee are sourced with sustainability in mind.”
Visitors can always find some tasty local produce for sale in the Fish Hawk Acres farm market, and an on-site kitchen uses those fresh ingredients to prepare packaged products and meals for guests. The staff also combine their areas of expertise to offer interactive experiences for groups.
“We do special events on the farm for groups,” Hawkins said. “We do farm tours, where we show you our 20 acres of production areas, hoop houses, high tunnels and greenhouses. We can do cooking classes, farm and gardening workshops and that sort of thing.”
The content of a group experience is going to depend a lot on the season during which they visit. In May, the fresh crop is ramps (a West Virginia delicacy similar to small green onions), so the team prepares a ramp dinner that is complemented by morel mushrooms, another favorite spring crop in the area. June brings lavender and a celebration of herbs and edible plants. In August, September and October, visitors will find customary fall crops, as well as a corn maze, a pumpkin patch and other fun traditions.