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Growing experiences on the farm: A look at agritourism in the Ozarks

 Rows of flowers and green houses in the background at Gooseberry Bridge Farm.
Chris Drew
Rows of flowers and green houses in the background at Gooseberry Bridge Farm.

In this segment of KSMU’s Sense of Community Series Entrepreneurship in the Rural Ozarks, hear how the owners of Gooseberry Bridge Farm and farmers like them are developing new ways to connect with consumers through agritourist experiences.

The gravel road to Gooseberry Bridge Farm appears suddenly, but you can’t miss it. A minute off the pavement and you’re transported to a unique little world nestled in the Ozarks hills, with a field of beautiful flowers waiting to be picked and the noise of animals and bugs in the air.

The owners, Jeremy and Staci Hill, told me the idea of the farm started as a lifestyle change.

“We bought this property in 2016,” Jeremy said, “mainly, just to have a little more space and to raise our kids on land and to have a little bit more of a rural lifestyle. We realized it wasn’t really a part of the reason we bought the place, but we realized we were sitting on something good.”

They decided to go all in. Jeremy quit his day job in IT, and Staci started concentrating on building a pick-your-own flower garden.

The folk culture of the Ozarks and its romantic and secluded hills and hollers have long inspired a unique relationship to the land, attracting an agricultural homesteading-inspired lifestyle rooted in smaller scales and, at the same time, a culture of tourism and community connection. Our region is famous for Branson’s craggy lush setting and the wide variety of seasonal festivals and farms sprinkled through communities across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. When many people think spring, they think berry picking, and fall means apple orchards and pumpkin patches. In a region rich in nature and tourism, combining the two seems to suit us.

“It’s a combination of natural scenic beauty, an existing tourism industry and entrepreneurial farmers,” said Patrick Byers, a horticulturist with the University of Missouri extension. Byers advises farmers in our region.

“Certainly we have natural beauty here, hiking, fishing, canoeing, boating, all these things," he said, "but we also have entrepreneurial farmers that have recognized that people are interested in experiences, and people are already coming to the Ozarks, so they are now providing those experience."

Mark and Staci get some work done as we wrap up our interview.
Jeremy and Staci get some work done as we wrap up our interview.

Staci and Jeremy saw that opportunity. They are just outside Rogersville, 15 or 20 minutes from Springfield. Being so close to the city, they knew they could serve a need and not just sell flowers but provide a chance for people to connect with nature.

In some cases, they are helping to educate people who want to take on these sorts of challenges themselves. In all cases, they appreciate the chance to share and educate.

"When they come out to talk about flowers or to see animals, if they ask a question, we’re going to try to educate them because that’s part of it,” Jeremy said. “Sometimes even when they don’t ask a question,” Staci added with a laugh.

Agritourism has become an increasingly visible segment of the agricultural economy. Patrick Byers tells me the concept isn’t new, but farmers have become increasingly creative in developing experiences on their land.

“Now it includes event venues. It includes foods, processed products, baked goods. It includes experiences such as hayrides. It includes experiences where people can get up close and personal with animals, corn mazes. There are all kinds of things, even overnight stays can be part of agritourism, he said. "The concept is not new, but the creative ways that farmers have developed these experiences have definitely blossomed in recent years.”

A paper from the University of Illinois described the industry as booming. During the last period studied by the USDA, between 2012 and 2017 revenue from agritourism grew 30%. A current study is underway, so the statistical impact of COVID-19 remains to be seen, but the Hills believe the pandemic was a perfect time for kicking off their business.

“It actually worked well for us because we were a great outlet for people to come, and we were a farm so we were an essential business," said Jeremy, "and we were outside so people could social distance, and we had a great year. “

Anna Withers of Springfield Community Gardens said she saw a bump in interest in all forms of gardening and food security at the onset of the COVID pandemic.

Staci and Jeremy said the Community Gardens have been a great resource for growing plants with a network of contacts. When they wanted to start an orchard at Gooseberry, the Gardens connected them with Patrick Byers.

Byers said the University of Missouri Extension, local communities, chambers of commerce and entrepreneurial farmers see the value in agritourism and collaboration and developing projects that are both profitable and sustainable.

Gooseberry Bridge started off with pick-your-own flowers. As time has gone on, they’ve worked with other small flowers growers to sell their products through a co-op model, started hosting workshops in things like processing chickens, flower decorating and food preservation, and taken their agritourism digital through their YouTube channel and connecting with homesteading communities online. Running an agritourist farm is about finding your niche, diversifying your income streams and building your community, and, of course, it offers the chance to work with nature and the seasons — a rewarding challenge but a challenge Staci and Jeremy take seriously.

“Working with and also fighting against nature is a hard one.” Jeremy explained. “You never know at the beginning of the year when you make your plan, 'are we going to have seasonal weather or are we going to have a huge drought this year.'"

"And the goal,” Staci added, “is to work with nature, not fight against it, but really, if there is no rain, we have to water.”

Depending on and working the land is a passion, the sort that pulls someone away from an office job. And, for customers, it's not too different — the chance to get out of town and get some fresh air, the chance to participate in an experience that feels tied to the earth and the season. Nature and tourism go hand in hand in the Ozarks, and agritourism is a dynamic part of that, driven by entrepreneurial farmers and homesteaders with a common interest in growing and sharing.