SIKESTON -- Although he's been in the business for three years, Donnie Beggs still doesn't consider himself an expert on agritourism; however, the state Department of Agriculture is looking to Begg's experience as a means of helping people get into the agritourism industry.
Beggs, owner of Beggs Pumpkin Patch and Maize Quest in Sikeston, is one of 24 Missourians -- and the only one from the Southeast area -- recently appointed to the newly formed council to help advance the state's growing agritourism industry.
"They were looking for people in the state who were already set up in agritourism, Beggs said, adding that he thinks he was appointed because of his background in the industry. "We're supposed to be able to help people who might be interested in getting in to agritourism so they kind of know someone and have some place to turn to if they need it."
The Missouri agritourism council will help guide the department's efforts in counseling, educating and promoting agritourism businesses, said Deanne Hackman, director of the department's Agriculture Business Development Division. The council will also advise the department and other state agencies on the needs of agritourism businesses, and will play a role in expanding and promoting agritourism.
"It's primarily an advisory commission for us," Hackman said. "We'll have representation from private sectors and tourism professionals. These are people who work with tourism every day," Hackman said.
The Agriculture Business Development Division looked for people with experience in agritourism because they're "good idea people and people who could represent their partners of agritourism," Hackman said about choosing council members. "One of the focus areas of our department is that we realize that since this was new to us, we needed to be able to understand and work with different agritourism sectors about how to move forward and make sure we weren't duplicating," Hackman said.
As a representative of Southeast Missouri, Beggs said one issue he feels is important is strengthening agritourism grant programs.
"It's very hard to get the money and it's such a little amount, that it's not worth the time to even apply," Beggs said. "Certain rules and regulations are attached to the grants."
Beggs said the council may have the opportunity to work with legislators to help get some funding for people starting agritourism.
"It does take several years to get a return and this business is hard to get into. There's not a lot of people doing this aggressively," Beggs observed.
It's the little things, too, that are getting overlooked when people think about going into agritourism, Beggs pointed out.
"Do you have the facilities to handle if you get a big crowd? Do you know the zoning laws? For us, as farmers, up until four years ago, we never knew what an advertisement budget was. It's a totally different world than farming," Beggs said.
While small towns in Southeast Missouri don't have the large populations like St. Louis to get a new business going, Beggs said the small-town life can work to Southeast Missourians' advantage.
"That's how we approach it," Beggs said. "We're an affordable deal right here close to home, and we can reach out to others who are far away, too."
The council will meet twice a year.
There seems to be a lot of interest in agritourism for Missouri tourism and there's a lot of growing opportunity for the industry, Hackman commented.
Beggs agreed. Agritourism is not just corn mazes or pumpkin patches, he said. There are u-pick strawberries and black berries and bed and breakfasts, he noted.
Some of the other different methods of agritourism in Missouri include the wine industry, farmers' markets and Christmas tree farms.
"Agritourism is about the two biggest industries in Missouri -- agriculture and tourism -- and combining them. That's why the politicians, the Department of Tourism and the Department of Agriculture wanted to find people who are interested in it because it's working," Beggs said, "and they're wanting to know what the potential is out there and how to get started."