SIKESTON -- From hunting waterfowl in Stoddard County to picking pumpkins and strawberries from patches in Scott County, the agriculture tourism opportunities in Southeast Missouri are endless.
"There are lot of activities in the region, and people here need to take advantage of those, which, I think, more people are doing," said Van Ayers, agriculture and rural development specialist for Stoddard County University of Missouri Extension in Bloomfield.
Those interested in starting or expanding an agritourism venture can take advantage of the Fourth Annual Southeast Missouri Agriculture Tourism Conference, which will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Elderland Cafe in Bloomfield.
"The more activities and more events we have, it increases the quality of life in these communities," Ayers said about agritourism.
Already the area's agritourism offers a wide range opportunities, Ayers said. For example, in Stoddard County, about 150,000 people visit Mingo Wildlife Refuge each year. Other tourism activities include Beggs Family Farm near Blodgett, Diebold's Orchard in Benton, RiverRidge Winery in Commerce and Tour de Corn in East Prairie.
"All these things are positive aspects of living in the rural area. We need to increase the awareness of those things and participate in those events or support the tourism," Ayers said.
The city of Dexter recently formed a tourism committee to start promoting agriculture, Ayers said. One of its draws is duck and water fowl hunting, which are big tourism promotions in Stoddard County, he said.
"There are quite a few people who come from all over the United States to hunt in Stoddard County," Ayers said.
Pansy Glenn, executive director of Sikeston-Miner Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said agritourism is doing very well in the Bootheel.
Glenn said she arranges all kinds of agriculture tours in the area. She even organizes local soybean and corn processing plant and cotton gin tours.
"We are actually the garden of the state because we have so much diversity in our area," Glenn said. "... We have such fertile and rich soils in our area because it used to be the swampland, and we can grow lots of things." Sarah Gehring, AgriMissouri member services coordinator, said the definition of agritourism is very broad.
"The way we define agritourism is a business or farm that provides an agricultural experience to the public. So, therefore, wineries, pumpkin farms and strawberry patches are considered agritourism ventures," Gehring said.
Of course, the more popular are ventures like U-pick berry and pumpkin patches because they are easily integrated into existing agricultural operations, Gehring said.
"We see agritourism grow throughout the year," Gehring said. "Every year we get a few more agritourism ventures and more people diversify and add an agritourism component to what they're already doing."
AgriMissouri, which promotes products grown, raised and processed in Missouri, started promoting agritourism six years ago. Because the agritourism industry is so new, there aren't any statistics of the industry's impact in the state, Gehring said.
"Agritourism got started and began growing after the 9/11 attacks because people weren't traveling far from home and that's when we saw an increase in the business," Gehring said.
Speakers at the upcoming conference will include Nathan Mattox of the University of Missouri, discussing the regional agriculture tourism mapping project; and Blaine Luetkemeyer, director of the Missouri Division of Tourism, discussing Missouri tourism efforts. A panel discussion of Southeast Missouri tourism activities by local tourism professionals and entrepreneurs will also be conducted.
Attending conferences like the one in Bloomfield is a good idea for anyone interested in agriculture or rural tourism, Gehring said.
"It's very educational and one of the great things you get out of it is meeting other people," Gehring said. "You have the chance to network and find out what worked for agriculture entrepreneurs and most are very open and happy to share with others."
To register for the conference, contact the Stoddard County Extension office at (573) 568-3344 or firstname.lastname@example.org by Feb. 20. A $10-
registration fee will be payable at the door.