JACKSON and STRINGER, Miss.—After an extensive tour of Footprint Farms, a 68-acre specialty farm in west Jackson that grows fresh vegetables for Jackson communities, Dr. Cindy Ayers walks toward another portion of the farm she founded. Behind a mural of a Black family having dinner is a facility known as The Common Table, where Ayers plans for recreation and farming to collide, creating a unique, recreational experience around dining and fresh food.
“Chef Nick and I we’re pushing the concept of the farm and the chef on the Black side. We do a lot of work together. I grow a lot of food for him,” Ayers told the Mississippi Free Press, referring to Nick Wallace, a Black chef who blends together his familial farming background with French techniques. He uses local and organically grown food, a lot of which comes from Footprint Farms.
“Inside here, we’re going to have it so you can walk in, have your dinner, be able to have your music, your cocktails and some other things you can do while you’re in the villa,” Ayers said.
Adrienne Dominick’s “Sunday at Six” mural shows a family passing dishes of food around the table, which is indicative of the space’s function: family, conversation and food. On the other side of the sign rests Ayers’ master plan to transform Footprint Farms into a center for agritourism.
“This talks about the master plan of what I see and what we think this could end up being for our little city, our little area as an attraction and destination spot. This is similar to what this is going to be inside, the lights and everything, so you can have a dinner under the stars, outside,” she said.
The master plan includes more than 15 facilities such as a farm store, woodland trails, a wine cellar, cold storage and processing facility, a pollinator field and a hotel.
Footprint Farms’ home is in a community that has suffered greatly from blight and businesses moving out of the neighborhood over the years. This facility could not only generate tourism and interest back into the west Jackson area, but it can also support the local economy through revenue and employment opportunities.
“When people go outside, they want to go outside like this,” Ayers says, pointing. “They want to come and have dinner and come and have (a) picnic over there with family. This is going to be a settee area. We’re going to have patio furniture.”
Rodeos and U-picks
Dr. Rachael Carter, an extension specialist at Mississippi State University, said the topic of agritourism is broad, but it pertains to people coming to a farm for entertainment purposes.
“You have everything from a U-pick operation to a rodeo (that) can be a form of agritourism,” Carter told the Mississippi Free Press. “U-pick operation (is) when somebody comes onto a farm, and part of the fun experience they get to have is picking their own berries or peaches or something like that.”
When creating a facility for agritourism, Carter says farmers need to start with an idea and to think honestly about their own skill sets.
“Are you really good at horticulture, growing crops? Are you more of an animal person? Do you like people? Are you going to be comfortable with interacting with the public? You kind of have to ask yourself what you can offer, and you have to also assess your land,” she said.
Carter added that farmers also have to assess their property and whether or not it will be a suitable space that people will want to pay money to visit or participate in. Dr. Carter said it takes special individuals to venture into agritourism because they have to be knowledgeable about agriculture, have good business management and planning skills, and be comfortable working with the public.
“A rule is you need to have access to a market,” she added. “It’s fine to be in a rural area, but be able to be accessible for bigger towns to be able to travel to participate in your operation and be able to focus some of your marketing efforts towards communities where there will be enough people to come and keep it in business.”
Carter suggested having an operation where you can provide a variety of activities for people to do year to year so it’s not the same experience, and you will have returning customers.
The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce reports that Mississippi is home to 42,000 farms and more than 50 agritourism facilities across the state already, such as Boley Creek Exotics in Poplarville and H & H Farms in Coldwater. Travel and tourism are vital to the state’s economic development as about 20.8 million people travel to and around Mississippi each year.
“Agritourism can benefit local economies by drawing consumers to the community, improving the attractiveness of the region as a tourism destination, providing employment opportunities, and increasing visibility and revenues of local businesses and other retail establishments,” the site states.
Farmers and landowners benefit from promotion of product diversification, increased visibility, increase in demand for products, marketing and sales, and value-added production. Agritourism generates approximately $150 million annually in the state and now is one of the fastest-growing tourism markets.
Mississippi is home to a variety of different agritourism facilities. There are U-pick farms like Charlie’s Upik in Lucedale and Coastal Ridge Farm, LLC in Picayune, where people can pick their own vegetables and sunflowers, respectively. Facilities like Lost Corner Farm, LLC in Nettleton and Mini Tails Farm in Columbus offer horseback rides, tours and birthday parties. R&R Vineyard, LLC in Greenwood Springs is a winery that offers tours, wine tasting, and the opportunity to pick grapes, blueberries and other fruits.
As COVID-19 has continued to rampage the world, travelling has been dampened with some countries enacting travel bans, affecting revenue generated from agritourism this year.
However, Dr. Carter of Mississippi State noted an apparent increased interest in people wanting to go outside for recreation, though she’s not certain what effect the pandemic is having on Mississippi agritourism facilities.
“We don’t know, yet. We haven’t done any research or surveys to see how everybody is doing. In Mississippi, a lot of our operations, their primary time is in the fall, so a lot of them are just now opening up,” she said.
Agritourism facilities like A & W Christmas Tree Farm in Moss Point and Christmas Memories Tree Farms in Magnolia are open around the fall and holiday seasons. Facilities like A Stroka Gene-US Alpacas farm in Stringer and Heaven’s Jubilee Farm (dwarf goats) in Pheba are open year round.
Meeting Corona the Alpaca
It was a beautiful day when Mississippi Free Press visits A Stroka Gene-US Alpaca farm in Stringer, a small Jasper County community between Bay Springs and Laurel. The sun was shining, the sky blue and cloudy, and it was extremely hot. Too hot for humans and too hot for the alpacas.
Tour guide and farm owner Mary Ann Stroka led the way to the alpacas’ barn. There, a baby alpaca stood behind a gate, eating grass. Many mistake alpacas with llamas, but they are typically smaller.
“That’s one of our babies there. That’s Corona because he was born the day we shut down. I’m like, we gotta name him Corona,” Stroka said.
As Terry Stroka turned the sprinklers on, the alpacas came trotting out of the barn to cool down. One llama and several alpacas of various colors—brown, off white, black and white—stand among the sprinklers in an attempt to escape the heat. A few come near the gate to eat treats out of a visitor’s hand, and they’re persistent.
“And they don’t share at all,” Stroka said. She was right. The llama hogs most of the treats.
Before life on the farm, Mary Ann and her husband, Terry, lived in New York, where she was a postmaster. While she was working in another town, she saw alpacas but didn’t know what they were, she said. She and her husband visited some farms and after touching the alpacas, she was smitten, she told the Mississippi Free Press.
“We were never farmers. We had dogs, cats and hamsters, but when we bought the alpacas, they came with mentoring. Who we bought the alpacas from taught us what to do from fencing to barns and everything,” Stroka said. They then started a part-time alpaca farm in New York.
After visiting for their son’s wedding, the couple moved to Mississippi in 2012, lured by the warm weather, nice people and low cost of living. When the couple decided to move, they hired a livestock hauler to transport the alpacas to their new home in Stringer, where they run the farm full-time, she said.
“When we first moved here, the man that sold us our house told everybody the alpaca farm was coming, and nobody knew what that was,” she said. “So the day we got here, people must have been watching for the truck to pull in. People were stopping and thanking us for coming. After a little while, it was “oh, you’ve put Stringer on the map. We’re so glad you’re here.”
They run A Stroka Gene-US Alpacas, a 25-acre farm of 18 alpacas, one llama, three Great White Pyrenees livestock guard dogs, two mini donkeys, ducks, guineas and chickens. The facility offers tours where people can learn about the alpacas and feed them and take classes in fiber crafts, such as knitting, crocheting, spinning yarn and making clothing.
The farm also sells eggs and runs a store where visitors can purchase clothes, hats and socks made of alpaca hair, as well as oils and soaps. RVs are welcome to stay on their property through Harvest Host, and the farm is also the site of the Stringer Alpaca Festival, which will take place Nov. 21 this year.
“We have 35 arts-and-crafts vendors, we have bounce houses, we have food vendors. You can pet the animals and feed them. Our whole back porch is fiber demonstrations where we demonstrate all the different types of fiber arts,” Stroka said.
Despite the many attractions the farm has to offer, Stroka said their farm has been slow when it comes to visits since the pandemic hit. Even RVing has slowed down, she said. But she also believes the weather has played a factor into the lack of visitation.
“I think it’s just because it’s so hot out. It’s really fun to go outside, but you’re melting just standing there,” she joked in late summer. “Once fall starts, hopefully people start heading south, and we’ll get more traffic.”
Stroka said she uses social media to help get the word out about the farm, but it doesn’t help that much as they haven’t had a customer in three weeks. Though they do get visitors from in and out of the state, with one couple coming all the way from Sweden, getting the word out about the farm has been the biggest problem for her, she said.
“Our problem is a lot of people that live in Mississippi don’t know we’re here and how to get that word out,” Stroka said. “We’re 20 minutes north of Laurel, which everyone knows. But nobody in Laurel ever goes north. If they go anywhere, they go to Hattiesburg. People in Laurel don’t even know we’re here because we’re north.”
November and December are normally busy months for the farm, as people like to buy unique items from the store for Christmas. Winter is also when the alpacas become more active as they like to graze, she said.
“I like meeting all the different people. I love people. I love talking to people. I mean we’re here, and we have to keep the store open, but being able to see people from all different walks of life is really kind of fun,” Stroka said.
‘Vision Is Not Just Talked About, Here It Is’
Back at Footprint Farms in west Jackson, Dr. Cindy Ayers explained that she’s already taken the first steps in talking to other foundations and investors about her vision for Footprint Farms.
“These are the possibilities, so now when we start talking to foundations and other groups and investors, I don’t have to just tell them; they can see it. And that the vision is not just talked about, here it is,” she said.
Ayers said people will be able to see the possibilities through her master plan and have an understanding of agriculture, what people do with it and how to keep it safe for the Earth. And it’s happening in west Jackson, where she chooses to be, she said.
“We’re going to get it done right. And be able to see the overall look of what the farm looks like,” Ayers said with confidence.