The Valdosta Daily Times
If you’ve done much traveling across Georgia in the last few years, you may have noticed a rise in agri-tourism.
Long the domain of the Midwest and West Coast United States, recent years have seen many states, including Georgia, begin to develop their own state-wide agri-tourism industry.
It’s a broad category, including almost any activity that brings visitors out to an agricultural operation. It can be something as simple as running a produce stand on a farm or something more hands on, like a winery, letting guests pick their own produce, or having a corn maze for guests to work their way through. It’s a way for farms to connect with their customers, bridging that gap between the kitchen table and the field.
It’s something Jessica Bolesta has given a lot of time and thought.
A year ago, Bolesta, part of the sixth generation of Corbett farmers in Lowndes and Echols counties, and her family decided to stop kicking around the idea of opening an agri-tourism spot and start getting serious about it.
“It’s kind of me finding my place on the farm. My older brother manages the farm; my younger brother manages the shed. I was in the office, but that’s not me. I’m more hands on.”
She knew they wanted a fresh market — at the time they were planning to make it open air — but she wasn’t sure what else to incorporate.
So, she talked with Beth Meeks of Georgia Grown and became an agri-tourist herself, visiting agri-tourism places throughout the state: Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, The Rock Ranch just south of Atlanta, Jaemor Farms in north Georgia, Calhoun Produce in Ashburn.
“You're going to see more like this,” said Meeks. “Whether it’s jams, jellies, wines, olives. ... Everybody has different ideas, different dream projects.”
At each location, Bolesta found the owners eager to discuss her ideas.
“Everyone has been extremely helpful,” said Bolesta. “It’s not like a competition. Everyone shares ideas and feeds off of each other. I kind of took a little bit from everybody, and we added some stuff of our own, too.”
Construction started on Raisin’ Cane this past March, on the corner of Highway 41 and Newsome Road. Along with deciding to turn the market into an indoor market, she added more activities. Visitors can go on a hayride tour and go through a corn maze. They can visit with some of the animals on the farm: cows, chickens, pigs, lambs, ducks, etc.
“Just visiting the other places, that’s where we got the idea of actually bringing people on the farm and showing them the educational side of it. We wanted to do a place where people could visit an actual farm … see things, touch things, see how we do it. We want to show how farming is happening now.”
The educational aspect of the whole thing is something they emphasize especially during field trips. The corn maze has 18 stops along the way, educating maze runners on various aspects of Georgia agriculture.
They hosted their first field trip — 88 pre-K students from Pearson Elementary — on opening day, Oct. 3. Bolesta was a little nervous with the first one, but it went off without a hitch, becoming the first of 20 field trips hosted so far.
“I’ve had a lot of people say it’s the best field trip they’ve been on. I take that as the highest compliment. When people leave and say they’ve had a good time, that’s what it’s about. Seeing people have fun makes it worth the hours we’ve put into it.”
This past week, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black visited Raisin’ Cane for a ribbon cutting. Black also recognized the Lowndes County Commission as being the first local government to be recognized as Georgia Grown, meaning county officials are supportive of area farmers. Black also said the Corbetts are an example of how farming families pass along their knowledge and techniques from generation to generation for success from the land.
Appropriately enough, Raisin’ Cane changes with the seasons. Starting on Oct. 23, the corn maze becomes a haunted corn maze from 7-10 p.m.
With different seasons will come other changes, such as harvesting the corn maze. Of course, the storefront, with fresh produce from her family’s farm, Ken Corbett Farms, and other local suppliers will be a year-around staple. Eventually, Bolesta would like to grow everything in the produce store at Corbett Farms, but concedes there are limitations.
“Obviously, we can’t grow bananas down here,” chuckled Bolesta. “Bell pepper, squash, egg plant, corn and cucumbers are our main crops, but we’ve always grown little patches of everything.”
While the produce market is open Monday through Saturday, the rest of Raisin’ Cane — corn mazes, hay rides, etc. — is limited to Thursday and Friday afternoons and all-day Saturday. Pre-scheduled field trip groups are taken through everything regardless of the day.
She’s come a long way in a year, and she won’t be the last farmer who opens a tourism spot in Georgia, or even Lowndes County.
“You can’t get more local than right off the farm, not even having to pass a highway.
“Just the fact of knowing where it comes from. In Walmart, it will say ‘Product of the USA’ but this is a product of right here, product of 200 yards that way.”